Radio Station CKCH Opens

27 February 1924

At the beginning of the 1920s, radio was the new technology that was sweeping the world. And Ottawa was on the forefront. In May 1920, a live two-way broadcast was transmitted between the experimental naval radio station at 279 Wellington Street and the experimental station XWA in the Marconi Building in Montreal. A secondary receiver with an amplifier and loudspeaker was set up in the ball room of the Château Laurier Hotel where members of the Royal Society of Ottawa listened intently to music and a speech from the President of the Society over the exciting new medium. At the beginning of 1921, the Ottawa Amateur Radio Association was formed. A few months later, the Association listened to a short musical concert put on by the naval radio station. Members also tuned into a time signal from Washington D.C.

This was cutting edge stuff. In an interview, the chairman of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) said that in November 1921 there were only a few radio receivers in the United States, most of which were experimental and in the hands of the military. Six months later, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that there were 700,000 receiving sets in the United States, 40,000 in New York City along, with a daily listening audience of more than one million. Sixty-seven broadcasting studios were in operation, covering musical concerts, news, sports, religious services, business highlights and politics.

Canada followed a similar trajectory. In 1921, Ottawa’s experimental naval station with the call letters OA and the Marconi Station in Montreal, which became known as CFCF, were the only radio transmitters in Canada. But by early 1924, there were roughly forty radio stations across the country.

Station OA gave its first public concert in late April 1921, though few people in Ottawa had radio receivers. The few that were around were unpowered crystal sets. Listeners had to use sensitive earphones to pick up the weak signal. OA later transmitted a live concert performed by the Ottawa South Community Centre under the direction of Professor George Berry.

Advertisement for radios, Ottawa Citizen, 26 February 1924. A $9 crystal set would cost roughly $136 in 2021 money. A four-tube radio set cost the equivalent of $3,650 in today’s money!

In 1922, OA began making regular musical broadcasts every Tuesday and Friday night at 8:00 pm for the benefit of local amateur radio operators. A broadcast in late October 1922 included a live performance of Ave Maria, along with a number of popular songs. Additional features included a comic recital, a news bulletin from the Intelligence Branch of the Department of the Interior, and a riveting address titled Safety First provided by the Ottawa Electric Railway Company. The broadcasts were initially transmitted on a wavelength of 2,100 metres, equivalent to a frequency of 143 kilohertz. This later changed to a wavelength of 500 metres, or 599.5 kilohertz. Listeners were asked to write to the department on how the concerts were heard and the quality of the signal. Station OA stopped broadcasting in early 1924.

In 1922, J.R. Booth Jr. began a private radio broadcasting station that operated under the call letters CHXC, and transmitted at a wavelength of 400 metres, or a frequency of 749.5 kilohertz. The station operated out of various locales, including 247 Flora Street, the home of the president of the Ottawa Amateur Radio Association, the Roxborough Apartments in downtown Ottawa, and the offices of the Great War Veterans’ Association, the forerunner of the Royal Canadian Legion, on Cartier Street.

For a time, the station provided a varied musical performance using local talent three evenings per week. Again, listeners were asked to mail in information regarding the range and quality of the station’s broadcast. When asked by francophone listeners if announcements could be made in French as well as English, the station complied, thereby becoming the first radio station to offer a bilingual service. The station later became know for its broadcasts of the card game bridge which was all the rage at that time.  

The broadcasting room for CNRO (CKCH) radio, roof of the Jackson Building, Ottawa, 1926, Canadian National Railway Collection, CN000300.

Ottawa entered radio’s major leagues with the opening of CKCH on 27 February 1924. The station was owned by Canadian National Railway. The state-owned railway network had been established a few years earlier when the federal government took over a number of near-bankrupt railway companies, including the Grand Truck Railway that operated in Ottawa and owned the Château Laurier Hotel. The station broadcasted out of the Jackson building on Bank Street. At the time it was the tallest commercial building in Ottawa. The station’s two 75-foot transmission aerial towers, placed on the corners of the 190-foot building, had an overall height of 265 feet. The CKCH studio was on the first floor in room 168, with its operating room located on the roof. The station, which transmitted at a wavelength of 435 metres, or a frequency of 689 kilohertz, was at the time the most powerful station in Canada. It was the flagship of a network of CNR radio stations across the country, built so that the train’s customers could listen to radio programmes during long, tedious, transcontinental trips across Canada in a special radio car where each listener was equipped with his or her own earphones.

On that first day, the station was opened during the afternoon for viewing by the general public. Thousands of visitors flocked to see the state-of-the art radio facilities, built at a cost of $18,000. The studio was described as being exceedingly artistic, with nothing omitted for the comfort of performing artists. Its walls and ceiling were covered in heavy, pleated blue fabric to dampen any potential echo or reverberation. Similarly, the floor was covered with a heavy carpet. In the studio were a microphone on an adjustable stand, a telephone, and a microphone control panel linked to the roof-level operating room. The panel had three lights. A red light indicated that the transmitting set on the roof was in operation. A blue light indicated that broadcasting was in progress, while a white light summoned the announcer. The station had four employees: an operator, an assistant operator, an announcer, and a musical director.

Performers at CNRO, 1926, Jackson Building, Ottawa, Canadian National Railway Collection, CN000301.

That evening, CKCH went on the air for its first official broadcast. It opened with a rendition of O Canada, followed by a number of tunes played by the Château Laurier orchestra, including the William Tell Overture. There were also a number of vocal and other solos. The highlight of the inaugural programme was an address by Sir Henry Thornton, the CNR president, to company employees. Thousands listened in, as did thousands of Canadian and U.S. radio listeners. In his speech, he called the opening of the station the most important event in the development of radio in Canada. He also spoke directly to American listeners, extending “a hearty hand to them.” He stressed the merits of Canada as a tourist destination and expressed his hope that they would come and visit, and, of course, ride the railway. To the company’s employees, he noted with pride that CNR’s net earnings for 1923 had been $20 million, and the company was aiming for $30 million in 1924. He added that the year had got off to a great start, with profits of $500,000 in January 1924 compared with a deficit in January the previous year.

The station promised to broadcast musical concerts each Wednesday and Sunday evening with the occasional church service on Sundays. The Wednesday programmes would be of a serious nature, consisting of “music of the highest type,” addresses, and possibly speeches from Parliament. Saturday evening performances would be “of a lighter vein.” News would also be regularly transmitted. CKCH would be placed at the disposal of the Canadian government at any time desired.

Travellers listening to radio in the Maple Leaf Lounge on a CN train, circa 1929, Canadian National Railway Collection, CN000299.

The response to that inaugural broadcast was enthusiastic. Congratulatory telegrams poured into the station. The Ottawa Journal said the radio would “bring Canadians to the capital of Canada with all the comforts of home.” The newspaper fantasized of the farmer sitting with his pipe in hand listening to a debate in the House of Commons. It added that the station could “make Canada real to thousands of benighted Americans who do not travel this way and who have delusions that the Dominion consists of an ice-bound north.”

The station began broadcasting many of the types of programming familiar to us today. It offered a time signal at 9:00pm supplied directly from the Dominion Observatory at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa. The signal was intended for the use of everybody, but was aimed particularly at scientists, mariners and courts of law. The station also offered a report given by the secretary of the Automobile Club of Ottawa on road conditions leading into the capital. Given the horrible conditions of most highways at this time, this was an important service. And for sports fans, the station was the first to broadcast live the Stanley Cup playoffs, providing play-by-play coverage of a playoff game between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens. Ottawa, the defending Stanley Cup champions in 1924, lost 4-2 in the second game of a two-game, total score match. Montreal went on to play the Western champions. CKCH subsequently broadcast the Canadiens-Vancouver match live from the Mount Royal Arena. Between periods, music was provided by the Château Laurier orchestra.

Paradoxically, the opening of such a powerful station—its signal was picked up as far away as California and Panama—elicited some mixed emotions among Ottawa’s amateur radio enthusiasts. Some were concerned that if the station’s broadcasts were too frequent, they would have less opportunity to receive radio signals from elsewhere. They thought the stations’ twice-weekly broadcast gave the right balance.

With the growing success of radio, local musicians who had been providing their services for free, began in April 1924 to charge commercial stations, such as CKCH, for their services. The fee was $2 per hour per artist and $3.50 per hour for the orchestra leader. In 2020 terms, this is equivalent to roughly $30 and $53 per hour, respectively.

Not surprisingly, the Canadian National Railway coveted the “CNR” radio call letters for its new station. However, under international agreement the “CN” appellation was assigned to Morocco. After a year of negotiation involving the British Secretary of State for the Colonies and the foreign telegraph section of the British Post Office on behalf of the Canadian National Railway, the government of Morocco and the French colonial office agreed to cede the CN letters to the railway. The Department of Marine and Fisheries also agreed that the railway could use the letter “R”. Thus, CNRO was born with the “O” indicating Ottawa. The railway’s other radio stations adopted similar identification letters, with the last indicating the city, for example, CNRM became the railway’s Montreal station, and CNRE its Edmonton station. The CNR’s Moncton station became CNRA since the “M” was already used for Montreal.

CNRO continued to broadcast from the Jackson Building until mid-1929 when it moved to new quarters on the eighth floor of the newly completed east wing of the Château Laurier Hotel.

In 1933, the station was taken over by the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the forerunner of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). With the change in ownership, the station’s call letters were changed from CNRO to CRCO. In 1937, when the CBC assumed control of the station it became known as CBO.

CBO radio continued to broadcast from the Château Laurier Hotel until 2004 when it moved to the new CBC Ottawa broadcast centre on Sparks Street.

Sources:

Gazette, 1924. “To Broadcast Results,” 18 March.

Nanaimo Daily News, 1924. “Radio Stations Are To Have Busy Week,” 26 April.

Ottawa Citizen, 1924. “Successful Test of Radio Station CKCH,” 26 February.

——————, 1924. “Station CKCH Opens,” 27 February.

——————, 1924. “Sir Henry Thornton Officiates At Opening of C.N. Radio Station,” 27 February.

——————, 1924. “Watching the Game Through Eyes of Station CKCH,” 12 March.

——————, 1924. “Game Broadcast by Station CKCH,” 19 March.

——————, 1924. “Radio Time Signals,” 27 March.

——————, 1924. “Pro Musicians Will Charge For Radioing,” 1 April.

——————, 1924. “Reports on Roads About the Capital,” 24 April.

——————, 1924. “Record Reception of Station CKCH,” 26 April.

——————, 1924. “Canadian National Radio System Has New Call Letters,” 16 July.

——————, 1924. “Many Pages in Radio History Have Been Written by Ottawa,” 8 October.

——————, 1929. “Broadcasting Public Address System Provides Unique Kind of Accommodation for Guests,” 5 June.

Ottawa Journal, 1921. “Will Broadcast Local Concert,” 10 August.

——————-, 1922. “Quotations For Babson’s Statistical Organization,” 1 May.

——————-, 1922. “Ottawa Radio Concerts,” 4 October.

——————-. 1922. “Radio Concert Was Rare Treat,” 30 October.

——————-. 1922. “Delightful Concert By Radio Telephony,” 16 November.

——————-, 1924. “Ottawa’s Radio Station,” 27 February.

——————-, 1924. “Thousands View New Radio Station Where Sound Can Be Magnified Just Million Times Greater To The Ear,” 28 February.

——————-, 1924. “Cost About $18,000 To Erect CKCH,” 14 April.

——————-, 1924. “Road Information Over The Wireless,” 25 April.

Radio Age, 1924. Corrected List of Broadcasting Stations, April.

Urbsite, 2015. The Jackson Building’s Many Lives, 8 September, http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-jackson-buildings-many-lives.html.

Windsor Star, 1924. “C.N. Employees Are Inspired By Thornton,” 28 February.

Earthquake!

28 February 1925

When most Canadians or Americans think of earthquake-prone areas, what first comes to mind is the west coast of North America, especially California, the site of many memorable earthquakes, including the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 which destroyed over 80 per cent of the city and killed roughly 3,000 people. Baseball fans of a certain age will also recall the Loma Prieta quake that hit the San Francisco area in 1989 and disrupted Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. 67 people lost their lives and close to 4,000 people were injured in that disaster. Property damage was estimated at $5 billion.

Both of these San Francisco earthquakes occurred on the 1,200 kilometre-long San Andreas Fault, the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate, which is sliding northward, and the North American Plate which is moving southward. The fault is part of the “Ring of Fire,” an area prone to earthquakes and volcanoes that follows the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean.  The Loma Prieta quake had a magnitude of 6.9 on the moment magnitude scale (Mw). The moment magnitude, which is typically used today, is calculated slightly differently from the older but better known Richter scale developed by Charles Richter in 1935. But both scales measure the magnitude of the earth’s movement as detected by a seismograph on a logarithmic scale. The moment magnitude scale is more accurate, especially for large earthquakes. The 1906 quake is estimated to have had a magnitude of 7.9 Mw. Although it was only one step larger on the logarithmic scale than the 1989 temblor, it released roughly 32 times more energy (101.5). A two-step increase in magnitude would release 1,000 times more energy (103).

Vancouver and Victoria are Canada’s most earthquake-prone cities. They are located in the Cascadia subduction zone, a 1,000 kilometre-long fault that stretches along the west coast from the top of Vancouver Island down to northern California. Three tectonic plates, the Explorer, the Juan de Fuca and the Gorda, are moving east under the North American plate. This area has been hit by several major earthquakes in the past, including a massive one in 1700 centred off of  Vancouver Island that had an estimated magnitude of 8.7 to 9.0 Mw. In other words, it released roughly 32 times more energy than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and more than 1,000 times more energy than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In 1949, an 8.1 Mw tremblor hit the Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) region, north of Vancouver Island.

After the western metropolises of British Columbia, the next most seismically active cities are Montreal and, believe it or not, Ottawa. Both cities are located in the Western Quebec Seismic Zone which has two sub-zones, one along the Ottawa River and the other from Maniwaki, north of Ottawa, to Montreal. Incredibly, there is on average one earthquake every five days in this region. To the east of the Western Quebec Seismic Zone is the even more active Charlevoix Seismic Zone, located close to Quebec City along the St Lawrence. Here, one earthquake is recorded on average every one and one half days. Of course, the vast majority of the earthquakes in both zones are only small earth trembles that are scarcely noticed except by seismographs—but not always. A powerful earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7 Mw struck the Charlevoix-Kamouraska area in 1663, followed by nine days of aftershocks.

Earthquakes, Natural Resources Canada
The Western Quebec Seismic Zone. The dots represent earthquakes of magnitude 3 or higher since the beginning of the twentieth century. Source: Natural Resources Canada.

Seismic activity in this part of Canada is not well understood. Much of central-eastern Canada is covered by the Canadian Shield, a massive, ancient, and stable rock formation that makes up the interior of the North American Plate. Lacking plate boundaries, this is not a locale that one typically associates with earthquakes. According to Natural Resources Canada, eastern Canadian earthquakes are due to “regional stress fields” and are concentrated in areas of “crustal weakness.” The end of the last ice age, which had caused land once pressed down by the weight of glaciers to rebound, may be a factor. Some scientists believe that “post-glacial rebound stress” has directly caused earthquakes, or has reactivated old faults which have led to earthquakes.

Ottawa residents are likely to remember the moderate magnitude 5.0 Mw earthquake that struck the nation’s capital in late June 2010. The epicentre was located roughly 60 kilometres north of Ottawa near Buckingham, Quebec. It was felt in Toronto, Montreal and south to New Jersey in the United States. Damage was slight. Some windows were broken, and power was cut in parts of downtown. No injuries were reported.

This earthquake was reportedly the strongest Ottawa had experienced in sixty-five years. That earlier earthquake struck on 28 February 1925 at 9.20.17 pm Eastern Standard Time. The capital was shaken by a 6.2 Mw earthquake whose epicentre was located near Shawinigan, Quebec, 260 kilometres distant, in the Charlevoix Seismic Zone. So strong was the quake that it was felt more than 1,000 kilometres away. On the Modified Mercalli Index, which measures an earthquake’s intensity or effects as opposed to the amount of energy released, the earthquake reached level VIII (severe) (out of ten grades) in the area close to the epicentre. At this level, people panic, trees are shaken strongly, and there is widespread building damage, including fallen chimneys, walls and pillars.

While the epicentre of the 1925 earthquake was more than 200 kilometers further away than the 2010 earthquake, its effects on Ottawa were considerably larger owing to its increased magnitude. A 6.2 Mw earthquake is almost 16 times bigger than a 5 Mw earthquake and is 63 times stronger in terms of energy released.   After the earthquake, The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the capital had not seen such excitement since Armistice Day that ended the Great War in 1918. Fortunately, there were no injuries and property damage was slight.

The 1925 earthquake lasted ten minutes or longer in some locales, though tremors apparently continued for several hours, keeping anxious citizens awake through the night wondering whether a still larger quake was still to come. Residents of Sandy Hill and Ottawa South were the worst affected in Ottawa, mostly likely because of the soft clay on which these neighbourhoods sit. Some people became nauseated by the rolling motion underfoot which was described like “the swaying of a rapidly moving train or the rolling of a small boat.” This was followed by an intense up and down bumping, accompanied in some areas by a low, thunder-like noise, or rumble. The earth’s movement was most strongly felt by those in the upper floors of apartment buildings, especially those situated close to the Victoria Memorial Museum (now called the Museum of Nature). At the Queen Mary Apartments on the corner of Elgin and McLeod Streets, walls and ceilings cracked, furniture bumped, plaster fell from walls, china rolled off of plate rails, and doors creaked. In the nearby Mackenzie Apartments, several windows broke while on the upper floors plaster dust covered furniture and mirrors broke. Many residents rushed from the building in panic. At the Victoria Memorial Museum, plaster fell from the walls. Oddly, cracks in the entranceway closed, making it the only building to have possibly benefited from the earthquake. The building, which was constructed on clay, had been plagued with cracks since it was completed in 1911. Indeed, the tower above the main entrance had to be removed a few years after the museum was completed for reasons of public safety owing to settling.

At the Auditorium on Argyle Street, the Ottawa Senators had just started the second period of a game with their arch rivals the Montreal Canadiens when the earthquake struck. With the teams locked 0-0, many of the rabid 8,000 fans in the Ottawa Auditorium didn’t at first notice anything was amiss. A loud noise that rattle the arena was attributed to an automobile that had just completed an advertising tour of the rink during the first intermission. According to The Globe newspaper, the arena vibrated violently. A crash, possibly due to a falling window, almost sparked a panic. However, once the vibrations eased, people settled down again to continue watching the game. On the ice, the Ottawa goalie, Alex Connell, thought he was becoming ill. A “shimmy” under his feet made him feel dizzy. He called out to his defencemen that he felt funny. (For those who are wondering, the Senators went on to beat the Canadiens 1-0.)

At the Lisgar Collegiate, a musical event was underway in the school’s auditorium. Miss Roxie Carrier was on stage singing a solo as the Belle of Antiquera in a production of the Spanish operetta “El Bandido.” When the earthquake struck and built in intensity causing the floor and walls to sway, members of the audience began to panic. Shrieks from the balcony brought people to the feet. Many started to head to the exits. However, the presence of mind of Miss Carrier, who calmly remained on stage, as well as the prompt response of the ushers and policemen settled the audience who returned to their seats.

In the hours following the initial shocks, in what may have been an international first, Ottawa’s radio station, CNRO of the Canadian National Railways, broadcasted full and authoritative news updates about the earthquake, relaying the latest information from the Dominion Observatory, which was monitoring the tremors with its seismograph, and from railway agents through the Canadian National Telegraphs. These news reports did much to allay the fears of area residents who were concerned for the safety of absent loved ones. Mr J. G. McMurtrie, superintendent of broadcasting at CNRO, said that the shock was plainly felt at their studio. Conditions were quite alarming for a time at their operating room on the roof of the Jackson building, one hundred and twelve feet above Bank Street.

Although Ottawa was badly shaken, damage was slight. Other cities experienced more serious effects. In Quebec City, there was a general panic. A section of Union Station’s roof was damaged and many windows were broken. Several poorly-built shacks on the city’s outskirts were reportedly flattened. In Montreal, a fire started in the furnace room of St James’s Basilica owing to a broken fuel line causing $10,000-15,000 damage. A stone church in St Hilarion, Quebec also collapsed. Although details are sketchy, newspapers attributed the deaths of two women to the earthquake, one in Trois-Rivières and another in Toronto, due to fright.

Roughly ten years later in November 1935, the same area, including Ottawa, was shaken by another serious earthquake, this time a slightly smaller magnitude 6.1 Mw tremblor centred in Timiskaming in the Western Quebec Seismic Zone 360 kilometres from Ottawa. Again, although the capital region received a good shaking, there was little damage.  The most significant effect was a landslide in Parent, Quebec which took out a section of the Canadian National Railway line.

With increased awareness of Ottawa’s vulnerability to seismic disturbances, work has been undertaken to assess and strengthen existing buildings, such as the Bank of Canada’s head office on Wellington Street, and the Museum of Nature on McLeod Street. Fortunately, the Parliament Buildings are constructed on solid rock and are less susceptible to damage from earthquakes. A major quake could however cause serious damage to historic masonry buildings in the Byward Market area. Timber-framed homes, even those that are externally brick-clad, are likely to fare relatively well as timber frames can flex in response to tremors. Natural Resources Canada’s website provides a useful list of things that can be done to protect our homes from damage in the event of a significant earthquake.

Some words of caution: when earthquakes occur, our natural reaction is to run outside. However, studies have shown that it’s better to drop down, and cover your head preferably close to an interior wall or, better still, under a sturdy table, and wait until the shaking stops. Being outside exposes people to the risk of falling glass, masonry and other debris, a particular concern in high-rise urban areas. If you are outdoors, get away from buildings. If you are in a car, pull over and stay away, if you can, from anything that might collapse such as buildings, overpasses or bridges. Good luck to all should “the big one” strike!

Sources:

CBC. 2011. 2010 quake led Ottawa to change policies, 23 June.

Earthquake Alliance, 2018. How to protect yourself in an earthquake, https://www.earthquakecountry.org/dropcoverholdon/.

Globe (The), 1925, “Eastern Canada and U.S. Shaken By Earthquakes,” 2 March.

Montreal Gazette (The), 1925. “Great Mass Of Rock In Earth’s Crust Slipped,” 2 March.

—————————-, 1925. “Seismic Narrative Told By Broadcast To Radio Fans,” 2 March.

—————————-, 1925. “Fought Blaze In Furnace Room Of St. James Basilica,” 2 March.

Natural Resources Canada, 2016. Earthquakes Canada,” http://www.earthquakescanada.ca/index-en.php.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 2017. “A major earthquake could hit Ottawa. Are we prepared?” 21 April.

————————-, 2017. “Magnitude 3.3 earthquake shakes Ottawa-Gatineau,” 14 August.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1925. “Villages Are Terrified As ‘Quake Wrecks Church.” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “Quake Closes Cracks In Victoria Museum,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “Many Tenants Of Apartments Were Alarmed,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “Ottawa Severely Rocked By Heaviest Earthquake Recorded For Centuries,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “Miss Carrier IS Heroine At School Event,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “First Shock Worst Down Quebec City,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “People Of Ottawa Relate Earthquake Adventures,” 2 March.

—————————, 1935, “Locate Centre of ‘Quake 200 miles From Ottawa,” 1 November.

—————————, 1935. “Ottawa Shaken Today By Three Earth Tremors,” 2 November.

Wu, Patrick and Johnston, Paul, 2000. “Can deglaciation trigger earthquakes in N. America?” Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 29 pps.1323-1326, 1 May.

“Hello Ottawa–Hello Montreal”

20 May 1920

At the turn of the twentieth century, radio was the new, cutting-edge technology. Building on the work of others, including Nikola Tesla, Édouard Branly, and Jagadish Bose, the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi established in the early years of the century a wireless telegraph system using a spark-gap transmitter that could send transatlantic radio messages in Morse code. The first such radio transmission, greetings from U.S. President Roosevelt to King Edward VII, was sent in 1903. Subsequently, ships began to be equipped with radio transmitters and receivers; radio distress signals sent by the RMS Titanic using Marconi equipment are credited with saving hundreds of lives in 1912. The Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden demonstrated the feasibility of audio radio using continuous waves by sending a two-way voice message in 1906 between Machrihanish, Scotland and Brant Rock, Massachusetts.  On Christmas Eve of that year, he broadcasted a short programme of music by Handel, his own rendition of some Christmas carols, and a reading from the Bible to ships at sea along the eastern seaboard of the United States from his Brant Rock base of operations. World War I brought further major technological advances, including the invention of the vacuum tube and the transceiver (a unit with both a radio transmitter and receiver), that spurred the development of commercial radio. By 1920, the world stood on the cusp of a new radio age with instantaneous, wireless, audio communication and entertainment.

On 19 May 1920, the Royal Society of Canada convened in Ottawa for its 39th Annual Meeting. The Society had been founded in 1882 with the patronage of the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne, to promote scientific research in Canada. Society fellows gathered at the Victoria Memorial Museum for the opening of the conference, chaired by the Society’s president, Dr R. F. Ruttan of McGill University, and for the election of new fellows. They subsequently broke into specialist groups, to hear addresses on a variety of topics, including plant pathology, and the properties of super-conductors. That evening, President Ruttan gave the presidential address in the ballroom of the Château Laurier Hotel. The topic of his speech was “International Co-operation in Science.” The general public was cordially welcomed to attend this presentation, and another to be held the following evening at the same venue by Dr A.S. Eve, also of McGill University.

Dr Eve’s lecture commenced at 8.30pm on 20 May. Its intriguing title was “Some Great War Inventions.” Among the discoveries he discussed was the detection of submarines. Canadians had been on the forefront of this research, starting with Reginald Fessenden who pioneered underwater communications and echo-ranging to detect icebergs following the Titanic disaster. Subsequently, Canadian physicist Robert Boyle developed ASDIC in 1917, the first practical underwater sound detector machine, or sonar, for the Anti-Submarine Division of the Royal Navy. At the evening’s presentation, Dr Eve also demonstrated the advances made in the radio-telephone. At 9.44pm, the Society fellows and members of the public heard the words “Hello Ottawa—Hello Montreal” over a large loudspeaker called a “Magnavox,” set up in the Château Laurier’s ball room. The first public wireless conversation in Canada had begun.

Marconi Radio Station, CFCF, formerly XWA, Montreal, circa 1922

Marconi Radio Station, CFCF, formerly XWA, Montreal, circa 1922

For two days, engineers from the Canadian Marconi Company in Montreal and officers of the Naval Radio Station on Wellington Street in Ottawa had laboured to prepare for the event. The experimental radio station, located on the top floor of the Marconi building on William Street in Montreal, operated under the call letters “XWA” for “Experimental Wireless Apparatus.” It had first gone on the air on 1 December 1919 on an experimental basis. Another transmitting and receiver station was established at the Naval Radio Station, with a secondary receiving station set up at the Château Laurier, with an amplifier to ensure all attending Dr Eve’s presentation could hear the broadcast. At the Montreal end, Mr J. Cann, chief engineer for the Marconi Company, was in charge, while at the Naval Radio Station in Ottawa was Mr Arthur Runciman, also from the Marconi Company. Assisting Runciman were engineers, Mr D. Mason, and Mr J. Arial. Also present were Mr E. Hawken, the commanding officer of the Marine Department, and his wife. Stationed at the receiving station in the Château Laurier were Commander C. Edwards, director of the Canadian Radio Service and Lieutenant J. Thompson, his assistant. Journalists covering the historic radio broadcast were based at the Naval Radio Station.

Following the introductory exchange of words, the notes of “Dear Old Pal of Mine,” a 1918 hit song, sung by the Irish tenor John McCormick and played on a phonograph in Montreal, could be distinctly heard in Ottawa. This was followed by a one-step ballroom dance tune popular at the time. So well could the orchestra be heard, the Ottawa Journal reporter wrote that some of his colleagues listening to the broadcast at the Naval Station actually started an impromptu dance.

After the dance tune, one of the radio operators in Montreal delivered a speech prepared earlier by Dr Ruttan on behalf of the Royal Society of Canada in which he congratulated the Marconi Company and the Radio-Telegraph Branch of the Department of Naval Service for “their generous co-operation in this difficult scientific experiment.” Following a short pause, Society follows were treated to a live performance from Montreal of the early nineteenth century Irish folk ballad “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore and sung by vocalist Dorothy Lutton. She sang a second song, “Merrily Shall I Live” as an encore.

It was then Ottawa’s turn to communicate to Montreal. The Ottawa operator first explained the radio experiment to his listeners. This was followed by Mr. E. Hawken singing the first verse of “Annie Laurie,” an old Scottish song that begins “Maxwelton’s braes are bonnie.” Receiving a wild round of applause from his Château Laurier audience, Hawken was persuaded to sing the second verse. Hawken’s performance was followed by the transmission of several dance tunes played on a phonograph. The evening’s programme concluded with hearty congratulations sent in both directions.

Dr Eve’s demonstration of radio telephony was deemed a huge success. The wireless operators in Ottawa and Montreal were elated. Never before had two-way radio communication had been achieved over such a long distance—110 miles (177 kilometres). The broadcast, at least at the Ottawa end, and especially at the Château Laurier where the signal was boosted by an amplifier, was generally clear and distinct. However, listeners at the Marconi station in Montreal had a more difficult time picking up the signal from Ottawa. Marconi officials explained that reception was adversely affected by  interference from Montreal’s large buildings. There were apparently some tense minutes as Montreal listeners wearing headphones tried to decipher the sounds coming from the capital.

The broadcast launched Canada into the radio age. Some radio historians argue that the 20 May radio performance by Marconi’s XWA station to the Royal Society’s meeting in Ottawa was the first scheduled radio broadcast in Canada, and possibly the world. XWA became CFCF in November 1922. Reputedly, the call letters stood for “Canada’s First, Canada’s Finest.” The station’s call letters were changed to CIQC in 1991, and to CINW in 1999. The station went off the air in 2010.

 

Sources:

Broadcaster, 2001, 100 Years of Radio: Celebrating 100 years of radio broadcasting, http://www.broadcastermagazine.com/news/100-years-of-radio-celebrating-100-years-of-radio-broadcasting/1000108605/?&er=NA.

Canadian Communications Foundation, Radio Station History, http://www.broadcasting-history.ca/index3.html?url=http%3A//www.broadcasting-history.ca/listings_and_histories/radio/histories.php%3Fid%3D492%26historyID%3D243.

Historica Canada, Broadcasting, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/broadcasting-emc/.

The Citizen, 1920. “May Meeting of The Royal Society of Canada Opens,” 19 May.

The Gazette, 1920. “Wireless Concert Given For Ottawa,” Montreal, 21 May.

————–, 1920. “Heard In Ottawa.” Montreal, 21 May.

The Ottawa Journal, 1920. “Ottawa Hears Montreal Concert Over the Wireless Telephone, Experiment Complete Success,” 21 May.

Université de Sherbrooke, Bilan du Siècle, “Diffusion d’une émission radiophonique directe, ” http://bilan.usherbrooke.ca/bilan/pages/evenements/20173.html.

Vipond, Mary, 1992. Listening In: The First Decade of Canadian Broadcasting, 1922-32, Carleton University Press: Ottawa.

Image: CFCF Radio, Montreal, author unknown, Université de Sherbrooke, Bilan du Siècle, “Diffusion d’une émission radiophonique directe,” http://bilan.usherbrooke.ca/bilan/pages/evenements/20173.html.