William Dubilier unveils an astonishing new "wireless telephone" to fairgoers at Seattle's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on June 21, 1909.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 11/07/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8832

On June 21, 1909 -- more than 10 years prior to the launching of America's first commercially licensed radio station -- a young inventor named William Dubilier (1888-1969) publicly unveils what was promoted as a "wireless telephone." In hindsight his ingenious prototypical contraption was actually less a "cell-phone" than a critical stepping stone to a not-yet-existent device that would come to be known as the "radio."

The A-Y-P Expo boasted many other displays of marvelous new inventions, but that "wireless telephone" caused the greatest stir. The A-Y-P Daily News trumpeted that "Without reflecting in the least on the other inventions exhibited ... we unreservedly assert that that it should be a big success, and the Wireless Telephone will go down into history with its name always coupled with that of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition."  

Early Experiments 

Born in New York, William Dubilier dropped out of high school, but, as he later recalled to Radio Craft magazine, he'd become "interested in radio when I read in the local papers that [Guglielmo] Marconi [Italy's Nobel Prize-winning (1909) electrical genius] was coming to this country to lecture on his wireless telegraphy apparatus in 1903."

The wireless telegraph -- which would be introduced to the public at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904 -- was a major scientific breakthrough. The new device allowed the transmitting of dash-dot-dash Morse Code messages -- but proved to appeal mainly to the maritime industry and others interested in monitoring and safeguarding shipping or transport. A more practical model would be one that allowed the transmission of spoken messages -- and various inventors began attempts at a wireless telephone. But until Dubilier's subsequent innovations, those efforts resulted only in machines with onerously bulky sizes.

Along the way, Dubilier's fascination with all the scientific experimentation going on led him to taking up schooling in electrical engineering, to a inspector job with the Western Electric Company, and then to another sending messages for the Continental Wireless Telegraph and Telephone Company in 1906. The 20-year-old was very ambitious, and in 1908 formed his own Commercial Wireless Telegraph & Telephone Company.

With a goal of improving upon others' earlier attempts at making a "wireless telephone," Dubilier somehow came up with a technological innovation that would have immense impact: that of using the glassy mineral mica to help form a "condenser" (today's "capacitor"), which ultimately "revolutionized radio broadcast transmissions" (US Industry Today). The immediate application was Dubilier's first Wireless Telephone whose less-than-a-cubic-foot size was initially the most obvious  advancement.

As Technical World Magazine later noted: "The Dubilier instruments are not noticeably different in principle from the wireless telephone devices of the past, but they are compact. Instead of great coils of wire and oscillators as big as a dining-room table, the Dubilier apparatus is reduced to marvelously small dimensions." But as early as 1908 the visionary inventor predicted that one day "every car would have a portable wireless telephone to call for help in case of a breakdown" (US Industry Today).

The Mind-Boggling Contraption at the  A-Y-P   

The general public first witnessed Dubilier's mind-boggling contraption -- the first ever that could successfully transmit a voice rather than just the clicks of Morse Code -- on prominent exhibit in Expo's Manufacturers Hall building. At one end of the booth "there has been built a sound-proof contrivance from which conversation is carried on Wireless Telephone to various sections of the building and grounds" (A-Y-P Daily News). In addition to such spoken-word experiments, crowds at the Exposition also saw "a vocalist [sing] into a mysterious device, and the melody came sputtering through earphones some distance away" (Washington: A Guide).

The Exposition's Director of Exhibits, Colonel H.E. Dosch, inaugurated the exhibit, was bowled-over, and raved to The A-Y-P Daily News that "It is the greatest achievement of the age. I am mystified in its accomplishment ... its future is practically unlimited." The newspaper gushed that the "demonstration is beyond the words of man to analyze its very 'spook-like'  accomplishments, defying and actually overthrowing  many of the time-honored theories of science, the Radio Wireless Telephone sends the human voice through walls, through glass, through steel, through granite, and, in fact, any substance, without connecting wires of any description."

Although attendees were uniformly astounded by the device, capitalization of its core achievement -- the broadcasting of the human voice and recorded music -- was not realized for a significant period of time. Dubilier's invention was really less a telephone than a short-range radio. And "after this first crude appearance ... the radio retired to its proper sphere as wireless telegraphy," as used by industry  (Washington: A Guide).  But the young inventor was far from finished with his quest to popularize his invention. 

Mind-Boggling Contraption at Luna Park? 

Once settled in Seattle, Dubilier accelerated his experimentation and an interesting quote from the man himself raises the possibility that after the A-Y-P Exposition closed in October, he may have taken his invention across town to the Luna Park grounds in West Seattle (or to some other site?). He later told Radio Craft magazine:

"It is not generally known that I operated the equivalent of a broadcasting station as early as 1909. The novelty of receiving music through the air appealed to the owner of an amusement park in Seattle. He fitted up a crude receiving set and erected a sign 'Listen to the Wireless for 10¢.' Strangely enough, every time that I visited the amusement park and attempted to listen-in, I was told that the apparatus was out of order. The receiver was working, but there was no music to pick up -- for the simple reason that I was not at the transmitter to operate it!"

Seattle's Wizard Youth 

In 1910 Dubilier demonstrated his device once again at Seattle's annual summer Potlatch Festival, and in October -- having improved its design -- he showed that it was now capable of transmitting a signal the entire distance to Tacoma. "Conversation carries that far as clearly as on the ordinary telephone" noted Technical World Magazine. Years later The American magazine would recall that: "The young engineer built on the outskirts of the city a station with what was then the largest wooden tower in the world, installed apparatus, and built a small receiving station in Tacoma, thirty miles away. In a month he had established daily wireless telephone communication between the two cities."

In 1912 he repeated his amazing feat by setting up "a broadcasting transmitter ... and visitors to Seattle's summer Potlatch were invited to a curbside booth to listen through earphones to broadcast phonograph music" (Washington: A Guide). By this time Seattle media couldn't contain the town's provincial pride: Blaring newspaper headlines claimed Dubilier as a "Seattle Boy," a “Wizard Youth,” and that "Seattle May Be Made Famous By Astounding Success" (The Seattle Times). Word spread and Dubilier's achievements garnered additional headlines across the nation. 

Commercial Radio's Debut in Seattle 

The positive response to his work encouraged Dubilier and in 1912 he told Technical World Magazine that "Influential men believe in my invention as much as I do, and we plan to build a factory and manufacture my machines upon a large scale. This will be, I believe, the first wireless telephone factory ever opened in America -- or the world, for that matter. The machines are not costly to turn out, and we will be able to supply them so cheaply in large lots that they may be used extensively in cities, much more cheaply in rural communities than the present wire systems, for marine and coastwise work, and for special uses such as by forest rangers on the great reservations of the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Coast."

Even with so many uses for his device in mind, Dubilier never did found that factory in Seattle, but his experiments continued and he soon "began to broadcast recordings from a 320-foot tower near the city." That's just about when radio-mania struck and the "enthusiasm of amateurs was contagious. Rooftops began to sprout antennae, and enthusiastic experimenters filled the air with code signals and weird static shrieks" (Washington: A Guide). One of Seattle's "amateur" radio enthusiasts was young Vincent L. Craft who began airing broadcasts from his Ravenna neighborhood garage (6838 19th Avenue NE) and within a couple years was granted an official license to operate Seattle's first commercial radio station, KJR. 

By that time, in 1922, Dubilier had moved back to New York City. There he founded the Dubilier Condenser Company, which became the earliest commercial manufacturer of capacitors. The quick rise of the radio industry -- and then the television industry in the 1940s -- brought his company phenomenal growth. By 1966 Dubilier possessed more than 350 electrical-science design patents and his firm -- which had merged with Cornell Radio and formed Cornell-Dubilier Electric in 1933 -- became a successful company that still exists as a subsidiary of Exxon-owned Reliance Electric.


Sources: "Will the Radio Wireless Telephone exhibited at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition Duplicate the Record of the Bell Telephone Demonstrated at the Centennial?" Alaska-Yukon-Pacific News,  June 22, 1909, p. 6; "Seattle Boy Takes World Record -- Invents Wireless Telephone that Reaches Tacoma -- Wizard Youth Youth Plucks Voices From Thin Air -- Seattle May Be Made Famous By Astounding Success..." The Seattle Times, October 30, 1910, p. 1; William T. Prosser, "Wireless Telephone For Everybody," Technical World Magazine, April 1912, pp. 329-331; Early U.S. Radio History website accessed October 20, 2008 (http://earlyradiohistory.us/index.html); William Dubilier, "Reminiscences of Old-Timers," Radio-Craft, March, 1938, p. 620 accessed via United States Early Radio History website accessed October 20, 2008 (http://earlyradiohistory.us/1938dub.htm); Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State, Revised Edition (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort Publishers, [1941] 1950), 118; David Richardson, Puget Sounds -- A Nostalgic Review of Radio and TV in the Great Northwest (Seattle: Superior Publishers, 1981), 18-19; "Cornell Dubilier Electronics Inc," U.S. Industry Today website accessed on October 20, 2008 (www.usitoday.com/article_view.asp?ArticleID=380); "History of the radio maker Cornell-Dubilier Electric" Radio Museum website accessed on October 20, 2008 (www.radiomuseum.org/dsp_hersteller_detail.cfm?company_id=7839); Mildred Hardenbergh, "He Caught a Burglar with his First Invention," The American magazine, January 1925, pp. 54, 55, 84, 86, 88.

Related Topics:   A-Y-P Exposition | Fairs & Festivals | Media | Science & Technology

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