Nathan Stubblefield, inventor (left), and his son, Bernard, seen with their equipment outside their home at Murray, Kentucky. This photo was taken around 1902. Photos courtesy of Murray State University, submitted by Francis Nash.
By Francis Nash - 2000
Kentucky took the great leap into broadcasting, when on July 18, 1922 at 7:30 p.m., Credo Fitch Harris announced to all, who might have been able to hear, "This is WHAS, the radiotelephone broadcasting station of the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times in Louisville, Ky."
While that evening brought the state's first licensed radio station into the annals of history, many believe that the history of broadcasting in Kentucky is rooted in an event 30 years earlier, when a Calloway County farmer, Nathan B. Stubblefield, picked up a device he had invented and spoke the words "Hello, Rainey" to a friend a short distance away, without the use of wires. That demonstration of his "wireless telephone," in 1892, near Murray, Kentucky, has led to the claim that radio was invented in the state. Stubblefield's words to Rainey T. Wells antedated Guglielmo Marconi's "wireless telegraph" of dots and dashes by three years.
The question of whether Nathan B. Stubblefield is the true inventor of radio has been shrouded in mystery and controversy. He was a self-educated man and experimenter, who spent a great deal of time alone or with his son, Bernard; tinkering with electronic equipment, and reading scientific journals, where he had learned of the work of people like Alexander Graham Bell, Heinrich Hertz, James Clark Maxwell, and Nikola Tesla.
Recollections of Murray neighbors picture him as a reclusive and temperamental individual, who demanded privacy and secrecy regarding any of his work.
From Stubblefield's many experiments and inventions, he obtained four patents. The first was a lighting device, patented in 1885. He went on to patent a mechanical telephone, what he called an "electric battery," and the last patent was on his wireless telephone. The invention of the mechanical-type telephone set Stubblefield up in that business for a short time, including the manufacture of the instruments, and the rights to the system on a national basis, and installation of systems in Murray and a few other towns. His interest in telephones doubtless led to his experiments with wireless voice transmissions.
According to statements by Edward Freeman in a Courier-Journal article in 1939, Stubblefield actually demonstrated the ability of wireless communication as early as 1885. Dr. Rainey Wells documented the successful demonstration in 1892; and family physician, Dr. W. H. Mason, testified to witnessing demonstrations in that year, in which Stubblefield spoke and played the French harp over the air.
On January 1, 1902, about a thousand Murray residents were witnesses to Stubblefield's invention, and that event, along with private demonstrations for a reporter, brought about a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The story reported that he had established five listening stations in various parts of the town square area, one about six blocks away from the transmitter. Then the reporter told of Mr. Stubblefield's son taking his place at the transmitter, and talking in a tone of voice, such as is ordinarily used in telephoning. "Bernard whispered, whistled, and played a large harmonica; and simultaneously, it was reported that everyone heard on the receivers, and with remarkable distinctness."
Increased publicity and interest led Stubblefield to the nation's capital on March 20th for another public demonstration. He sent signals from aboard the steamer "Bartholdi" on the Potomac River to those people on the shore. The next day's editions of the Washington Evening Star hailed the remarkable invention of a Bluegrass farmer. Stubblefield would conduct demonstrations of the wireless telephone in Philadelphia and New York, with his son, Bernard, assisting.
Nathan B. Stubblefield and his son "at the microphone" during the Philadelphia demonstration of his equipment on May 30, 1902.
Stubblefield reported to acquaintances that he had turned down lucrative offers for the patent rights to his invention several times. However, while in New York, he did agree to participate in the commercial marketing of the device with the establishment of the Wireless Telephone Company of America. He received shares of stock in the company and was listed as a director and inventor. A fraud from the start, the company, with addresses in New York and Boston, was actually incorporated in Arizona, a territory where corporation laws were more liberal.
Stubblefield, a man of integrity, refused to go along with some of the company's schemes, and concluded that the main promoters were guilty of deception and suspect in character. Disillusioned and disgusted, he left New York for his hometown with worthless stock, and a bad impression of the big city crowd.
Four years after the failure of that venture, Stubblefield enlisted financial support from several men in Murray for the purpose of finally obtaining a patent for his wireless telephone. E. G. Siggers was employed as a Washington attorney; and the application was filed for a patent on a practical, portable wireless telephone, with transmitter and receiving equipment for telephoning from moving objects (needing no earth connections) or from local stations, as desired. The patent application was denied, based on the fact that two similar patents had been granted in 1886 and 1894 to other individuals.
Stubblefield and his attorney began the task of trying to prove his invention was worthy of its own recognition, and after several explanations, a patent (No. 887,357) was granted on May 12, 1908, for "improvements" in wireless telephone equipment.
In order to make the invention a commercial success, Stubblefield worked with friend, politician Conn Linn, to enlist potential investors, but very little interest was found. Except for an occasional experiment, observed by his neighbors, he would live out his days alone in a shack near Murray, his wife and children having left years earlier.
Two weeks before his death, Stubblefield visited a neighbor, Mrs. L. E. Owen, and asked her to write his life story. He told her he had lived 50 years before his time, and had now perfected the greatest invention the world has ever known. He declared that he had taken light from the air and earth, as he had done with sound. No one knows for sure what device he was referring to, but residents often talked of the bright lights and weird sounds that would come regularly from near his home. Scraps of paper and remnants of various pieces of an apparatus were found after his death, but never quite understood. On March 30, 1928, Nathan Stubblefield's body was found in the small house. He died of starvation, penniless, and with little notoriety for his years of effort.
On March 28, 1930, the city of Murray honored Nathan Stubblefield by unveiling a monument in his honor on the campus of Murray State College. Dr. Rainey T. Wells, president of the college, and other early friends, along with his two daughters, were among the 2,500 people attending the special ceremony. The monument is inscribed with these words: "Here, in 1902, Nathan Stubblefield (1860-1928), inventor of radio, broadcast and received human voice by wireless. He made experiments ten years earlier. The home was 100 feet west."
The first marine demonstration of wireless telephony took place on the Potomac River, March 20, 1902. Nathan Stubblefield (third from left) erected an antenna at each end of the steamer Bartholdi to receive and send the radio messages.
Conn Linn and one of Stubblefield's sons, Nathan, Jr., would later attempt to trace the wireless patents with the intention of filing infringement suits, and hopefully collecting damages. They asserted that all points of the suit were in order, but the courts ruled the statute of limitations had expired. Linn wrote in a letter to Mr. Vernon Stubblefield, in 1950, that had they pursued the matter earlier, it would have meant untold riches.
Has Nathan B. Stubblefield been denied his rightful place in history, and the wealth associated with such a monumental invention as radio?
Few general knowledge history books or encyclopedias even mention his name in association with the development of broadcasting. Some media industry historians have taken brief note of the man. Erik Barnouw, in his widely-respected book, A Tower in Babel, speaks of the mysterious figure of Stubblefield, his wireless demonstration, and his patent. Sterling and Kittross, in their chronicles of American broadcasting, include a diagram of the Stubblefield telephone in their book, Stay Tuned. They devote a paragraph to his demonstrations, mentioning his ground conduction, and later induction methods of transmission. They make note that others had experimented with these systems earlier than 1892. A more extensive article on Stubblefield was written by Thomas Hoffer and appears in the book, American Broadcasting, edited by Lichty and Topping. Hoffer contends that Stubblefield most certainly broadcast voice without wire as early as 1892. The question is whether the so-called "black box" actually contained methods that would be the basis of long-distance radio broadcasting with sustained radio frequency oscillations. Or was Stubblefield working with a more primitive electronic method, generally known by other experimenters of that era, and subsequently discarded in favor of better technology? He concludes that it was the latter, and that Stubblefield did not "invent radio."
Smithsonian radio historian Elliott Sivowitch has written that, while Marconi did not invent radio completely on his own, it was his successful work which would be the basis for later refinement of the system. He has explained the technical differences in Stubblefield's "telephone" and radio broadcasting. At least two doctoral dissertations have included extensive material on the Stubblefield story, one by David H. Miller, and another by former Murray professor, Thomas Morgan.
There are some who believe Stubblefield is the true father of radio, especially those associated with the Murray area, who have worked for decades to give Stubblefield a place in broadcasting history. The Murray Ledger-Times has, over the years, contained numerous articles on the story, and the Courier-Journal has helped to keep the memory and aura of the Stubblefield saga alive. Several resolutions have been passed in the Commonwealth regarding his achievements, including a declaration by the Kentucky Legislature in 1944, honoring Stubblefield for his outstanding scientific contribution and public service, and asserting he was the "father of radio."
In May of 1961, after an impassioned speech by Murray Chamber of Commerce President James Johnson, the Kentucky Broadcasters Association passed a resolution recognizing Stubblefield as the "real inventor of radio," and presented a plaque to Johnson and WNBS station manager Chuck Shuffett, so stating that belief. (WNBS radio in Murray takes its call letters from the inventor's initials.)
Murray State University has been the source of much information on Stubblefield. Patent papers, letters, affidavits, and newspaper clippings are on file there, and at the University of Kentucky, under the title of the "Stubblefield Papers." Some radio and television feature programs over the years have briefly investigated and often sensationalized the story. Entries in early editions of the World Almanac and Famous First Facts have given credit to him for wireless telephony demonstrations, and the first ship-to-shore broadcasts.
The city of Murray refers to itself as the "birthplace of radio;" L. J. Hortin, a former Murray State journalism professor, often spoke and wrote in defense of this designation. Dr. Ray Mofield, a broadcaster and former member of the university faculty, states in an article written in 1990 for the Kentucky Encyclopedia that he believes Stubblefield invented radio, because the wireless telephone formed the foundation for later developments in broadcasting.
In 1991, Keith Stubblefield, a.k.a. Troy Cory, a California pop singer, returned to Kentucky to announce plans to establish a museum to honor his grandfather, Nathan, and purchase the Murray radio station. He made several appeals to the Smithsonian Institution to establish a display to honor his ancestor. The Smithsonian officials, after witnessing demonstrations, and examining the artifacts offered by Cory, agreed to accept the exhibit, but Cory refused when they failed to acknowledge Stubblefield as the true inventor of radio.
Cory (Stubblefield) continued his attempts at his stated goal to rewrite history, and wanted the National Association of Broadcasters to change their awards from the Marconi to the Stubblefield awards. His appeal to the Kentucky Broadcasters Association board for help met some opposition. Instead of a resolution stating that Stubblefield was the inventor of radio, the KBA recognized him for his work as an early developer of "wireless" communication; and declared 1992, the 100th anniversary of the Murray experiments, as "the year of Nathan Stubblefield." Governor Wallace Wilkinson joined in to set aside 1992 in his honor, and stated him to be the inventor of radio.
Cory, in an interview with the Associated Press, said he wanted to educate the public about the real beginnings of broadcasting. He promised to get recognition for his grandfather. "The children are being educated that the wrong person invented the radio, and they don't know that it was an American," declared Cory. He later marketed a volume of books on radio and television history, where he declared the true story of Nathan Stubblefield was told, and many aspects of broadcasting history revised.
The flamboyant entertainer ran into legal problems in 1992, after failing to make payments for WNBS radio, which he had purchased from Chuck Shuffett; and the station went off the air when all the workers walked out, claiming they were not being paid, either. Criminal charges were filed against him, and he was arrested at his Pasadena, California home. Cory entered an agreement to settle the charges, but later failed to appear in Calloway County Court for a deposition. He finally made restitution to the former employees and agreed to set up a Stubblefield scholarship fund at Murray State University, in exchange for dropping theft of service charges, after he had spent some nights in jail. He later told reporters he would not come back to Murray to follow through on his ambitious plans to honor his grandfather.
In the summer of 1992, to observe the centennial of the wireless experiments, two Murray State University professors, Bob Lochte and Larry Albert, built a replica of Stubblefield's wireless telephone and conducted a series of public demonstrations, including one on the Murray soccer field. They declared it was not their intention to revive the debate on the invention of radio, but merely to let the public decide. Lochte said that the invention was definitely wireless communication. Albert said they were able to reconstruct both Stubblefield's ground rod system and his wireless coil telephone, and send signals a short distance.
The most complete work on Nathan B. Stubblefield and his place in history was written by Dr. Thomas Morgan in 1971. In his doctoral dissertation, The Contribution of Nathan B. Stubblefield to the Invention of Wireless Voice Communication, Morgan researched the issue extensively, and conducted interviews with Bernard Stubblefield. Murray State librarian Charles Hinds accompanied Morgan to interview Nathan's son. Hinds says that Bernard realized that his dad's invention did not contain "Hertzian" radio frequency principles necessary for radio broadcasting. Morgan contends Stubblefield has a proper place in history, but it is not as the father of radio, because his wireless methods were not the foundation of later radio broadcasting.
The descriptions of the invention show that Stubblefield, in his early experiments, used the principle of "ground conduction," since his first devices required the placing of steel rods in the ground for transmission and reception. Stubblefield called this box his "earth cell," but had always felt that the ability to communicate without wires was not earthbound and continued to improve his apparatus and experiments.
In a second system, he discarded the ground rods and placed a copper wire coil that was connected to the battery and microphone. This method, known as "induction," caused a current from the primary coil to generate an electromagnetic audio wave through the atmosphere, and induce current in the sister units with a coil. In essence, he had a primary (transmitting) coil and a secondary (receiving) coil. By means of a switch, he could reverse the functions and have two-way communication.
In theory, this method could carry signals several miles, depending on the size of the coil. But the coil soon would become so large as to be impractical to use. Like many scientists of that day, he concluded the sound waves traveled through the electrical fluid surrounding the earth, or the "ether." It was this second method for which Stubblefield received the patent, and the phone and large coil are often seen in popular pictures of the inventor.
Therefore, concludes Morgan, the niche for Stubblefield is that of being "the first man to successfully send and receive human voice without wires." There are those who claim others also did it, but one can well document Stubblefield as the first American to make public demonstrations. In reporting on Stubblefield's 1902 demonstrations, the Scientific American magazine mentions experiments by other individuals using similar techniques.
The reason he has never been credited as being the father of "radio" may hinge on the definition of radio. The word was not being used at that time, and historians have to examine what the electronic medium of radio would later become. No one person invented the media we call radio today, but many technicians built upon the work of those before them.
A review of the various radiotelephone and broadcast patents shows Lee de Forest and Reginald Fessenden with over 200 each. Marconi, Vladimir Zworykin, John Fleming, Philo T. Farnsworth, John L. Baird, Boris Rosing, and Edwin Armstrong are others who would be credited with many innovative patents involving the development and improvement of AM and FM radio and television.
A close examination of the facts surrounding Stubblefield's invention and patent indicates the waves generated with his devices were audio frequencies on a direct current, not the radio frequency waves of the modern broadcast spectrum, necessary for long-distance communication. His method was not a modern modulation system of placing information on a continuous high-frequency carrier wave.
Other scientists in that era, including Marconi, who is dubbed the "father of radio," had experimented with induction methods similar to Stubblefield's, but realized its severe limitations, and moved on to other broader ideas that eventually formed a basis for later radiotelephone methodology. Marconi's radio telegraph could, of course, transmit signals across the oceans, and modulated radio frequency waves would later carry voices around the world.
Some may argue that Stubblefield's work was a beginning, and that he was the real pioneer of broadcasting. However, no one actually took his patents or equipment and built upon them to advance it to modern radio broadcasting. The induction method he used was not unknown at the time, since he experienced trouble even getting a patent for his invention, because of the prior work of others. By the time Stubblefield actually obtained a patent for his "wireless telephone," the science of voice transmission had already advanced well beyond his invention. Reginald Fessenden is generally credited with the first radio voice broadcast, using the modulated carrier wave methods, in 1906. Fessenden had also claimed a wireless voice transmission, using a primitive spark gap transmitter, as early as 1900. Lee deForest's perfection of the vacuum tube made long distance broadcasting practical.
There is no evidence that any of Stubblefield's inventions contained the high-frequency modulation "radiation" methods that are at the heart of radio broadcast transmissions.
Stubblefield did not patent an original idea, namely wireless telephony, although he had spoken openly about the great potential it would have for society. His patent for improvements in wireless telephone systems is not seen by historians as being any basis for later developments in wireless voice transmission. Dr. Morgan, in his research, could find no evidence of any legal body declaring the patent rights of Stubblefield had been infringed by anyone with later developments.
Dr. David Miller, in his dissertation, The Role of the Independent Inventor in the Early Development of Electrical Technology, relates that Stubblefield once felt that wireless telephony could serve the purpose of sending information from "one central station to every house in the land." He realized his invention would not fare well as a public phone system, since there was no means to create a private circuit. He hoped that he, or someone, would develop a method of tuning to individual signals. Such principles would become known and refined, as radio frequencies were better understood.
Dr. Miller concludes that Stubblefield's successes in electrical technology appear to have been limited to the practical application of known principles. "His two distinctly different wireless systems were only casually related to radiotelephony, which was being developed at approximately the same time," Miller states.
Nathan B. Stubblefield, of Murray, was able to transmit and receive the human voice without wires in public. Others had the ideas before him, but he actually constructed the devices and made several demonstrations. His limited education, his eccentricity, and lack of finances inhibited any further development of his electronic experiments that might have allowed him to refine his ideas and make further discoveries.
While attributing the invention of radio to a Kentuckian is more folklore than fact, Stubblefield certainly had visions about what such forms of communication might mean in the future. He is said to have proclaimed that, one day, his invention would be used to transmit news of every description. That prophetic message would prove more enduring that the limited technology of his invention.