Was This Man the World's First DJ?

Was This Man the World's First DJ?

His name was Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, and some say that what he did in December 1906 led to Wolfman Jack, Martin Block, Murray the K and anyone else (including yours truly) who made a living playing records on the radio. For, if the story is true, then Fessenden could be credited as being the world’s first disc-jockey.

Fessenden and Wolfman

Left: Reginald Fessenden, Right: Wolfman Jack

The idea of exploring a Fessenden-to-Wolfman link, as well as unraveling of the mystery of that first broadcast is too much fun to pass up, and since several of Fessenden’s discoveries and inventions were needed for the radio business to exist at all, it is appropriate that we take some time to look at his role in the history of the radio DJ.

As with any story about radio we must start with Marconi, of course. In the 1890s he saw how a spark-producing device on one side of his laboratory caused the movement of iron filings on the other side of the room. By organizing the static into the long and short pulses of Samuel Morse’s code, Marconi devised a way to communicate over long distances wirelessly using what came to be known as Spark Gap (which I talk about in some detail in my blog, Predictably Unpredictable: Adventures in the Ionosphere). By 1904 Marconi’s company was sending news and information to subscriber ships at sea using Spark Gap.

Fessenden enters our story by way of Quebec (where he was born in 1866,) a couple of Canadian colleges (neither of which he finished,) and a brief stint working for Thomas Edison. Yes, that Edison. The Wizard of Menlo Park himself. It was 1886 and Edison was installing New York City’s first power distribution and lighting system (which I wrote about in my blog, Edison and the elephant NOT in the room) and Fessenden, in an admirable display of chutzpah, applied for a job though he admitted to Edison that he did “…not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick.” Not the most compelling elevator pitch, so it’s not surprising that Fessenden didn’t get the job, at first. But the young Canadian was undeterred and, after some hounding, was given a role in Edison’s New York power project where he quickly displayed an almost uncanny aptitude for electronics. Before long Fessenden was literally working by the Wizard’s side at Menlo Park.

In 1890 financial reversals forced Edison to lay off Fessenden. But, as you can imagine, having Thomas Edison on your resume opened doors, and Fessenden parlayed his three years with Menlo Park's Wizard into two University professorships in electronics. Not bad for a guy who never finished college or studied electronics. While teaching in Pittsburgh he became interested in the work of Marconi. It is at this point in Fessenden’s story that I’m again compelled to use the word chutzpah, because our young Canadian decided he knew a better way to transmit and receive spark gap than the guy who invented it. After a public demonstration of his improved radio transmitter and receiver Fessenden was hired in 1900 by the United States Weather Bureau to build a radio network of observation stations.

During his time with the Weather Bureau Fessenden continued to improve radio receivers with several inventions, two of which go hand-in-hand in the development of radio as we know it today. The first was his development of the heterodyne principle, which states that when you mix two signals you get two new signals; one is the sum and the other is the difference between the original signals’ frequencies. This discovery lead to the construction of transmitters and receivers that produced a “Continuous Wave” signal, or tone, instead of the hash and static of legacy Spark Gap transmitters. But, even with heterodyning, radio receivers still reproduced only dots and dashes that had to be translated into words by men and women trained to read Morse Code.

We are now at an amazing point in time for the development of radio, with theories such as the heterodyne principle so advanced that their practical application had to wait for technology to catch up. That's because heterodyning required a stable source of the mixing signal (known as a Local Oscillator,) which wasn’t possible until after the invention of the triode tube by Lee De Forest in late 1906. Up to this point tubes were two element devices which could not amplify or oscillate. De Forest combined the advances made by two men; Phillip Lenard - who was experimenting with a third element in vacuum tubes as far back as 1902 - and John Fleming - who built the first vacuum tube used in a radio, inventor of the eponymous Fleming Tube. Although De Forest’s triode tube got its patent in early 1907, it was another five years until researchers were able to create a true vacuum which enabled the true potential of the triode as an amplifier.

But here’s the thing, in 1906 we had just… enough… technology to modulate, however imperfectly, a radio signal with intelligence. “Intelligence” is used by engineers to describe the audio - could be voice or music or even data - that modulates the RF signal and is picked up by a receiver where the reverse process of demodulation strips away the RF and delivers only intelligence to the listener. (Some might take offense at the definition of what is coming from our AM radios these days as intelligence. But we move on…) The key was Fessenden’s next invention - a highly sensitive detector known as an “electrolytic detector,” which did something that no other device had ever done - it performed the task of demodulating the signal, delivering the intelligence to the listener. Fessenden's detector was a major step on the road to radio for the masses, since one didn’t have to know Morse Code to understand the broadcast.

Fessenden’s Electrolytic Detector

By this time Fessenden, who had quit the Weather Bureau in 1902 (claiming that the head of the Bureau was illegally attempting to grab a share of his patents) was now working with two Pittsburgh businessmen. They formed a company called  the National Electric Signaling Company (NESCO) to finance Fessenden’s radio research. After an attempt to build a wireless communication system for GE plants in New York failed, the men of NESCO next tried to license Fessenden’s radio equipment to the U.S. Navy, which claimed the cost was too high. When the Navy turned around and contracted with competing firms that were using Fessenden’s design NESCO sued, which began a series of patent infringement lawsuits. (For those of you keeping track, Fessenden now had two sets of ongoing lawsuits. This seems to be an occupational hazard of the early radio business, as evidenced by the mounting billable hours for firms representing De Forest, Edwin Armstrong, Lucien Lévy, David Sarnoff, and other radio pioneers.)

Despite the failure of the GE scheme and the snub by the Navy, Fessenden and his backers then boldly proposed to establish a reliable trans-Atlantic wireless service that would compete with existing underwater telegraph cables. Two stations were built, one in Machrihanish in western Scotland and the other in the Massachusetts coastal community of Marshfield, in a section called Brant Rock. Both locations featured huge transmitting towers. This one at Brant Rock was over 420 feet tall:

Brant Rock Antenna

Penny postcard of the Brant Rock, Massachusetts tower

Located near the base of each tower on both sides of the Atlantic were similar Rotary Spark Gap transmitters and a pair of highly sensitive receivers based on Fessenden’s design. This is a picture of the transmitter:

Brant Rock Spark Generator

Rotary Spark Gap transmitter at Brant Rock

On a cold January night in 1906 the two stations engaged in the first successful two-way conversation across the Atlantic. (I haven’t forgotten Marconi, but his scheduled reception of a cross-Atlantic transmission of the Morse letter “S” in Newfoundland was just a one-way affair and is itself clouded with doubt.) The Machrihanish tower collapsed during a gale in early December of that year, ruining any chance of establishing the business of a trans-Atlantic wireless message service. But Fessenden had plans for the Brant Rock tower that, if successful, would demonstrate the true potential of radio.

Radio Gets a Voice

As far back as 1891 Fessenden was experimenting with spark gap generators that ran at much higher speeds than conventional devices. Fessenden’s work in this area is what lead him to develop the heterodyne principle and continuous wave transmitters, both of which were critical in the development of radio. By inserting a telephone carbon microphone into the transmission line of a higher-speed arc transmitter, he found he could modulate the signal with his voice. The first test, in 1900, produced a weak signal that could only be heard about one and a half miles and was of poor quality, but it was the first time anyone had ever broadcast speech over the air.

That was only the beginning. Over the next six years, as he went from university professorships to the trans-Atlantic wireless business venture, Fessenden sought someone who could manufacture a new kind of transmitter. In August of 1906 Ernst Alexanderson (another pioneer in the development not only of radio but of television, as well) delivered an alternator-transmitter to Fessenden’s specifications.  Though it produced much less power than a spark gap transmitter, Fessenden used the arc generator on December 21, 1906 in a public demonstration of the wireless broadcasting and reception of both voice and music. As explained on Fessenden’s Wikipedia page,

As part of the [December 21] demonstration, "speech was transmitted… 11 miles to a listening site at Plymouth, Massachusetts. A detailed review of this demonstration appeared in The American Telephone Journal and a summary by Fessenden appeared in Scientific American. A portion of a report produced by Greenleaf W. Pickard of the Telephone Company's Boston office, which includes additional information on some still existing defects, appeared in Ernst Ruhmer's Wireless Telephony in Theory and Practice."

Alternator Transmitter Brant Rock

Fessenden’s high-frequency alternator transmitter (from the January 26, 1907 issue of The American Telephone Journal)

Three days later, according to Fessenden, on December 24, 1906 he again fired up his high-frequency alternator transmitter and, speaking into the microphone, announced he would play a phonograph record of Ombra mai fu by Handel. This simple act, if true, would have made Fessenden the world’s first disc jockey. He was then said to have performed the Christmas carol “Oh, Holy Night” on the violin, followed by his singing of two more Carols, making him radio's first performer, as well.

But did the Christmas Eve broadcast really happen the way Fessenden said it did? Author H.P. Davis, in his 1928 book The Story of Radio, only writes that “Reginald Fessenden, probably the first to attempt… [entertainment on the radio,] broadcast a program Christmas Eve 1906.” Note the word “probably.” Davis’ uncertainty is understandable, since his only source for this history-making claim was a letter that Fessenden himself wrote, just a few months before his death in 1932, to writer Samuel Kintner. It was in that letter where Fessenden detailed the content of his supposed Christmas Eve broadcast.

I Love a Mystery

As the centenary of the 1906 broadcast approached several researchers and historians searched for independent verification of the Christmas Eve broadcast. Almost anything from an outside source would do; a ship’s log, a newspaper article or even letter from a local resident – anything to corroborate Fessenden's claim. In 2006 three prominent broadcast researchers published pieces in which they detailed how they tried, but failed, to find corroboration of the event. In a Radio World article posted in October 2006 ("Fessenden, the World's First Broadcaster") James O'Neal dismisses Fessenden's claim outright, saying that "If Fessenden had transmitted special programs of music and speech on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve, these events would have sparked a tremendously large "buzz" for days thereafter among the community of land and sea radio operators." O'Neal also wrote:

"No press reports at the time, or for a quarter-century after. No mention for decades by an inventor who knew how to promote himself and wrote hundreds of articles about his work. No mention in a contemporary log and no known logs elsewhere, whether official naval logs or otherwise. No commemorations 25 years later. No challenge to De Forest's published competing claim. No followup to Clark's finding that the year needed to be verified; no consensus as to the date among the group cited by Clark. No mention of 1906 once the year 1907 began to be cited."

Dr. Donna Halper and Dr. Christopher Sterling, in their article "Fessenden's Christmas Eve Broadcast: Reconsidering an Historic Event" for the August edition of the Antique Wireless Association Review, also wrote of their failed efforts to find evidence to support Fessenden's claim. But they are not as quick as O'Neal to dismiss that it might have happened simply because there was no "buzz." Halper and Sterling wrote that general skepticism about radio being anything more than a toy in 1906 was prevalent, and that Fessenden had “…the need to keep such a ‘frivolous’ event from the ears of his financial backers who were seeking success with other lines of wireless business.” Given the recent collapse of the Machrihanish tower and the problems Fessenden’s backers were having finding customers for the service, the idea would seem to have some merit. Halper later expanded on this argument in her follow-up article “In Search of the Truth about Fessenden,” published in February 2007 by Radio World. In it, she said that while no one can verify that the Christmas Eve broadcast did take place, neither can they prove the negative, that the broadcast did not occur. As to the lack of press for what we today consider a history-making event, Halper says “Just because nobody in the media thought it worthy of coverage doesn't necessarily mean it didn't occur.”

But Halper and Sterling then say that all the attention being paid to the Christmas Eve broadcast misses the point. They argue that the broadcast Fessenden made three days earlier, on December 21, 1906 (during which Fessenden broadcast not only voice, but also music from a phonograph record) was, in fact, the history-making broadcast. James O’Neal, in his December, 2008 Radio World article Fessenden, the Next Chapter, agreed:

"The fact that speech and music were transmitted on Dec. 21, albeit a distance of only a few miles, could qualify Fessenden as the world's first broadcaster. His signal was not encrypted, nor was it directed into a narrow point-to-point beam that could only be intercepted at Fessenden's receive site. Anyone within range possessing an AM receiver could have listened in."

Perhaps defenders of Fessenden’s place in broadcast history are guilty of nothing more than being romantics for wanting that first-ever broadcast to be on the holy night of Christmas Eve instead of the pedestrian date of December 21st. I find no better example of this romanticism than this quote from a July 30, 2006 Boston Globe article in which a member of the committee which organized a 100th anniversary celebration of the Fessenden broadcast said “It's a wonderful thing to picture people at sea sending and receiving Morse code, and suddenly they hear a man's voice and a recording of a Handel piece and playing `O, Holy Night' on the violin, and throwing off their headphones and saying, `Captain, you have to hear this!'”

After the (alleged) Christmas Eve broadcast Fessenden apparently never broadcast music again. His Pittsburgh partners, disheartened by the collapse of the tower in Scotland, began searching for a buyer for NESCO, and Fessenden's relationship with them frayed quickly. After they unceremoniously dumped Fessenden from the company in 1911, he sued. (This would be lawsuit #3.) As that case dragged through the courts, ownership of NESCO shifted first to Westinghouse and then to RCA, which finally settled the case with Fessenden in 1928. By that time, Fessenden had left radio and moved on to other fields in which he built a diverse legacy, including early versions of SONAR, microfilm, and tracer bullets. He also developed an iceberg locator (a few years too late to save the Titanic,) a device to allow submarines to communicate and, among his many patents, one for a seismology device to help companies search for oil without the expense of drilling.

 The Rise of the DJ

There were other progenitors of the Wolfman. Opera star Ada Eugenia von Boos-Farrar didn’t howl, but she did say “Here goes something into nothing…” before belting out “I Love You Truly” into a microphone in Lee De Forest’s Manhattan studio in 1907. That broadcast was heard by a seaman aboard the USS Dolphin (which was docked in the Brooklyn Navy yard at the time) thus providing De Forest with the confirmation that eluded Fessenden and his Christmas Eve broadcast. By the way, if Eugenia is not the first person to sing over the radio, she certainly is the first woman.

Ray Newby, Disc Jockey

Ray Newby and Charles Herrold at Harrold’s radio station “San Jose Calling”

Just two years later, in 1909, a young electronics student at the Herrold College of Engineering and Wireless in San Jose, California, named Ray Newby began the world’s first regularly scheduled broadcast of music and news. Appearing decades later on the television show I’ve Got a Secret, he explained what he and inventor Charles Herrold did…

"We used popular records at that time, mainly Caruso records, because they were very good and loud; we needed a boost... we started on an experimental basis and then, because this is novel, we stayed on schedule continually without leaving the air at any time from that time on except for a very short time during World War I, when the government required us to remove the antenna... Most of our programming was records, I'll admit, but of course we gave out news as we could obtain it..."

Herrold, who built the station, is credited with coining the term “broadcasting,” (as opposed to “narrowcasting" – another word he invented – to describe point-to-point or ship-to-ship communication) and even designed omnidirectional antennas so his station’s signal could be heard as widely as possible. (Radio veterans will love the fact that Herrold also engaged in what is known in the business as “trade,” accepting records from a local store in exchange for on-air publicity.)

Newby was followed by others, like Elman Myers of New York City who in 1911 began his own radio station, filling 18 hours a day with recorded music. (Myers had worked with De Forest on the development of the Audion tube.) Back in San Jose Herrold’s wife, Sybil True, went on the air around this time with “The Little Ham Program” (ham being a nickname for radio amateur) and so earns credit as the first female DJ. She too, used records from a local store for her playlist, noting with satisfaction, as she later explained in an interview with author Gordon Greb, that the store owners would notice an uptick in sales after she played a record on the air (a cause-and-effect that would, fifty years later, lead to radio’s great payola scandal.)

But there’s a problem with Newby, Fessenden, Myers, True and others who lay claim to the honor of first disc jockey – they only used one turntable. This naturally slowed down the pace of the program as the finished record was removed from the turntable and another put in its place. (Pace being deliberately slow, and the manner of presentation dignified – no one was howling like a wolf in between Caruso records.) The idea of using two turntables and transitioning, or segueing, between records is credited to New York announcer Martin Block. Tasked with providing “filler” in between bulletins coming from WNEW’s coverage of the 1935 Lindbergh kidnapping trial, Block played records. (Musicians hated and fought against the playing of pre-recorded music on the radio, even at the smallest of stations, since it took away work.) “Borrowing” the idea from a Los Angeles radio host, Block would present several records from the same artist as if it were a live performance (yep, musicians hated this even more.) Because he was on a nationwide hookup for the trial, Block became famous for what he called the “Make-Believe Ballroom.” Noting his success, syndicated columnist Walter Winchell, on his own weekly radio program, called Block a “disc jockey,” which most historians agree was the first public use of the term. Variety magazine would be the first to put the words into print, in 1941.

The Golden Age of the Disc-Jockey would begin soon after the end of the end of Second World War and can be attributed to several factors. They include the relaxation of FCC rules on the identification of recorded material, the 1944 agreement that established artists’ fees for recorded music played on the air, and a post-war boom that put millions of Americans into cars, all of which had AM radios. By the mid-1950s a new form of music – rock and roll – was taking hold, thanks to disc-jockeys across the country who boldly exposed their listeners to music heavily influenced by the blues and performed by African-Americans. Station owners who might have otherwise balked at having their stations associated with… that kind of music heard a sound which more than mitigated their concerns – that of the cash register ringing up sales of commercial airtime.

By then, the only complaint one might have heard from those owners was that they wished their stations could operate with more power, as stations in the United States were limited to 50,000 watts. The answer lay just over the border in Mexico, where there was no such power limit, and stations operated with so much power – a quarter of a million watts – that it was said the headlights of cars parked near the transmitter would light from induced RF. It was at one of those “border blasters” that Robert Smith became nationally known under the guise of a howling, baying-at-the-moon character known as “Wolfman Jack.”

Okay, so we can’t draw any stylistic comparisons between Reginald Aubry Fessenden’s somber introduction of Handel’s Ombra mai fu to Wolfman Jack telling his listeners to "lay your hands on the radio and squeeze my knobs.” But that misses the point, because lost in the arguments over the who was the first disc-jockey is the sheer audaciousness of those early experimenters who imagined that total strangers would listen to their broadcasts at all, and who developed the equipment upon which a new industry would be born.