The First Radio Concert


The first radio concert was a brilliant success but, like many live broadcasts today, it required not only high technology, but artistry, fast thinking and improvisation.

The Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden, who had worked for both Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, was working on the problem of transmitting the human voice, and he succeeded on December 23, 1900, by sending a wireless message between two 50-foot towers on Cobb Island in the Potomax River — the first time that intelligible speechhad been trasmitted by electromagnetic waves. The message for the great occasion was rather prosaic. “One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If it is, telegraph back and let me know.”

Within a few years, Fessenden was making voice transmission across the Atlantic, from Brant Rock, Massachusetts, to Machrihanish, Scotland. By December 24, 1906, Fessenden was ready to broadcast a full-fledged concert. The audience was to be the crews aboard ships of the United Fruit Company for whom Fessenden had recently installed wireless stations. At 9:00 pm he began beaming his Christmas concert from the 400-foot towers at Brant Rock.

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He began with a series of dots and dashes — “CQ, CQ, CQ” — a general call to stations within range. Then Fessenden stepped up to a microphone and announced the concert to follow. Next an operator turned on an Edison phonograph and played a vocal rendition of Handel’s “Largo” from the opera Xerxes. Mr. Stein, an assistant, also had a first that night — the first case of mike fright. When he backed away, Fessenden snatched up his violin and fiddled and sang his way through “O Holy Night.” Fessenden’s wife Helen and his secretary, Miss Bent, nervously read a Biblical passage — “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will.” Fessenden then returned to the microphone to wish his listeners a Merry Christmas.

The first broadcast concert was more successful than Fessenden had imagined. Responses poured in not just from vessel of the United Fruit Company, but from the astonished crews of ships all over the Atlantic Ocean.

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