Published December 15, 2015
"The First Broadcast"
I love listening to good Christmas music, and there's so much of it on the radio these days.
But did you know that the very first music-and-voice radio broadcast in history was a Christmas broadcast on Christmas eve, 1906? (No, it wasn't an early edition of The Gospel Greats!)
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was a Canadian, born in 1866, in East Bolton, Quebec, and labeled as a "child prodigy." He was trained as an electrician. In fact, he worked with Thomas Edison for a few years until 1889, when he left Edison to do his own research, eventually resulting in more than 200 patents of his own, many involving a brand new and strange technology called "radio." (After the Titanic sank, Fessenden also invented sonar to detect icebergs.)
The use of radio, still very new in the late 19th century, involved primarily Morse code transmissions, not voice, for wireless telegraphic messages. But Fessenden developed a pioneering "continuous wave" system that made broadcasting as we know it possible (something his mentor, Edison, had told him would be as likely as finding a way to jump over the moon). Fessenden found a way to superimpose audio "modulation" on a continuous radio frequency carrier. It's what we call "amplitude modulation" or AM radio.
In 1900, Fessenden transmitted the first voice message using his new technology, just to prove it would work. But it took six more years of development before he was satisfied with his progress and willing to make a public demonstration.
Using his newly-developed equipment, he set up a makeshift radio studio in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. (This was before the concept of "radio studio" even existed.) And here comes the Christmas connection on Christmas Eve, 1906, he sent over the airwaves what has been officially recognized by many as the very first music-and-voice radio broadcast.
Fessenden had already alerted wireless operators to tune in and his broadcast was monitored, thanks to new equipment he had provided, in Norfolk, Virginia, and on ships within a radius of several hundred miles at sea. Some ship wireless operators, accustomed only to code, couldn't believe what they were hearing a human voice coming over their headphones!
And what was on this very first radio broadcast?
Well, what would you expect on Christmas eve? Fessenden himself played a violin solo, "O Holy Night" (making that the first Christmas carol ever broadcast) and wound up singing the last verse (because he couldn't find anyone else willing to do it) and the chorus:
"Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord, O praise His name forever!
His pow'r and glory ever more proclaim!
His pow'r and glory ever more proclaim!"
This proto-broadcast included Ediphone phonograph music, too music by Handel. And then there was a reading from the Bible, from Luke, chapter 2, which included all or portions of this memorable and timely passage:
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
So the very first radio broadcast THE very first of what we would define as a radio broadcast was all about Christmas! And it proclaimed over the airways for the first time ever the good news that Christ was born! How amazingly fitting!
A lot has been broadcast on radio over the more-than-a-century since, but none of it has ever included a better or more significant message than was heard on the very first radio broadcast.
So as you enjoy great Christmas music on the radio this Christmas season, remember that this is where radio got its start. Radio broadcasting was born on Christmas eve. Radio broadcasting was born proclaiming the Christmas message of the angels: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!"
"His pow'r and glory ever more proclaim!"
Note: Although some have questioned whether or not Fessenden was "first," Radio World magazine, Feb. 14, 2007, says one reason why Fessenden's broadcast wasn't more widely reported was because of a massive snowstorm in the Boston area at the time that kept newspaper reporters from covering it. Nevertheless, Harry P. Davis, an executive with Westinghouse, later affirmed that Fessenden's broadcast was the first.
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