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Marconi’s miracle

The Story

Atop a wind-blown hill in St. John's, Nfld., Guglielmo Marconi made history. Holding aloft a kite as an antenna, Marconi received the world's first transatlantic radio signal on Dec. 12, 1901. Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden, another radio inventor, broadcast music to a United Fruit Company banana boat on Christmas Eve 1906. Eighty years later CBC looks back on the early pioneers of radio as it prepares to unveil Newsworld, its 24-hour news channel. 

Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: July 28, 1989
Reporter: Bill Cameron
Duration: 4:45

Did You know?

• After the invention of the telephone, which could send sounds and the human voice along wires, inventors began working on sending signals through the air without wires. In 1896 Guglielmo Marconi succeeded in transmitting a radio signal across Britain's Salisbury Plain.

• At the same time, electrical engineer Reginald Fessenden was working on wireless transmission in the United States for the University of Pennsylvania and the Westinghouse company.

• Though Marconi is remembered as the inventor of radio, Fessenden managed to send a radio signal almost a year earlier, on Dec. 23, 1900. In his lab near Washington, D.C., Fessenden set up a microphone and spoke to his assistant at a receiving station 80 kilometres away. "One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If so, telegraph back and let me know."

• In 1906 Fessenden founded a Canadian company to experiment with transatlantic radio and improve on Marconi's system.

• Fessenden's company set up a wireless system for banana boats travelling up the east coast from Puerto Rico. From far away, radio operators on about a dozen boats heard Fessenden's broadcast of Dec. 24, 1906.

• See the CBC Archives clip 1900: Canadian makes first wireless radio transmission for more about the Fessenden-Marconi debate.

• In this clip from 2001, Newfoundland celebrated the centennial of Marconi's achievement.

• Marconi went on to found a radio manufacturing and broadcasting company. In 1919 Marconi's Montreal station XWA began experimental broadcasts to "hams" - amateur radio enthusiasts - and made its first scheduled broadcast on May 20, 1920. The musical program was relayed to the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, where the Royal Society of Canada was meeting. The broadcast made headlines and the Ottawa Citizen deemed it a "veritable miracle."

• Radio demonstrations drew huge audiences in the early 1920s. In Toronto on March 28, 1922, hundreds of people waited in a rainstorm outside a hall to get into a radio concert broadcast from a studio five kilometres away. When the concert began with a performance of God Save the King, some people refused to believe it was coming from the box onstage. The musicians were hidden away, they thought, or it was a hoax or even witchcraft.

• In regions where big commercial interests had yet to set up radio stations, some radio makers became broadcasters by necessity. If manufacturers were to sell radios, they had to give people something to listen to. Listen to an additional clip in which radio pioneers Doc Cruikshank, A.A. Murphy and others talk about their early experiences as broadcasters.

• In 1923 Sir Henry Thornton, head of Canadian National Railways, decided he could make the train more attractive to travellers by installing radio receivers in train parlour cars and some CNR hotels.

• At first the receivers pulled in local radio stations, but in February 1924 the CNR opened its own studio and station in Ottawa, followed by Moncton and Vancouver. In other cities the CNR rented time on existing stations.

• The stations were later networked through CN telegraph lines.• Though CNR radio carried some programs sponsored by advertisers, Thornton was loath to turn the system over entirely to commercial interests. "It is essential," he said, "that broadcasting be surrounded with such safeguards as will prevent the air becoming what might be described as an atmospheric billboard."


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