Early San Francisco
By John F. Schneider
Experiments in radio voice transmission began in San Francisco as early as the discovery of the art itself. History tells us that Lee DeForest demonstrated the first practical radiotelephone in 1907, utilizing his invention, the Audion tube. Prior to that, several experimenters succeeded in transmitting the human voice, although their devices were not entirely practical for one reason or another.
Professor Reginald Fessenden of the University of Pittsburgh first transmitted the voice in 1900 while experimenting for the U.S. Weather Bureau. He used a spark transmitter for this experiment, and the noise produced by the spark rendered his voice almost completely unintelligible.
On December 11, 1906, he succeeded in transmitting a clear and intelligible signal from his laboratory in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. He used a high-speed alternator specially designed for the purpose by Ernst Alexanderson of the Westinghouse Electric Co. The alternator, while able to produce a clear continuous wave signal, was prohibitively expensive for most uses, and not practical for use on shipboard, where most of the need for radio existed at the time.
During this same period, experiments in the transmission of the human voice were taking place in San Francisco. However, due to the untimely death of the young experimenter, Francis McCarty, his work has been largely forgotten by history.
Francis J. McCarty was born in Hayes Valley in 1888, and later moved to San Francisco. Inventiveness was already a part of his heritage; his grandfather, William Lynch, had patented a type of glass tile flooring he called “Lynch’s Illuminating Ventilating Tile.” His uncle, Dan “White Hat” McCarty had been locally known by wireless enthusiasts for his early work in wireless telegraphy.
Francis’ only schooling was at St. Ignatius’ College (now the University of San Francisco), which he left at the age of twelve. But his lack of formal schooling did not detract from his interest in educating himself. His brother Ignatius recalled, “He was always studying and tinkering. He was a great one for going around and getting information…” He related his brother’s earliest experiments to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in 1950:
Francis started his experiments to demonstrate that the Hertzian wave would transmit voice in 1902, when we lived on Hermann Street, near the Mint. We used to take the apparatus out to Golden Gate Park, and talk across Stow Lake.
People used to ask us what we were doing, and we told them, “Talking by wireless telephone,” I guess. They thought we were nuts … but wouldn’t you?
The lanky young boy – he was nearly six feet tall, and just fourteen at the time – experimented in his spare time, when he was not working at his job as an apprentice electrician. The year after the Stow Lake experiments, he made his first transmission of any notable distance. Stationed by a receiver at his home at Gough and Grove Streets, he heard his brother’s voice transmitted from the top of Mount Olympus, nearly two miles away.
In the ensuing two years, McCarty continued to improve and test his spark telephone. He achieved a distance of seven miles over water, and was convinced that its range could be made to equal that of the wireless telegraph.
Realizing the value of his experiments, McCarty contacted lawyers in an effort to patent his device, and to seek advice on marketing his “wireless telephone.” His attorneys, L. Seidenberg and George M. Davis, urged him to find financial backing. Ignatius McCarty recalled his brother’s efforts to attract monetary assistance:
I remember that he called one day on Senator Phelan, in his office in the Phelan Building. “You mean to tell me,” the Senator said, “that I could sit here in my office and talk to someone in an office on the other side of Market Street, without the use of telephone wires?” Francis told him yes, it could be done by means of his invention, the wireless telephone.
“Why,” Senator Phelan said, “that is absurd. The waves, or whatever they are, would get mixed up with all the street sounds. If he could get the waves from my voice, he gets the waves from the horse cars, carriages and everything else on the street. He wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails out of what I was saying.”
People in those days just couldn’t conceive of the independent radio wave, as we know it, cutting through and penetrating all the other sound waves. It just wasn’t possible, they thought, to transmit the voice, except by wires, as in the telephone.
However, McCarty persisted, and at length attracted interested backers, notably John McCann, former Sheriff of San Joaquin County. Together, they organized the McCarty Wireless Telephone Company, and issued 200,000 shares of stock, selling at a dollar a share. Francis received 100,050 shares, and controlling interest in the company.
The investor’s brochure issued by the company made a presentation intended to discourage views such as Senator Phelan’s. Centered on the first page in large letters was the statement, “Things move along so rapidly now-a-days that people who say ‘It can’t be done’ are interrupted by somebody doing it.”
The pamphlet went on to tell of some of the fields which could be opened up at enormous profit by a wireless telephone having a range of only five miles. It mentioned communication with ships at sea, with trains in motion, with remote mining areas and lumber camps, with islands, and with ambulances and ammunition wagons in the field in time of war.
The public was first introduced to McCarty’s wireless telephone at a public demonstration given at the Cliff House on September 2, 1905. Newspaper reporters were invited to attend the demonstration. McCarty and his assistants erected their equipment in the Cliff House carpenter shop, located in the basement.
The reporters were allowed to inspect the transmitter and antenna strung to the top of the Cliff House. They dug trenches around the building to assure themselves there were no underground wires connected to the equipment. They then stationed themselves at the receiver, located a mile down the beach, in the storeroom of the vacant “Cycler’s Rest.” Here again, they inspected the receiver, and inspected the antenna strung from the cupola of the building. Finally, they announced that everything was in order, and stationed themselves at their headsets.
An assistant waved a large white handkerchief from a bamboo pole. This was the sign to McCarty that the reporters were ready to begin the demonstration. McCarty switched on his transmitter. The first voice sounded, as the Chronicle reporter put it, “like the far hum of bees.”
The assistant again waved his banner, and McCarty increased the power at the transmitter. The reporter relates, “The sound came in stronger – something like the tantalizing tones of a worn-out phonograph. The ‘Hello! Hello!’ was guessable, but the rest was a jumble of indeterminable vowel sounds.”
Once more McCarty stepped up his power, and the voices grew clearer. He began to sing. The newspapermen heard “Auld Lang Syne” from start to finish without missing a note. This was followed by “Hiawatha,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” “Holy City” and “Home Sweet Home.” Between the songs, McCarty would call out, “Hello! Hello! Is this Mr. Seidenberg? Is this Mr. Davis? Is this Mr. McAlfrey? This is McCarty at the Cliff House.”
After singing his five selections, McCarty, to the accompaniment of breakers on the beach, bid the reporters a farewell with “That’s all; that’s all.”
The reporters were aghast at the demonstration. To their knowledge, nothing like what they had just heard had ever been done before. The Chronicle reporter commented, “It appears that a San Francisco boy, just past seventeen, has solved the problem which gray-bearded scientists have declared impossible of solution.”
Of course, as mentioned earlier, Fessenden had succeeded in transmitting the voice as early as 1900, two years before McCarty’s first experiments. However, he felt his experiments were unsuccessful, because of the very raspy sound obtained, and continued his experiments until he was able to transmit a “clean” signal with the alternator, a year after McCarty’s Cliff House demonstration.
Thus, the question of whether or not McCarty’s transmission represented a significant milestone depends on whether or not the sound quality of his apparatus was significantly better than Fessenden’s. The Chronicle reporter made this statement of the sound quality:
It’s true that the sounds were faint and that some guessing was necessary to make sense out of the experimental message, but McCarty proved that he could transmit the human voice over a mile of space with the “antennae” or overhead wires used in wireless telegraphy.
The newspaper publicity attained from the Cliff House demonstration attracted considerable public attention, and McCarty was soon giving lectures and demonstrations all over the city. One person who became interested in his work was Prentiss Cobb Hale of Hale’s Department Store. Hale invited McCarty to give one of his presentations at the store, and it was this introduction to radio that eventually sparked Hale’s interest enough to open a station of his own at the store, KPO, seventeen years later. In another demonstration at the Native Son’s Hall, McCarty explained that his wireless telephone could be used in time of war to blow up battleships.
Meanwhile, experimental stations of the “McCarty Wireless Telephone Company” were being installed. One was constructed in a shack at the Sunset Sand Dunes, at approximately what is now 45th Avenue and Lawton Street. Ignatius recalled:
Sometimes, while it was being built, we used to sleep in the shack. Frequently, we’d wake up in the morning and have to shovel our way out the front door through the sand that had drifted waist-high against it during the night.
The McCarty Wireless Telephone Company seemed destined for success. Indeed, all of San Francisco was optimistic about its future during the first months of 1906. However, this optimism was shattered the morning of April 18, 1906, the day of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. The terrific destruction of that day changed things greatly for San Franciscans, and the mark it left on the McCarty Wireless Telephone Company would not be erased.
The earthquake not only interrupted McCarty’s work. Public pre-occupation with the disaster in the months to follow caused them to all but forget about the young boy’s experiments. This lost public interest would never be regained.
During the reconstruction period, the company offices were moved to Broadway and Twelfth Street in Oakland. Because he now needed transportation to and from Oakland, McCarty bought what was known as a “rent collector’s cart,” a small two-wheeled cart without a top he could take to and from work on the Bay ferry.
About a month after the earthquake, another disaster struck the Company. Late in the afternoon, soon after McCarty started home from his Oakland office, a pedestrian stepped into the road directly in front of his cart.
McCarty swerved the cart toward the sidewalk, and its wheels crashed into the high curbing. McCarty was thrown out of the cart and hurled against a telephone pole. Three days later, he was dead, just two weeks short of his eighteenth birthday.
McCarty had been the impetus behind the Company’s existence. Without his inventive genius, much of the Company’s momentum was lost. However, his brother Ignatius tried to carry on the operations. The station in the sand dunes shack continued to be operated, along with the experimental stations set up in St. Ignatius’ College and at Hayes and Schrader Streets.
Dick Johnstone of Larkspur remembers hearing the station’s experimental transmissions about 1908, in what may have been the world’s first recorded music program. He said,
I recall the amateur station of the McCarty boys located on Hayes Street, near Ashbury in San Francisco. He used an ‘arc’ transmitter, and the hiss from the arc was continuous. He played a phonograph record from time to time, and one time I called my mother in to listen to the record playing, ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling.’
The Company itself was a financial failure. After McCarty’s death, the value of the stock dropped, and in the crisis, the stock was unwisely handled. In 1907, DeForest’s Audion tube transmitter was introduced. The practicality of his equipment was far superior to the McCarty design. Finally, about 1908, there didn’t seem to be much purpose in going on with the experiments.
William Horsfall, one of Ignatius McCarty’s most active assistants in the latter years of the Company, recalls how it all ended:
I accompanied Ignatius and a couple of priests from the College to the shack in the sand dunes. We went out in a horse and wagon, gathered up the equipment and material, and took it back to the College. After that, the station was abandoned.
Thus, what began as a revolutionary concept ended in obscurity and failure. Francis McCarty, the teen-aged boy genius, died before his ideas could ever bear fruit. It can only be speculated how things would have turned out had the McCarty Wireless Telephone Company been a success, or what other devices McCarty might have lived to invent.
Copyright © 1996 John F. Schneider. All rights reserved.
Francis J. McCarty was elected into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in 2011 in honor of his pioneering experiments in broadcasting
Invention and Innovation in the Radio Industry. MacLaurin, W. Rupert. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1949.
The History of Radio to 1926. Archer, Gleason L. New York: American Historical Society, Inc., 1938.
San Francisco Chronicle, “The McCarty Wireless Telephone.” O’Brien, Robert. April 3, 5 and 7, 1950.
The Loudspeaker, published by Hale Bros., Inc., January 23, 1926. From KNBR historical files.
Chronicle, September 3, 1905.
Letter to the author from Dick Johnstone, veteran amateur radio operator. Larkspur, California, December 1970.