The Christmas Eve Radio Broadcast of 1906

…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.

12 thoughts on “The Christmas Eve Radio Broadcast of 1906”

  1. The first president to use radio effectively was Calvin Coolidge long before Roosevelt.

    Mr. Coolidge was known as a quiet man, but he was the first president to use the medium of radio to his advantage. He gave regular radio addresses and his 1925 inauguration was the first to be broadcast on radio.

    Though Mr. Coolidge was a radio pioneer, the American president most associated with radio is Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    Roosevelt was ten years later, an eternity in the technology of the 20s.

  2. The link also says that Coolidge’s State of the Union address was broadcast in 1923. Commercial broadcasting in the US only started in 1920, so that was very early indeed.

    Being interested in the history of technology, I got via eBay a reproduction of the Montgomery Ward radio catalog from the 1920s, I believe about 1925. Radio was still new enough that the inside front cover explains to people what it is all about…for example, the sorts of things you can listen to, such as musical concerts, latest news items, time signal, sermons, speeches by famous orators, and up-to-the minute quotations on stocks, bonds, cattle, sheep, hogs, grain, and other produce. Phrases like “broadcast station,” “tune in,” and “interfere” were placed in quotes.

    Prices in this catalog are very high. A mere crystal set, with a range stated as only 7 miles, is priced at $15.00, which according to the BLS inflation calculator is the equivalent of $202.00 in today’s money. A vacuum tube set with loudspeaker is $119.50, which the BLS translates to $1612 in 2014 dollars.

  3. Another interesting case of historical uncertainty: the Union Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had his men show respect by saluting the surrendering Confederates at Appomattox…so he said in his memoires, and so the legend has been since about 1900. Recently, the story has been challenged.

  4. There was a piece on the CBS Sunday morning TV show about it. They interviewed a historian who said he that hadn’t been able to find independent confirmation that the event had occurred. All he found was repetition of the same few second-hand accounts.

  5. “Thanks, Dearieme.” My pleasure; I have no views on the factuality of either the truce or the football match, except for the general point that contemporary witness evidence is usually the most persuasive evidence you can get about historical events, unless something scientific should happen to be available. Similarly, the 1906 broadcast: for many historians, an absence of contemporary witness evidence would be suggestive, especially if there was ample opportunity and motive for witnesses to make notes about the purported event, and for the notes to have survived.

    Christmas being imminent, I recently had a quick scan through Mark’s Gospel (Authorised Version), asking myself whether it would hold water as someone’s later recording of the statements of people who claimed to have been eye-witnesses to Jesus’s short career in the limelight. I think it does. The trouble with Mark is that the statements available to the author were, presumably, made some decades after the events in question. In fact, its writing could plausibly the action of someone who thought “I’d better collect these stories before the eye-witness generation dies out”.

    Another feature that adds weight to it, in my view, is that Mark has nothing to say about Jesus before he entered the limelight: in contrast a writer of fiction might find it irresistible to invent an account of his childhood, or even his birth. If you see what I mean.

Comments are closed.