IEEE Names Two New Milestones

New milestones go to first radio broadcast and a high-power New York hotel

5 September 2008

Many know of Marconi’s 1901 transatlantic transmission of Morse code, but relatively few know who made the first radio broadcast using voice instead of dots and dashes. That first voice belonged to a relatively unknown engineer named Reginald Fessenden, who in 1906 transmitted the world’s first radio broadcast.

Two decades later, another milestone occurred in the northeastern United States—the largest private dc electric power plant was switched on in the basement of the New Yorker Hotel, in New York City, sometime during the fourth quarter of 1929, according to the best recollection.

In September, both these events will be recognized with formal ceremonies as IEEE Milestones in Electrical Engineering and Computing.

AN UNSUNG HERO In December 1900, the Canadian-born Fessenden was working for the U.S. Weather Bureau, experimenting with a high-frequency spark transmitter. That month, Fessenden successfully transmitted speech over a distance of about 80 kilometers from his laboratory on Cobb Island, Md., to a receiving station in Arlington, Va.

Two years later, Fessenden teamed up with two entrepreneurs to form the National Electric Signaling Co. to develop wireless communication commercially. The company built a transmitting station with a 128-meter (420-foot) antenna tower in the village of Brant Rock, which is located in the town of Marshfield, Mass. They also built radio stations for the United Fruit Co.’s headquarters in New Orleans, its plantations in Guatemala, and its ships. In years to come, Fessenden became a strong advocate of continuous-wave radio as an alternative to spark systems, and he opposed excessive government regulation of the emerging industry. A prolific inventor, he introduced a number of important technical innovations and was awarded its 1921 Medal of Honor by the Institute of Radio Engineers, a forerunner of IEEE.

A CHRISTMAS STORY On Christmas Eve, 1906, Fessenden sent out a Morse code message from his Brant Rock tower, notifying United Fruit ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean of an upcoming broadcast. He then began speaking into a microphone, describing the program to follow, and played a recording of Handel’s Largo. After it ended, his assistant stood before the microphone to say a few words but was struck with mike fright, prompting Fessenden to grab his violin and play “O Holy Night.” His wife and his secretary had planned to read passages from the Bible but they, too, backed away from the microphone, so Fessenden abruptly ended the broadcast by wishing his listeners “Merry Christmas.” Though this event went largely unremarked, it is regarded as the world’s first audio radio broadcast and the forerunner of radio as we know it today.

IEEE and its Boston Section will commemorate the 1906 broadcast with a ceremony in Brant Rock, where Fessenden’s radio tower once stood. The entire structure was demolished in 1917, except for the base, which survives to this day. The 13 September ceremony will feature speeches by radio historian John S. Belrose and Susan J. Douglas, authors of Inventing American Broadcasting, 1888–1922 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989). A plaque commemorating the IEEE milestone will be mounted on the Brant Rock tower’s base.

HIGH-POWERED HOTEL The New Yorker Hotel opened its doors nearly 80 years ago, one of the largest art deco buildings in New York City. At its opening, it had 2500 guest rooms and the largest private dc generating plant in the world. On 25 September, IEEE will mark this achievement with a milestone ceremony at the hotel, located at 34th Street and 7th Avenue in New York City and still in operation.

The power plant, installed in the subbasement of the 43-story hotel, was a cogeneration facility. Steam engines drove five dc generators, and the spent steam was also used to heat the building, to run the washing machines in the laundry room, and for other services. Though the electrical load for the hotel was about 850 kilowatts, the original dc installation totaled 2646 kilowatts—enough to power a city of 35 000 residents.

A cost analysis at the time showed that the plant saved the hotel
US $48 000 a year compared with the cost of purchasing electricity from New York City’s electric utility. Most of the original system is still in use today. In fact, the New Yorker was the tallest building in the city to remain illuminated during the Northeast’s 1965 blackout.

The IEEE Milestone Program highlights the role in the advancement of science and technology played by IEEE’s geographic regions and organizational units, including its technical societies. More than 75 electrical engineering and computing milestones have been named around the world. Technical achievements more than 25 years old are eligible to be nominated as milestones.

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