…a case study in the difficulties of finding historical truth.
On Christmas Eve of 1906, a few shipboard radio operators–listening through the static for signals in Morse code–heard something that they had never before heard on the radio, and that most had never expected to hear. A human voice.
The first voice radio broadcast was conducted by Reginald Fessenden, originating from his experimental station at Brant Rock, Massachussetts. After introducing the transmission, Fessenden played a recording of Handel’s “Largo” and then sang “O Holy Night” while accompanying himself on the violin. Fessenden’s wife and a friend were then intended to conduct a Bible reading, but in the first-ever case of mike fright, they were unable to do it, so the reading was conducted by Fessenden as well.
Fessenden’s radio work at this period was based on a high-frequency AC generator (alternator), an electromechanical device created by Ernst Alexanderson of GE and modified by Fessenden. The signals were generated at somewhere around 45-80khz. (Low frequency compared to today’s normal radio, where the AM band starts at around 500khz; high frequency compared to the 50-60 hz that AC generators normally produce.) The Alexanderson machines were expensive and very large–broadcast radio on a commercial scale was not practical until the introduction of the vacuum tube for both transmitting and receiving, several years later.
The italicized story, which was the subject of a post I wrote in 2004, has apparently been accepted in radio and electronics engineering circles for many years: in fact, in 2006 there were commemorative events of the broadcast. More recently, though, the story has been challenged: James O’Neal has done considerable research on the matter and concludes that the Christmas Eve broadcast never actually happened, based on lack of contemporaneous evidence (logs of other radio stations, for example) among other factors. He argues that Fessenden was no shrinking violet, indeed, he was a publicity hound and would have been expected to do everything possible to publicize such an obviously PR-able achievement…if it had actually happened. (There is no question that Fessenden did do pioneering work in radio, including speech/music transmission: the controversy deals specifically with the legendary Christman Eve broadcast.)
Comes now John Belrose, who has also done considerable research on this matter and who argues that the broadcast did in fact happen. Belrose notes that from a business point of view, Fessenden was pursuing radio for point-to-point applications, rather than broadcasting, and hence would have had no reason to devote great effort to publicizing the Christmas Eve event. I found a much longer analytical piece by Belrose here; he has done further research and continues to believe that the broadcast did in fact happen. The associate editor of IEEE Antennas and Propagation Magazine, where the article appears, finds his arguments persuasive.
1906 was only 108 years ago, not long in historical time. Yet even for an event so relatively recent, which would have involved several people directly and been heard by several more, and which was relevant to extremely intense litigation around the rights to various radio-related patents, anything near absolute certainty appears impossible to attain.
In any event, here’s O Holy Night.