Table of Contents
How It Began - A child's question piques the author's curiosity.
Early Life - The Stubblefields arrive in west Kentucky to claim a large Revolutionary War land grant. Nathan Stubblefield, the child of a prosperous lawyer, is born in Murray in 1860, orphaned at age 14 and married at age 21. He starts life as a farmer but soon turns his attention to tinkering with inventions.
Stubblefield's Telephone Business - Nathan patents an acoustic "vibrating" telephone and enjoys modest success selling and installing telephone systems in Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Mississippi and elsewhere. A group of his customers in Murray buys a Bell Telephone franchise and competition puts Nathan out of business.
Wireless in 19th Century America - Beginning with Morse's 1842 experiments, American inventors including Bell and Edison confront the challenge of wireless telegraphy and telephony with limited success. By 1891, most of them have abandoned their efforts.
"Hello, Rainey." - In 1892, ignorant of the wireless inventions of the past 60 years, Nathan creates an electromagnetic induction wireless telephone and demonstrates it to his friend Rainey Wells. A few years later, Nathan develops a superior wireless telephone that uses natural conduction through the earth and water.
The Wireless Telephone Company of America - After a well-publicized public demonstration of his wireless telephone on New Years Day 1902 in Murray, including its broadcasting capabilities, Nathan's work attracts national attention. He follows this event with a demonstration in Washington DC, where he makes a ship to shore telephone call, and eventually accepts an offer of cash and stock to sell his invention to the Wireless Telephone Company of America. The company sends Nathan and his eldest son Bernard to Philadelphia and then New York to demonstrate the system for wealthy potential investors. The first presentation is successful, but the New York demonstration is a failure. Nathan returns to Murray to expose the company as a fraudulent stock promotion scheme.
Back on the Farm - With the company in control of his natural conduction wireless telephone, Nathan ceases to work on that design and reverts to his earlier experiments with electromagnetic induction. Eventually, he develops a prototype and files a patent application in 1907. The US Patent Office initially rejects Nathan's invention because it resembles prior patents for wireless devices from the 1880s. He revises his application to show that his device is an improvement on the earlier ones and earns a patent in 1908. By then, there is no market for this outdated technology.
Hard Luck and Trouble - Nathan experiences a series of devastating events. His financial backers sue him; his children sell the family farm; and his wife abandons him. He becomes an eccentric hermit, moving about from shack to shack, and subsisting on donations from charitable relatives and neighbors. He dies in 1928 of starvation. The New York Times prints his obituary.
The Legend Begins - A few months after Nathan's death, a college journalism instructor and his students begin to chronicle the inventor's life. The result is a publicity campaign to establish a shrine to Nathan Stubblefield and to recognize Murray, Kentucky as the "Birthplace of Radio." RCA considers contributing to the effort, but rejects the idea on the advice of a corporate historian who claims that Nathan's inventions had nothing to do with radio.
"The Birthplace of Radio" - After World War II, the Murray business community takes up the Stubblefield cause as a way to call attention to the town and encourage investment in the local economy. Murray's first local radio station goes on the air with the call letters WNBS for Nathan B. Stubblefield.
Under the Microscope - In the 1970s media scholars and historians of technology examine the Stubblefield story and come to the conclusion that there is no connection between his invention and the technology that became radio. Some give him credit for forecasting broadcasting.
Reevaluating the Legend - Back in Murray Nathan's status as a folk hero is intact despite the refusal of the outside world to recognize the community's claims.
A Centennial Celebration - In 1992, a hundred years after Stubblefield's first verified tests, a college professor and a television engineer create working replicas of Nathan's two wireless telephone systems and demonstrate them publicly throughout the year. One of Nathan's grandsons mounts a new campaign to have his ancestor recognized as the true inventor of radio, but his effort is mired in controversy.
Some Thoughts on Immortality - The author looks at Nathan's contemporary image and takes a final stab at separating fact from folklore.
Nathan Stubblefield's US Patents - These are copies of the 4 US Patents issued to Nathan.
Stubblefield's Statement on Wireless Telephony, 1902 - Nathan explains his work in detail.
Waldon Fawcett's Article from Scientific American, 1902 - This account, published after Nathan's Washington DC demonstration, describes the event and puts it into context with similar inventions and inventors of the era.
L.J. Hortin's Article from Kentucky Progress, 1930 - This melodramatic and sensational article, the first comprehensive story of Nathan's life and work, is the source of much Stubblefield folklore, including the claim that Murray, Kentucky is the "Birthplace of Radio."
James Johnson's Speech to the Kentucky Broadcasters Association, 1961 - This speech is the culmination of Murray's attempt to profit from Stubblefield's technological heritage, serving as the official statement from the Murray Chamber of Commerce for many years.
When Nathan departed New York in June 1902 and left behind his invention, equipment, and documents related to them, he also ruled out any further work in natural conduction wireless telephony. Although Nathan never patented the device nor received anything but worthless stock from the Wireless Telephone Company of America, he was nonetheless under a contract that granted the company ownership of his invention. He had received at least $800 compensation for his work on the demonstrations. In his mind, the scoundrels had won this round.
He had two choices. He could devote his full effort to his family and farm, or he could revert to his original work with induction wireless telephones that he undertook before his agreement with the Wireless Telephone Company of America. Still convinced that he was on the verge of a technological breakthrough that would make him wealthy, Nathan chose the second path.
Stubblefield's original sketch of the 1907 wireless telephone
Never one to encourage visitors, Nathan became even more secretive in this phase. He felt that he had been compromised in his early wired telephone business and again by the entrepreneurs from New York. That was enough. Yet he also began to keep written records of his experiments, perhaps in preparation for a patent application. Bernard was now an experienced assistant. Nathan soon added other members of the family to the project, mainly as witnesses. His wife Ada and children Bernard, Pattie, and Victoria signed the following affidavit:
| In order to establish date of New Invention in Wireless Telephony of Nathan B. Stubblefield for any future needs that might arise technical description herewith provided of apparatus used.
At home Jan. 15, 1903
This day Nathan Stubblefield transmitted wireless telephone messages one hundred and twenty five yards without ground connection his latest development in wireless telephony. This affidavit is the first documented message transmitted by this system through sixty yards space. This message was transmitted at 8 o clock night of Jan. 15 by Bernard Stubblefield and received by Nathan B. Stubblefield the inventor and received again by the below signed as witness.
Pattie L. Stubblefield
Nathan and Bernard Stubblefield in the workshop, 1902
Since this device worked without a ground connection, it was totally dissimilar to his wireless telephone of 1902. Another affidavit, signed by Pattie and Victoria a year later, gave further details:
| At home Jan. 23 of 1904
This is to certify that we the undersigned date above shown heard at a distance (roughly stepped) of six hundred feet harp music by Wireless Telephone, Nathan Stubblefield's secret invention where in no earth connection is used described as follows and understood by us.
Circular coils of No. 28 magnet wire 26 ft. in diameter with forty convolutions with forty eight cell dry batteries connected in with coil and carbon ball transmitter, as transmitter of messages
Receiver as follows two coils wire seven feet in diameter containing 33 convolutions each. First coil office wire No. 20 second or top coil of No. 20 Magnet wire with two bell receivers.
It is not understood by us or father whether it is by electromagnetic wave that this is done but well known that simply a primary current passes through coil and transmitter connected one to each distinct circuit or coil. Bernard B. Stubblefield transmitted music from coil just west of house, our home, to forked red oak tree on land east of our house, with its forks pointing north and south with poison ivy growing on its west side a snag of a tree with knot near top rather on the south side.
Given our hand this Sunday night Jan. 23 all with a view of establishing facts as they exhist [sic] for the future interest of Nathan Stubblefield the inventor and our father who was with us in this test.
The final two affidavits came two weeks later, on February 4. The first, signed by Bernard, Pattie, and Victoria, reads:
| We the undersigned testify to the fact that this day a coil of No. 20 copper wire, the coil forty feet in diameter with 42 convolutions, with 48 cells of dry battery and a mycrophone [sic] transmitter was used in transmitting wireless telephone messages, conversation and harp music four hundred and twenty three yards from our residence with no sort of earth connection. A coil as receiver of 26 ft. in diameter of No. 28 magnet wire with 40 convolutions with a double pole receiver but no sort of earth connection. Other station lying westward in a woods from the home place located by a dogwood tree of small size known to us.
The second, also signed by the three children contains a note from Nathan at the end:
|This is to certify that we the undersigned did this day receive wireless telephone messages, conversation and harp music four hundred and twenty-three yards distant from the transmitting station without any sort of earth connection by means of Nathan Stubblefield's new system of Wireless Telephony, claimed by him to be done through the Hertzian or electromagnetic wave process and practical for great distances, either stationary or portable.
Note: The above are sons and daughters of mine who understand the technical features of my inventions.
Ada Mae, Pattie, and Nathan Stubblefield (l. to r.) with portable wireless telephone receiver, 1907