Fessenden’s Christmas Eve Broadcast --- Revisited
(Jack) Belrose, PhD Cantab, VE2CV, VE2KPG, VY9CRC
this year 2006 is the 100th anniversary of the first wireless
broadcast, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden’s Christmas Eve program, broadcast from
Brant Rock, MA, to ships on the North and
himself never said he did what he did until 29th January 1932, his
letter written to Sam Kintner (see below) --- excepting for a personal letter he
is said to have written immediately after the broadcast, to
Minden Cole, the company secretary of the Fessenden Wireless Telegraph Company
of Canada, on St. James Street, Montreal, QC [D].
Why did Fessenden take so long to tell us the story?
He never got around to it. He
was satisfied at the time that his show of the capabilities of his system had
been adequately observed and reported (his 21st December
1906 demonstrations). He never got
around to telling us about his Christmas and New Year’s Eve broadcasts until
much much later. When, prompted by
Kintner’s letter of 9th January 1932, he realized (perhaps earlier)
what he had done.
Was the Broadcast Made??
first published reference (according to reference [A])
to the Christmas
Eve 1906 broadcast was given in a lecture presented at Harvard in 1928, by H.P.
Davis, Vice President of Westinghouse: “Attempts
have been made, and some successful results have been accomplished prior to the
World War, in adapting telephonic principles to radio communications.
Fessenden, probably the first to attempt this, broadcast a program on
Christmas Eve 1906”.
should be noted that Sam Kintner, who was one of
are (apparently, see reference A) concerns about this letter:
That Fessenden was old when the letter was written (Fessenden died on 22 July,
That it was not published, and apparently (in particular??) the copy we have is
Sterling, private communications, 2006]??.
concerning the broadcast, the comment that Fessenden was old when the letter was
written (implying perhaps a fault in memory or an invention in later years) is a
discredit of Fessenden and his family. The
letter is very clearly written, and gives in detail what he did.
It was probably typed by Helen who had witnessed the broadcast, and she
clearly had very detailed notes in her diary.
And, while Ken their son, who also witnessed the broadcast, was young at
the time, he certainly knew what his father did.
While Ken may not have seen the letter at the time it was written, he
certainly helped his mother Helen write her book [E].
what Fessenden wrote in this letter was published by
Sam Kintner. On receiving
Fessenden’s 29th January 1932 letter, Sam accepted the fact that
the broadcast was made, and included this information in a talk he gave on 7th
April 1932, at a joint IRE and AIEE Meeting in
Who might have heard the Broadcasts?
O’Neil’s article a great deal of weight is given to the fact that an avid
radio listener, Francis Hart, who resided at Sayville, NY, 257 kilometers
distant, did not log hearing the broadcast --- but we wonder about the
sensitivity of his equipment, since Brant Rock to Sayville is an over-land path.
And it should be noted that there were enthusiastic wireless listeners in
are relatives of Adam Stein (one of Fessenden’s staff at the time, who spoke
during the New Year’s Eve, 1907 broadcast) still living in the district.
His son Adam IIIrd, now deceased, was a friend of Dave Riley, and his
recollections of his father's work was in agreement with Helen's 1940 book ---
which is almost identical with the words written about that broadcast in
Fesssenden’s 1932 letter. While we
have no written proof for this fact, it should be noted that a
Dave Riley's old friend Harold Mansfield from
Blackburn, N1EWA, lives in the house Fessenden used for an office.
Dana is the son of Brad Blackburn who according to Dave Riley had (in
1967) records and clippings of the 'broadcast'.
It was Brad's father who leased the land to Fessenden where the tower
base sits (rebuilt today).
Riley an enthusiastic Fessenden supporter, like me, lives in Marshfield and has
met and spoken with people, as I have said above, who
were in Marshfield at the time, c.f. his On-Line article on Fessenden (http://www.marshfield.net/History/mar3.htm),
with reference to
The Chronicle's and pot bellied stove yarns of Harold Mansfield, late of
On the View that the Broadcasts were Made :
(Bob) Merriam, W1NTE, Director New
England Wireless and Steam Museum, East Greenwich, RI, recalls [private communications, 2006] that
on November 4th, 1966 he got a letter from the Marshfield Historical
Commission inviting him to the dedication of the bronze marker to be done on
November 19th. This
letter said that the plaque was presented by the Broadcast Pioneers and the
Massachusetts Broadcast Association. Joseph
M. Glynn, Secretary, said they would be honored if he would attend and say a few
words. He recalls he spoke about the
Station BO and (naturally) the Christmas Eve broadcast.
Mrs. Adam Stein (the wife of Adam Stein) was in the audience near the
front, and she thanked him for his remarks.
He had a short pleasant conversation with her.
She took no issue with anything he said.
He remembers her distinctly, because she was a very distinguished lady in
a full length mink coat.
Merriam is quite possibly the only person alive today who had more contact with
people related to or associated with Fessenden himself than any other living
are no directly related members of the Reginald Aubrey Fessenden family living
today. The closet connection we can
come to (with respect to a paper mentioning the broadcast) is that written by
William S. Zuill [F].
This writer’s grandfather married Eliza Trott, Fessenden’s wife
Helen’s elder sister. Zuill wrote
about the broadcast in his overview paper. He
wrote, as we have noted above, “that no one saw the broadcast as a paying
proposition at the time. The
demonstration was merely intended to publicize NESCO’s capabilities.
Selling point-to-point communications remained the company’s goal.
Unfortunately, an economic panic the next year (1907) hurt its prospects and
conflicts between Fessenden and his backers continued -----.”
In Conclusion :
reviewer has never questioned whether the broadcasts were
made. Most historians accept R.
Frankin Smith’s view [G]
that Fessenden’s 1906 hour long program was the first.
And Elliot Sivowitch [H],
in his monograph
Pre-History of Broadcasting,
10 years later, clearly states that this broadcast was a first.
When his Monograph was published (1970-71) Elliot was working for the
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, and his monograph gave us the Clark
Radioana Collection reference number for the Fessenden 1932 letter.
repeating, we have to believe that the broadcasts were made on Christmas and New
Year’s Eve, the wireless pioneer who made the broadcasts told us they were
made. Why did Fessenden take so long
to tell us the story? He never got
around to it. He was satisfied
at the time that his demonstrations of the capabilities of his system had been
adequately observed and reported (his 21st December
1906 show-and-tell). He never got
around to telling us about his Christmas and New Year’s Eve broadcasts until
much much later. When, prompted
by Kintner’s letter, he realized (I think he realized much earlier but did not
tell us) what he had done. And,
recall that after c1911 he did not do any wireless research. And
besides, during this time period, the hassles between Fessenden and his
financial backers, his struggles to sell his technology and his equipments, and
his fights (litigation) in realizing the respect of his patents took all of his
have to remember the view of the press at that time (in 1906/1907), and have an
appreciation of Fessenden the man. He
would have been laughed at by the press if he had said he had transmitted a
Christmas Eve program of voice, music and singing to ships at sea --- another
Notwithstanding he should have.
But that was a characteristic of
Fessenden. He was at home in his
laboratory, but out of his element when dealing with the business and political
aspects of inventing. The
press at the time paid no attention to what Fessenden was doing or if it did it
ridiculed him. The media did not
understand his technology --- continuous waves and wireless telephony.
Marconi’s spark technology and
telegraphy had the attention of the world. With
reference to Fessenden’s 2-way
transatlantic communications achievements during the spring and fall of 1906,
the press wrote that his claimed “achievements”
were unproven and useless --- since he was not providing a service --- which
Marconi was still trying to do. Cartoons
showed Marconi dot-and-dash icons leaping gleefully across the ocean (which they
weren’t) --- whereas for Fessenden (poor Fessenden), his dot-and-dash icons
were shown struggling to climb to the top of his 420 foot tower, then falling
off the top of the tower and plunging into the ocean in front!!!
The 21 December 1906
show however is an important event to remember.
It was another first. Not
because it was a “broadcast”, which it was not, it was a point-to-point
transmission of voice, music and singing (live and recorded, played on an
Halper, Donna A. and Christopher H. Sterling, “Fessenden’s Christmas Eve
Broadcast: Looking Back on a Historic Event”, The AWA Review, August, 2006.
O’Neil, James A., “Fessenden: World’s First Broadcaster”, Radio World
Perry, Edward F., Jr., “An Accidental Broadcast”, On-Line
Raby, Ormond, “Radio’s First Voice – The story of Reginald Fessenden”,
Macmillan of Canada,
Fessenden, Helen, “Fessenden Builder of To-Morrows:,
Zuill, William S., “The Forgotton Father of Radio”, American Heritage of
Invention & Technology, Summer 2001, pp. 40-47.
Smith, R. Franklin, “Oldest Station in the Nation”, J. Broadcasting, Vol.
14, No. 1, Winter 1959-60, pp. 40-55.
Sivowitch, Elliot, a monograph on “The Pre-History of Broadcasting”,
1970-71, reprinted by The AWA (I have a copy).
S. (Jack) Belrose, PhD Cantab, VE2CV, VE2KPG, VY9CRC
January 29, 1932
January 29, 1932
January 29, 1932
S.M. Kintner, Vice President,
Westinghouse Electric & Mfg. Co.,
Yours of January 9, 1932 received.
You will find the history of the invention of wireless telephony given in
my article in the Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers
for July 1908.
You will note that the continuously active receiver and the continuous
wave producer were invented and patented by me in 1901 (see U.S. Patents
706,735, 796,742, and 706,741) and also that the hot wire barretter and liquid
were invented a little bit later.
It was on these two elements, i.e., the continuous wave receptive
receiver and the producer of continuous oscillations, that wireless telephony
You will find in the report written by Prof. Austin in the Journal of the
Bureau of Standards, some time about 1905 that he points out that my compressed
air spark gap gives perfect continuous sine waves even down as low as about
forty metres, and in fact we got them much lower.
By broadcasting I suppose that you do not mean the transmission of
speech, music and singing to other stations of the same firm which is sending
but to receiving stations operated by other firms than the sending station, and
also programs advertised or notified in advance.
If you mean by broadcasting the transmission of speech, music and singing
to other stations of the same ownership as the transmitter, then the program
given to Dr, Kennelly, Prof, Elihu Thompson the engineers of the Western
Electric and A.T.&T, and other companies, and the editors of several New
York News papers at the exhibition (on 21 December 1906) which you will find
described in the American Telephone Journal, Jan 26th and February 7th,
1907, would be a broadcast, as indeed would be the exhibitions of wireless
telephony between Washington and Annapolis in 1903, and 1905.
If however you do not call this a broadcast, then the program sent out on
Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, 1906 would be the first broadcast.
This broadcast was advertised and notified three days in advance of
Christmas, this being telegraphed to ships of the U.S Navy and the United Fruit
Co., which were equipped with our apparatus that we intended broadcasting
speech, music and singing on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
The program on Christmas Eve was as follows:
first a short speech by me saying what we were going to do, then some
phonograph music. You will find a
photograph showing the phonograph used in the article in the Transactions of the
American Institute above referenced to and also in the American Telephone
Journal, and the music on the phonograph being Handel’s “
t the singing, of course, was not very good.
Then came the Bible text, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth
peace to men of good will”, and finally we wound up by wishing them a Merry
Christmas and saying that we proposed to broadcast again New Year’s Eve.
The New Year’s Eve broadcast was the same as before, except that the
music was changed and I got someone else to sing.
I had not picked myself to do the singing, but on Christmas Eve I could
not get any of the other to talk, sing or play and consequently had to do it all
myself. On New Year’s Eve one man
– I think it was Stein – agreed to sing and he did sing, but some of the
others either same or talked.
We got word of reception of the Christmas Eve Program as far down as
Hoping this will give you the information you desire, I am, with best
REGINALD A. FESSENDEN