The First Broadcast - Christmas Eve 1906
For their entire careers, the "Sparks", the ship wireless operators for the United Fruit Company, along with the US Navy, had only heard Morse code "dit - dahs" coming through their headphones. They had been alerted a few days earlier for a special message to come at 9 PM Eastern Time on Christmas Eve. Suddenly they heard something that made some think they were dreaming, a human voice coming from those headphones. Then they heard singing. There was a violin solo. Then a man made a speech. Some called their captain and ship's officers to come and listen.
The genius responsible was Reginald Fessenden. He had succeeded in transmitting voice and music over the air. Fessenden himself played a violin solo of "O Holy Night" accompanying himself as he sang the last verse (below). He also read the Biblical account of the birth of Christ from Luke chapter 2 over the air. The text of the angels' song "Glory to God in the Highest - and on Earth - Peace to Men of Goodwill " was heard as if by miracle.
At the conclusion, Fessenden wished all a Merry Christmas and invited the Sparks to write him at Brant Rock, Massachusetts with reception reports. Reports were received from ships along the Atlantic northeast coast and from shore stations as far south as Norfolk, Virginia. A repeat broadcast on New Year's Eve was heard as far south as the West Indies.
. The 420 foot top loaded umbrella antenna at Brant Rock .
Fessenden researched and developed the continuous wave (CW) method of wireless transmission as a replacement for spark. He had provided specifications and subsequently modified a device that was built to his design by General Electric. It would later become known as the Alexanderson alternator in honor of the GE engineer who made numerous improvements to it. Fessenden's 1906 alternator reportedly operated at a frequency of 42 KHz with a power of 1 kilowatt although others have noted 75KHz and a half kilowatt. His 1906 broadcast was on the sixth anniversary plus one day of his first successful transmission of human speech at a distance of one mile from Cobb Island on the Potomac River (December 23, 1900). He invented a chemical detector diode as a replacement for the Branly Coherer which, due to its design, could only receive code.
For an excellent historical account and comparison of early research by Fessenden, Marconi and other inventors, follow this link for an article by John S. Belrose.
Here is a link to another article detailing Fessenden's work, also written by John S. Belrose.
Fessenden's widow Helen provided an account of the first broadcast in her 1940 biography of her husband Fessenden; Builder of Tomorrows, published by Coward-McCann, Inc., New York. She was present at the broadcast but reportedly had stage-fright which kept her from participating. Of course, a carbon microphone live with RF energy connected to the transmitting alternator may have had something to do with that.
There have been questions raised in the last several years about the authenticity of the Fessenden account. There is reason to suspect that the accounts of the reception distance may have been exaggerated. Reception would have been limited to ships such as those of the United Fruit Company which had his "barreter" chemical diode or similar detector. Only those ships relatively close to the transmitter would have received the broadcast reliably. However, the special broadcast was certainly in the style of Fessenden. He was regularly demonstrating the technology at short distances earlier in December 1906. His use of alternator technology would have enabled the feat even if the transmission distance might have been limited.
Here is the last verse of "O Holy Night" which Fessenden reportedly sang while also playing his violin. "O Holy Night" is still one of the most popular Christmas songs of our day.
"Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord
Then ever, ever praise we
His pow'r and glory ever more proclaim
His pow'r and glory ever more proclaim"