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Honorable Mention, 2014 Michelle Kendrick Memorial Book Prize, Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts
Natural Radio, Natural Theology
The legend of radio begins in the 1890s with Guglielmo Marconi leading the procession of successful great men and Nikola Tesla among the great men unfairly treated. Although some would win in the courts of law and aficionado opinion, Marconi held sway in the popular imagination. Marconi's early device was actually wireless telegraphy, not "radio" as it came to be known with commercial broadcast in the 1920s. It did not transmit voice, music, and other sounds, only the make-and-break dots-and-dashes of telegraphic code. Purpose-built inventions that carried voice and music appeared around 1906 to 1910 and were linked to the names of Reginald Fessenden, Lee De Forest, and Marconi himself, among others, although, as we shall see, non-purpose-built devices had wirelessly carried voice and music through "inductive radio" three decades earlier.
Understanding the physical basis of electromagnetic waves is attributed to James Clerk Maxwell, who, continuing the work of Michael Faraday, theorized electromagnetic waves in 1864, and to Heinrich Hertz, who, two decades later, empirically demonstrated their existence. Still, as Charles Süsskind has stated, "Observations of electromagnetic-wave propagation from man-made electrical disturbances have been made probably for as long as there have been means for producing moderately large sparks." One such observation occurred in 1780 when "Luigi Galvani observed that sparking from an electro static generator could cause convulsions in a dead frog at some distance from the machine."
What kept radio from being heard on the tail end of sparks, apart from the wet slap of a dead frog? Historical incidents of transmissions or possible transmissions are studied in the niche topic of "pre-Marconi wireless." They fall into two general classes: the first contains examples of induction, the disturbances of electromagnetic fields known to Hans Christian Ørsted and Michael Faraday; and the second contains likely examples of transmitted electromagnetic waves associated with Maxwell and Hertz. The principles of induction were understood in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, so when people were confronted with inexplicable incidents of transmission prior to Marconi, such incidents were simply dismissed as being nothing more than forms of induction.
When the telephone came along in 1876, its lines interacted with the electromagnetic fields of telegraph and telephone lines and "earth currents" and received naturally occurring electromagnetic waves. That is, the telephone acted as a wireless device in both senses of induction and the reception of transmission. Those listening certainly knew what Morse code, music, and voices sounded like, so when they heard them when no one was sending them from the other end of the telephone, they knew they had unexpected company from other lines. In this way, Morse code was heard without wires when Marconi was a toddler, and voices and music were heard when Fessenden was ten years old. However, unlike with Morse code, when people listening on the telephone heard natural radio they could not know what it was, so its sounds were a matter of mystery and speculation.
The year 1876 was auspicious; Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his "articulating" telephone. There were already a number of telephones in existence, but they worked on the "make-and-break" currents of the telegraph, an appropriate term given the commercial viability of communications systems; some telephones were designed to transmit fixed musical pitches. Bell's device, on the other hand, used "undulatory" currents conducive to the dynamics of the voice, as well as to a greater range of musical sounds. However, if a telephone was attached to a telegraph or telephone line, sounds were heard before anyone started speaking or performing. Some were associated with the device itself, that is, with the complete grounded circuit of two or more telephones connected by a line. Some were sounds produced by currents that had long been known to exist more crudely on the telegraph. Other sounds were the result of interactions of inductive fields from nearby lines, and still others resulted from the fact that the line seconded as an antenna. Bell spoke about these sounds during the first few years of the telephone:
When a telephone is placed in circuit with a telegraph line, the telephone is found seemingly to emit sounds on its own account. The most extraordinary noises are often produced, the causes of which are at present very obscure. One class of sounds is produced by the inductive influence of neighboring wires and by leakage from them, the signals of the Morse alphabet passing over neighboring wires being audible in the telephone; and another class can be traced to earth currents upon the wire, a curious modification of this sound revealing the presence of defective joints in the wire.
The role of the telephone in the history of wireless technology has not gone unnoticed, but the last full treatment was in 1899. John Joseph Fahie's book A History of Wireless Telegraphy: 1838-1899 was written a few years after Marconi's invention, yet it required over three hundred pages to detail the many claims, attempts, and realizations at sending messages over distances without wires or, as it was known then, space telegraphy. Fahie divided the history into periods in the evolution of the technology, the first being characterized by good ideas and unsubstantiated claims, followed by the second, practicable period, which occurred once the telephone was attached to telephone and telegraph lines. Fahie, however, overlooked Thomas Watson, the person who first attached a telephone to a telephone line.
Alexander Graham Bell and Watson, his assistant and chief machinist, were the first to "talk by telegraph" because of their unique access to the device. Once Watson's workday came to a close and no one was on the other end of the line, he listened to sounds other than voices. Environmental energies had long been ever-present in the telegraph system, but the transductive capability of the telephone made them audible as never before. The sensitivity of the device that made it possible to hear voices also made it possible for Watson to hear natural radio.
Watson heard radio once the telephone was hooked up to an outdoor telephone test line because the line acted as an unwitting long-wave antenna. The other lines coursing through Boston were telegraphic and there were no widespread sources of electrical interference. Most telegraphers closed shop at the end of the business day, meaning there was even less interference during the night when Watson listened to the sounds on his line. Writing in his autobiography fifty years after the fact, Watson reminisced:
At this time, early in 1876, there was but one outdoor telephone line in the world. It was the iron wire about half a mile long, grounded at each end, that connected the Exeter Place laboratory with Williams' shop [in Boston]. This No. 12 galvanized wire was run for us by some of Williams' men over the housetops very soon after work in the new laboratory was started. There were no trolley car or electric light systems to send their rattling current-noises into our wire and the only other electric circuits in constant use were the telegraph wires, the currents in which, being comparatively weak and easily recognized as the dots and dashes of the Morse code, did not trouble us. This early silence in a telephone circuit gave an opportunity for listening to stray electric currents that cannot easily be had today. ...
A few years later these delicate sounds could no longer be heard, for they were completely drowned out when electric light and power dynamos began to operate. I used to spend hours at night in the laboratory listening to the many strange noises in the telephone and speculating as to their cause. One of the most common sounds was a snap, followed by a grating sound that lasted two or three seconds before it faded into silence, and another was like the chirping of a bird.
What Watson described as "a snap, followed by a grating sound that lasted two or three seconds," was probably a lightning strike followed by a "hissy" or "swishy" whistler, rather than a pure tone whistler and, in any case, the duration was probably overestimated. The bird chirping was probably a so-called tweek caused by the electromagnetic burst of a lightning strike, its energies stretched out over hundreds of kilometers bouncing between the earth's surface and ionosphere into a short sliding tone. If it sounded like a flock of birds chirping, then it could have been a dawn chorus or, less likely, an auroral chorus, the former associated with the sunrise and the latter with auroral activity. The aurora borealis was not commonly observed with any strength at the lower latitudes of Boston; nevertheless there were numerous sightings listed in the monthly weather reports in the annual report of the chief signal-officer. Auroral display was but one form of "atmospheric electricity"; "meteorology" at the time was dedicated to anything that moved in the air and, in fact, also to when the ground moved with earthquakes and when plants budded and bloomed.
There would have been many possible times for Watson to hear natural radio associated with auroras, but he may have been referring to mid-1877. That was when William Channing reported that John Peirce, a professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and contributor to the early development of the telephone, saw the aurora and heard sounds in the telephone at the same time: "The sounds produced in the Bell telephone by the auroral flashes or streamers were observed here by Prof. John Peirce in May or June." As the chief signal-officer's report described for the month of May 1877, auroras "have been more numerous and brilliant, and more extensively observed, than for some years past," with May 28 being especially notable. Many telegraph systems were affected by ground currents and "the electric disturbance on telegraph-wires was sufficient to interrupt ordinary business between New York, Buffalo, Baltimore, Montreal and Washington." Since auroral display is associated with solar storms that, in turn, produce a flurry of natural radio phenomena, Watson may have been listening at a particularly good time. He was not only at the right place at the right time with respect to the invention of the telephone; he happened to start listening during a solar maximum conducive to natural radio.
That the iron test line could have acted as an antenna is supported by the sustained scientific observation that occurred twelve years later at the dramatically positioned Sonnblick Meteorological Observatory, a high-altitude (nearly 10,200 feet, or 3,300 meters) meteorological station in the Austrian Alps. The isolated peak was "connected with the post office by a long and free telephone line in a north-south direction," rising 2 kilometers over a distance of 22 kilometers.The observatory was built in 1886 and "immediately after completion" of the telephone line, "Professor [Josef Maria] Pernter often observed a whistler of variable intensity in the line and Professor [Wilhelm] Trabert evaluated the observations" during a continuous six-year period from 1888 to 1894. Further proof of lines becoming antennas comes from a Bell Labs paper from 1933: "A twelve-mile telegraph line free from power interference has been found a satisfactory antenna, and with a telephone receiver between the line and the earth, swishes of remarkable clearness have been observed. Tweeks have been heard with the same equipment."
Back in Boston in 1876, Watson had a few ideas about the source of what he heard: "My theory at the time was that the currents causing these sounds came from explosions on the sun or that they were signals from another planet. They were mystic enough to suggest the latter explanation but I never detected any regularity in them that might indicate they were intelligible signals. They were seldom loud enough to interfere with the use of the telephone on a short line." Neither of these speculations was unreasonable for their time and, in any case, he was not committed to the task of identification. Watson's speculation that the "sounds came from explosions on the sun" was well within the experience of telegraphers. Disturbances on the sun had been correlated to auroral displays, which had in turn been correlated to the magnetic storms that famously wreaked havoc on telegraphic transmissions.
This was probably on the mind of a journalist from the Lawrence American newspaper in Massachusetts who reported on a telephone lecture and demonstration that Bell and Watson conducted during May 1877. Although they failed to establish communications along the "rusty-jointed telegraph wires," the article reported that at around 10:00 P.M. Watson had heard the loose electricity of the "Northern Lights and found his wires alive with lightning." So, although Boston was too far south for all but exceptional auroral activity, the association was legitimate to an electrical mechanic like Watson in terms of sunspots, auroras, magnetic storms, and the conductivity of telegraph lines. Indeed, as we shall see, Alexander Graham Bell later marshaled his favorite invention, the photophone, to listen to the sounds of storms on the sun.
Any speculation that these might be signals from another planet was based on a confident lack of knowledge about the presence or absence of extraterrestrial life in the solar system. Given the new conversations happening because of the miraculous long-distance telecommunications capabilities earlier in the nineteenth century, reaching other creatures at far-flung locations was first of all a technical matter. Lunar life might be hailed using Charles Fourier's sidereal telegraph,a large-scale version of the semaphore messaging that had worked well in systems of optical telegraphy, or it might be possible to communicate with Martians using powerful wireless signals as later suggested by Nikolai Tesla. Indeed, during 1924 on the occasion of the close proximity of Mars to Earth, a National Radio Silence Day was proclaimed, with cooperation from military communications and corporate broadcasters, just in case any intelligent life-form might be transmitting.
Watson's ruminations about what he heard on the telephone were not too dissimilar from those offered by W.H. Preece, the prominent engineer and chief technical officer of the British General Post Office, during a talk he gave in 1894 at the Wimbledon Literary and Scientific Society.
Strange, mysterious sounds are heard on all long telephone lines when the earth is used as a return, especially in the calm stillness of the night. Earth-currents are found in the telegraph circuits, and the aurora borealis lights up our northern sky when the sun's photosphere is disturbed by spots. The sun's surface must at times be violently disturbed by electrical storms, and as oscillations are set up and radiated through space, in sympathy with those required to affect telephones, it is not a wild dream to say that we may hear on this earth a "thunderstorm" in the sun. ...
If any of the planets be populated with beings like ourselves, having the gift of language and the knowledge to adapt the great forces of Nature to their wants, then, if they could oscillate immense stores of electrical energy to and fro, in telegraphic order, it would be possible for us to hold commune by telephone.
Watson was more earnest, but the possibility of life on another planet was perfectly consistent with the evolutionary logic of his own natural theology; and, in turn, the eventual means to communicate was consistent with the quickly developing technological revolution that he was at the center of.
In his self-published tract, From Electrons to God: A New Conception of Life and the Universe, Watson reasoned that, just as the earth had been thrown off the sun as a fiery ball and cooled into an environment amenable to evolutionary progress, so too other worlds would be thrown off from the infinity of stars in the universe. He assured his religious friends who might have thought that God's sole creations were earthbound that "we should be glad we are not alone in the grand procession and that we may hope some time to be able to exchange helpful messages with our sister planets and still further speed up our [evolutionary] progress to higher planes."
Whatever his speculations when he first listened in 1876, writing in the mid-1920s he was still unaware of the true sources of the sounds-although solar storms were not too far off the mark-and he was unsure whether anyone knew: "I don't believe any one has ever studied these noises on a grounded telephone line since that time, for they could not be so studied today unless a wire were run in some wilderness far from an electric light or power station." He was correct in thinking that listening would need to be conducted outside the ambient electromagnetic din of cities and extensions of the electrical grid, and he thereby placed the sounds within a trope of polluted cities and pristine wilderness. He was incorrect in thinking that studies had not been conducted; such studies had begun with six years of observation from 1888 to 1894 on the long telephone line at the Sonnblick Meteorological Observatory in the Austrian Alps and had developed significantly after World War I through the 1920s at the time of his writing.
Watson heard natural radio on a telephone that acted like a wireless device when the line turned into a long-wave antenna. During the 1920s, with the contemporary experience of the wireless device of the radio at his fingertips, he wrote, "These currents were probably from the same sources as the static that afflicts the modern radio, and the difference in their sound may have been due to the fact that they were not amplified in the telephone then as static is now in a radio receiver. I, perhaps, may claim to be the first person who ever listened to static currents." The term static here has some latitude. It could mean the type of erratic or undifferentiated noise that we associate with static electricity and static on a radio, but during Watson's lifetime it was also a general term in electrical engineering parlance for radio interferences that could range from this type of static to the type of sounds that Watson described. The salient question is why, in 1876, as a young man in his early twenties, would he listen for hours at night to such sounds? Attempts at identification could not sustain such prolonged attention; clearly Watson was engaged aesthetically with these sounds, but there was also a state of wonderment about what he would eventually call earth's divinity that overtook him.
As a boy Watson could not accept the idea of a stern god who used thunderstorms to convert people and drowning to consecrate them; instead, he imagined a benevolent deity manifested within a serenity of nature. He found a place on the roof of the stable and sat "alone in the twilight with a delightful feeling of being part of the sky and on good terms with God," and later in life he took long nature walks and would "lie half the afternoon in some quiet nook, miles from home, in a rapturous dream." Thus, he described a predisposition toward the night sky and the patience to listen for hours to the sounds emanating from it.
He formalized his thoughts late in life in a series of related writings: From Electrons to God: A New Conception of Life and the Universe and the typescripts "The Religion of an Engineer" and "The Earth, A Vast Orchestra." In them he outlined a vitalistic natural theology bearing the influence of the socialism of Edward Bellamy, the evolutionism of Charles Darwin, the spiritualist diffusion of Hindu cosmogony in the United States, and the mystical side of German psychophysicist Gustav Fechner, especially The Little Book of Life after Death. In these writings, Watson applied energetic principles of vibration, atomistic electricity (electrons), and musical metaphors to the cosmos:
Every electron and every atom of the earth, from its center to the farthest limits of its atmosphere, is alive and sings its part in earth's stupendous music.
The universe is made of a single eternal substance, eternally vibrating in an infinite range of frequencies. Everything we know is something vibrating: the universe is like a vast orchestra playing an eternal music of millions of octaves combined into an infinite variety of melodies and harmonies. These vibrations are the universal Life, all under the control of a single eternal Law which causes harmonic vibrations to unite. From every union of vibrations under this Law something new emerges. From this Law, which I call Harmonic-Union-Creation, acting on the universal Substance everything in the Universe from electrons to God has emerged.
Although the cosmos that Watson developed in his writings was musical, he did not talk about natural radio in terms of music. His cosmos was one that proceeded from noise to music, from the vibratory electrical energies of "primeval stuff of the universe partially organized into electrons and the like, all vibrating with an innumerable range of frequencies, which was the manifestation of the earth's now separate life and mind," to a grand, evolved harmony. For Watson, music was related to revelation, whether it was the technical problem-solving revelations he had experienced early in his life while working as a machinist for Alexander Graham Bell, or the mystical, oceanic revelation he experienced during which the unity of everything became apparent to him. Watson's aesthetic engagement with natural radio, on the other hand, was related to a comfort of not being able to know. Something presented itself but nothing was revealed.