by Roderick Sergiades
There is an old joke about the four stages to an invention.
- Stage one: The Americans invent it.
- Stage two: The Russians claimed to have invented it 20 years earlier.
- Stage three: The Japanese copy it and sell it to everyone.
- Stage four: The Canadians study it.
Although there is much truth to this 1980s joke, in one notable exception we find the Americans impersonating the Russians, while the Canadians masquerade as Americans. On November 2, 1920, Pittsburgh radio station KDKA aired the first scheduled U.S. broadcast, of that year’s U.S. presidential election returns, just six days after receiving its commercial licence.
Though our southern neighbours were quite pleased with that broadcast and claimed it a world first, unfortunately for them a small Montreal station named XWA had beat them to the punch. Better known in recent times as CFCF, it had its first commercial broadcast nearly a year earlier.
Prior to that, there had been about a dozen or so experimental radio stations throughout the world, including KDKA and XWA, with the latter being used for military purposes during The Great War.
Yet, these early experimental stations only generally broadcast an early form of wireless known as continuous wave (c.w.), which was non-verbal, and often just Morse code or dots and dashes.
By early 1919, XWA had begun making point to point transmissions (akin to using a walkie-talkie) which were not cast over a broad area. Though anyone nearby with a receiver such as a crystal set could tune in, there were perhaps only just a few dozen in the Montreal area who could.
Like other experimental radio stations had done, these early rudimentary broadcasts were mostly tests and demonstrations seeking a confirmation response.
With the war over, XWA lost its raison d’être and soon sought another purpose to justify itself. Its parent company, the Canadian Marconi Company, formed a separate enterprise, Scientific Experimenter Limited, to sell radio equipment to radio enthusiasts, with XWA acting as the catalyst.
To accomplish that goal, XWA on December 1, 1919 became the first radio station worldwide to acquire a commercial licence, which came from the federal government, after operating for about five years experimentally.
Later that month the immortal first words ever broadcast by a commercial radio station filled the airwaves: “This is XWA at Montreal.”
As the newly commercial station was on a budget, an arrangement was made with a local music shop to supply free of charge a phonograph and records. In return, XWA regularly acknowledged the Ste. Catherine West retailer on the air and the world’s first ‘sponsored’ programmes took flight. When that began to happen, local amateur radio hobbyists or ‘hams’ began to increasingly take note.
Before 1919 was over, XWA began broadcasting regularly hour-long daily programmes in the evening of recorded music (without a set schedule) at 1200 metres (250 KHz), a frequency now no longer used for commercial radio.
The music was complemented by news and weather reports taken from local papers and read by Marconi staff for reception in the Montreal area. Nevertheless the standard c.w. code practice continued to be broadcast too.
According to Darby Coats, an early XWA employee who conducted some of the first commercial broadcasts, another incentive for early over-the-air speech was the novelty of it. Hams were thrilled to hear, “This is wireless telephone station (as radio was often called then) XWA at Montreal. Hello! Hello!”
Mr. Coats reminiscing in a series of broadcasts from about 1940 added, “Radio programmes began with the addition of speech to music at the microphone. To begin with, the terse sentences of the engineers, thrilling as they were to experimenters, had little to interest the public, to whom they were trying to sell receiving sets. The engineers, too, ran out of breath and grew tired of repeating the alphabet and saying ‘ninety-nine’. Probably personal convenience persuaded them to do less talking and fill the intervals while testing by playing phonograph records.”
These first commercial broadcasts were conducted from a laboratory and not what would be generally recognized as a broadcasting studio today. Originating from the top floor of the Montreal Marconi Building at 173 William Street (now 1017), Mr. Coats describes how it all worked in 1919-20. ”The radio set was in a vertical teak box that looked something like a piano. An engineer came up the stairs from the main floor where he had started a motor-generator which was to supply current to the wireless telephone. He entered this bare room which was the first Canadian radio studio and threw a switch. Three tubes lit up, not glowing dimly but shining with the brilliance of electric light. There was a pause of a few minutes to allow the tubes to become thoroughly warmed and ready for action. Then the engineer picked up the microphone, which looked much like a common telephone mouthpiece of that time. He held it close to his lips and spoke.”
From December 1919 to May 1920, code practice, gramophone record playing and limited news was pretty much all XWA broadcast.
But on May 20, 1920 this practice changed significantly when the world’s first scheduled broadcast took place.
Meeting in Ottawa, the Royal Society of Canada held a lecture titled Some Great War Inventions. Present were Prime Minister Robert Borden, future premier William Lyon Mackenzie King, and other luminaries. The highlight of the gathering was the XWA broadcast from Montreal to Ottawa, which included a vocal performance by Miss Dorothy Lutton.
The Ottawa Citizen covered the historic broadcast: “At 9:50 o’clock Thursday evening, a perspiring audience which thronged the assembly hall of the Chateau Laurier listened with rapt attention to a song being transmitted to them by means of some mysterious mechanism which they made no pretense at comprehending. It was nonetheless true that ‘before their very eyes’ a veritable miracle was being evolved and that wireless telephony was an accomplished fact. The sound emanating from the strange mechanism was that of an ordinary gramophone over a hundred miles away in Montreal, and though far from distinct was sufficiently pure to be recognized as that of a gramophone. Later a human voice singing at the Marconi wireless telegraph station at Montreal could be heard quite clearly…. Ottawa had the privilege of being the first city in the world to hear the human voice at a distance of one hundred miles.”
Not long after, radio began to catch on like wildfire. By 1922, there were 39 licensed radio stations across Canada, XWA had changed its call letters to 9AM and shortly after to CFCF. Still there had been widespread concern that the newfangled radio would hit the record companies hard. Instead, it propelled recorded music to greater heights.
Today KDKA is still on the air, but CFCF, which changed its call letters eventually to CINW at 940 AM in late 1999, went off the air for good on January 29, 2010. This resulted in another Canadian invention being left to history for study.
(Special thanks to Lewis Bodkin, Paul Rosen, and Roger Jones for assisting with this article.)
Early radios, including this crystal set (with diagram), could only be heard through headphones.