ARRL

100 Years of Voice

Hello!" Not surprisingly, it was the first word to be heard over the radio some 100 years ago.

From the time he was a young boy, Canadian Reginald Fessenden was fascinated with the idea of transmitting voice. Upon hearing his uncle describe Alexander Graham Bell's demonstration of the telephone, the 10 year-old reportedly asked, "Why do they need wires?" He then spent much of his life trying to figure it out.

workshop.jpgHis early attempts at voice transmission were unintelligible. With government backing, Fessenden, and his assistant Thiessen, kept trying various improvements unti they met with success.


Fessenden formed the National Electric Signaling Company (NESCO) with a pair of Pittsburgh millionaires as backers after his contract with the government ended, and began working with the United Fruit Company helping perfect their wireless communication between land stations and ships at sea. With the powerful transmitters and antenna systems at this disposal, he began more earnest experiments in voice transmissions and in June 1906 successfully transmitted a message from his Brant Rock, MA office to a receiver at Plymouth, a distance of about 12 miles. Improvements to the antenna installations at Brant Rock continued through the summer with more successful experiments until Fessenden was certain the process would work properly.

brantrock.jpgWorking in secrecy, he planned a surprise for a 9 p.m. broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1906. With the assistance of his wife and trusted employees, he scripted a program of music and Bible readings. Shipboard operators had been tipped to listen for something special during the December 24 transmission, but no one could have anticipated what was planned. At the appointed hour, radio operators across the North Atlantic were surprised to hear voice coming from their radios, calling "CQ, CQ". It was Fessenden beginning the first "radio" program. After a brief introduction, Handel's "Largo" was played from an Edison wax cylinder phonograph, followed by the inventor playing "O, Holy Night" on his violin. The planned Bible reading by Mrs. Fessenden and his secretary had to be quickly covered by the inventor as the first reported cases of microphone fright and dead air occurred when both women froze.

After Fessenden's historic feat, thousands of inquisitive hobbyists began to experiment with this new fangled technology called Radio. They were, and are still, called "amateur" radio operators. Commercial broadcasting didn't begin for another 14 years after Fessenden's historic Christmas Eve broadcast. They labored in attics, barns, garages and cellars to perfect what we now call radio.

In 1912, Congress passed the first laws regulating radio transmissions in the U.S. By 1914, amateur experimenters were communicating nationwide, and setting up a system to relay messages from coast to coast (This is where the name "ARRL - American Radio Relay League, and then The National Association for Amateur Radio" came from!). In 1927, the precursor agency to the FCC was created by Congress and specific frequencies were assigned for various uses, including the ones set aside for Amateur Radio.

Amateur radio operators, also known as "hams", continued to be at the forefront of developing technologies years in advance of when they are rolled out to the public. FM, television, and even cellular telephones were all used by amateur radio operators many years ahead of the public.
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Learn more about ham radio, why people love it, and find out how you can become a ham!