An unpublished story from the files of the Oral History Project
Not the least remarkable characteristic of our accelerated times is the astonishing speed with which the most fantastic scientific developments are accepted as commonplace. Such is the story of the invention and growth of radio. Tales of its early days seem strange and even quaint, although it is only 30 years since thousands of Americans were passing their evenings with crystal sets, trying to pick up KDKA in Pittsburgh and comparing notes with other enthusiasts about grids, coils, oscillators and the possibilities of several patent static eliminators. It is only 35 years since regular broadcasting began and not quite 50 since the miraculous Christmas Eve of 1906 when shipboard wireless operators, dozing at their posts between bunts of dot-dash, were suddenly galvanized in their seats from New England to Virginia.
On that wonderful evening, unbelievable sounds suddenly quavered in their earphones. There was music—Handel’s Largo , someone on the violin, finally a song, amateurishly executed. Then the singer read a Bible text, identified himself as a Mr. Fessenden, transmitting “wireless telephony” from Brant Rock near Plymouth, Massachusetts, and wished anyone who heard the transmission would let him know. Thus, only nine years after Marconi gave his first convincing demonstration of wireless telegraphy, that is, mere electric signals, the tongues of men, and of angels (and sometimes mere sounding brass and tinkling cymbals), floated in the air.
Many of the leading figures of early radio—whether in the engineering, organizing or performing ends—are still active, and of these a large number have contributed their reminiscences to the Oral History Research Office of Columbia University in New York, whose goal is the preservation of first hand records of recent American history. The Oral History Office, already represented in the December, 1954, issue with the reminiscences of Albert Lasker, is headed by Professor Allan Nevins, and directed, in the case of this particular study, by Frank Ernest Hill. The Radio Pioneers Club made the project possible. A MERICAN H ERITAGE is indebted to them all for the privilege of using these recollections.