Milestone-Proposal:Emergence of public radiobroadcasting with experimental station XWA, 1919

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Docket #:2020-01

This proposal has been submitted for review.

To the proposer’s knowledge, is this achievement subject to litigation? No

Is the achievement you are proposing more than 25 years old? Yes

Is the achievement you are proposing within IEEE’s designated fields as defined by IEEE Bylaw I-104.11, namely: Engineering, Computer Sciences and Information Technology, Physical Sciences, Biological and Medical Sciences, Mathematics, Technical Communications, Education, Management, and Law and Policy. Yes

Did the achievement provide a meaningful benefit for humanity? Yes

Was it of at least regional importance? Yes

Has an IEEE Organizational Unit agreed to pay for the milestone plaque(s)? Yes

Has the IEEE Section(s) in which the plaque(s) will be located agreed to arrange the dedication ceremony? Yes

Has the IEEE Section in which the milestone is located agreed to take responsibility for the plaque after it is dedicated? Yes

Has the owner of the site agreed to have it designated as an IEEE Milestone? Yes

Year or range of years in which the achievement occurred:


Title of the proposed milestone:

Emergence of Radio Broadcasting with Experimental Station XWA, 1919-1920

Plaque citation summarizing the achievement and its significance:

By December 1919, from this site, licensed experimental station XWA (later named CFCF) was broadcasting regular programs of recorded music and news, helping to establish commercial radio. On 20 May 1920, XWA broadcast a live radio event, reaching an audience assembled in Ottawa, 170 km away. The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of Canada used a 500W YC-3 military transmitter and adapted wireless telephony technology for this achievement.

200-250 word abstract describing the significance of the technical achievement being proposed, the person(s) involved, historical context, humanitarian and social impact, as well as any possible controversies the advocate might need to review.

IEEE technical societies and technical councils within whose fields of interest the Milestone proposal resides.

In what IEEE section(s) does it reside?

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) which have agreed to sponsor the Milestone:

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) paying for milestone plaque(s):

Unit: IEEE Montreal Section
Senior Officer Name: Saida Maaroufi

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) arranging the dedication ceremony:

Unit: IEEE Montreal Section
Senior Officer Name: Saida Maaroufi

IEEE section(s) monitoring the plaque(s):

IEEE Section: IEEE Montreal Section
IEEE Section Chair name: Saida Maaroufi

Milestone proposer(s):

Proposer name: Ghyslain Gagnon
Proposer email: Proposer's email masked to public

Please note: your email address and contact information will be masked on the website for privacy reasons. Only IEEE History Center Staff will be able to view the email address.

Street address(es) and GPS coordinates in decimal form of the intended milestone plaque site(s):

1041 William Street, Montreal, QC 45.495323, -73.561050

Describe briefly the intended site(s) of the milestone plaque(s). The intended site(s) must have a direct connection with the achievement (e.g. where developed, invented, tested, demonstrated, installed, or operated, etc.). A museum where a device or example of the technology is displayed, or the university where the inventor studied, are not, in themselves, sufficient connection for a milestone plaque.

Please give the address(es) of the plaque site(s) (GPS coordinates if you have them). Also please give the details of the mounting, i.e. on the outside of the building, in the ground floor entrance hall, on a plinth on the grounds, etc. If visitors to the plaque site will need to go through security, or make an appointment, please give the contact information visitors will need. Located on the ETS Engineering School campus.

Are the original buildings extant?

The building is no longer there. The neighboring buildings (Lowney chocolate factory) are still standing and interestingly, we even see the demarcation on its brickwall from the old Marconi Telegraph Building.

Details of the plaque mounting:

The plaque will be mounted on a pedestal (see picture). There will also be an explanatory board next to the pedestal with pictures and further historic explanations.

How is the site protected/secured, and in what ways is it accessible to the public?

Outside, accessible to the public.

Who is the present owner of the site(s)?

Ecole de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) engineering school.

What is the historical significance of the work (its technological, scientific, or social importance)? If personal names are included in citation, include justification here. (see section 6 of Milestone Guidelines)


This milestone commemorates the invention and practical implementation of radiobroadcasting as a viable industry. The emergence of radiobroadcasting out of a world of wireless telegraphy happened in an era of turmoil that went from about 1912 to 1920. For the concept of radiobroadcasting to finally be invented, understood and implemented, several innovators had to explore, break new ground and finally open a new path for others to follow. These early pioneering years are not always well documented, and some achievements accomplished at the same time in Europe and North America, but it is clear that Montreal and its XWA experimental station played a significant role in defining this new path and designing a brand new industry.

The IEEE Pittsburgh Section erected in 1994 a plaque to remind us of the technical accomplishment of Westinghouse Radio Station KDKA, a pioneer of commercial radio broadcasting. This particular IEEE Milestone commemorates the beginning of KDKA scheduled programming with the Harding-Cox Presidential election returns on November 2, 1920. This event was the result of earlier experimental broadcasts carried-on by amateur radio station 8XK.

The proposed IEEE Montreal Section Milestone commemorates the pioneering engineering work of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of Canada and its XWA experimental station. XWA was licensed as an experimental station license at the end of 1914, carrying-out radiophone transmission tests as early as March 1919. Having grasped the potential of broadcasting in fall 1919, XWA established regular broadcasting test programming on the week nights of December 1919, broadcasting news, weather, recorded music and live music performances with a 500W transmitter for its Montreal audience. XWA transitioned to permanent programing with a 100 miles range “national” Montreal-Ottawa broadcasting event that captured the Canadian public imagination on May 20, 1920. The pioneering work of MWTCC and XWA engineers lead to the establishment of a significant number of commercial French- and English-language radio stations in May 1922 that brought live music, sports, theatre plays, social discussion and political debates into homes, significantly changing how Canadians consumed information and entertainment. As the industry continued to expand in the 1930s, these commercial stations provided the initial infrastructure for national radio and formed the basis for the public broadcasting system in Canada.

The State of the Art before January 1919

Following the pioneering work of Fessenden (1900-1906) and the development of the vacuum tube prior to WW1 (i.e. Fleming 1904, de Forest 1907, Armstrong 1912), a few experimental stations started leveraging Continuous Wave (CW) for voice and music transmission. While the first of these radiophone tests are typically limited to “narrowcast” (point-to-point) transmissions, broadcasting (one to many) tests seem to emerge in the Royal Palace of Laeken in Belgium (1914), in San Jose CA with 6XF (1915, following earlier tests) and in New-York City with 2XG (1916). This work and these stations are shut down by the war (Belgium in 1914, U.S. stations in 1917) and any commercial use of the spectrum is forbidden. Ultimately, the commercial possibilities of broadcasting were not to be recognized until 1919 and 1920 .

Technical accomplishments

With WW1 coming to an end, these early pre-war efforts are taken over in 1919 by La Haye in Holland (PCGG) and Montreal in Canada (XWA). Unlike all or most other commercial stations, XWA is able to conduct various tests and transmissions during the war, having been granted an experimental station license in late 1914 to help provide technical support and wireless operator training to the Canadian Army and Navy. Owned and operated by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of Canada (MWTCC), XWA is first located on the company Rodney Street factory in Montreal, before being moved in 1918 to the upper floor of the company new factory on William Street (Griffintown). A Gazette Newspaper article of the time shows that XWA is experimenting with radiophones and exploring new commercial applications of the technology as early as March 1919, months before the end of the war (June 28, 1919) and before the formal Canadian government restrictions to non-military use of the airwaves are lifted (April 15, 1919).

Starting in spring of 1919, XWA engineers are busy conducting numerous AM voice transmission tests over water and land in the Montreal area to characterize the channel and evaluate link performance in various environments including urban ones. Industrial applications such as providing voice communications to geographically-spread pulp & paper companies, power companies or to the aeroplanes of emerging transatlantic air transport companies are all considered in the spring of 1919. The local community of Radio amateurs and ships in the vicinity are recruited to help with the tests. When a more powerful 500W broadcast transmitter is used together with a gramophone in fall 1919 to occupy test time in the airwaves, the enthusiastic public response is decisive in convincing the MWTCC that commercial broadcasting may be a viable business opportunity . In fall 1919, the company sets-up its new ``Scientific Experimenter, Ltd`` branch at 33, McGill College Avenue to manage the sales and promotion of its radios and radio components to the general public thus facilitating the acquisition of radio broadcast receivers by amateurs. Regular audio broadcasting test programs start on December 1st with XWA broadcasting news, weather forecast, recorded music and even live music performances on Monday and Saturday afternoons and on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights . By January 1920, the original idea of using broadcasting as a way to significantly increase sales of radio apparatus has taken hold and MWTCC managing director A.J. Morse decides to gamble on this opportunity .

On May 20, 1920, and under the technical leadership of MWTCC Chief Engineer J.O.G. Cann, a national broadcasting event is organized between XWA Montreal and the Royal Canadian Society assembled in Ottawa and supported by the Canadian Naval Service. That night, a series of speeches, music recording and live music performances are broadcasted over more than 160km (100 miles) in both directions. This grand Montreal-Ottawa broadcasting night happened almost one month before the celebrated June 15, 1920 broadcasting event of the Marconi Chelmsford Works radio station in England.

The earliest production of commercial receivers emerges around this time with MWTCC Model C being designed at the William Street factory that same year (1920) and offered for sales to the general public in 1921. It consisted of three separate boxes, a passive tuner, a detector and a 2-tube amplifier. When complete with tubes, amplifier, antenna and batteries, the Model C was offered at 195 $CAN which at the time represented more than half the price of a brand new Ford Model-T car. Montreal-based Northern Electric Canada also offered a regenerative radio receiver kit (“Coupled Circuit Tuner with Tuned Feedback”) for amateurs in 1921 .

Social importance

Despite the high price of early broadcast receivers and the great depression in 1929, radiobroadcasting took the world by storm and demand for radio broadcast receiver exploded. News, weather and recorded music programs were quickly complemented by live music performances from permanent “radio orchestras” and by live concerts transmitted from places as remote as New-York, Newark, Pittsburg or Springfield . Radios spread to schools, Boy Scout clubs, barbershops and theaters while Amateurs clubs and specialized publications multiplied. By 1923, radio novels were captivating the public . By massively democratizing music and theater, radio had a profound impact on the people, which governments, including authoritarian ones , were quick to leverage. Between 1921 and 1931, the number of receivers in Canada went from 1226 to 763,446, a growth rate similar to the one the world would experience 70 years later with the Internet between 1991 and 2001 . The emergence of radio broadcasting in 1919 and 1920 also happened at the height of the suffragette movement in Canada . As a nascent industry, radiobroadcasting was an unclaimed territory under rapid development which gave women a public voice they had never been able to have before.

What obstacles (technical, political, geographic) needed to be overcome?

Typical of innovation work, many obstacles needed to be overcome by XWA engineers:

Technical obstacle: A ``Captain Round`` radiophone coupled to a 500 volt battery was first used to support downtown urban tests and ship to shore tests taking place at the newly built ``Tarte Pier`` east of the Montreal downtown area. While the overwater tests showed satisfactory performance up to 30 miles, the relatively low power of the AM transmitter limited urban tests to 3 to 4 miles range. MWTCC engineers had to wait for a more powerful 500W transmitter ordered from Marconi U.K. in spring 1919 to be able to conduct tests with greater range reaching out a greater number of ships and amateurs .

Political obstacle: MWTCC Engineers had been refrained from publicly discussing this type of work during the war. In theory, government rules were such that they should probably have had to wait until April 15th, 1919 to conduct any official commercial tests. In a March 1919 interview with a journalist of The Gazette newspaper , MWTCC Managing Director Thomas Robb indicates however his intend to “adapt all these latest inventions and improvements to commercial purposes” after having had to keep the company experiments and technical progress in the dark because of the war.

Mental obstacle: The greatest obstacles to innovation are often the way things have been done in the past, the cumulated experience and know-how of the engineers and the paradigm adopted for years by a broad technical community. These obstacles are known today at path dependencies and core rigidities. Wireless engineers in 1919 were considering radio as wireless telegraphy, i.e. a mean to link two remote points together without wire. Since 1895, wireless has been primarily designed for such use typically for maritime applications and military use or as an alternative to undersea cables for long distance telegraphy.

It took several months of Probe & Learn testing and a proverbial dose of serendipity to break out of the mold and imagine an out-of-the-box use of the company technology. As engineers became tired of repeating the alphabet and saying ``ninety-nine`` throughout several months of testing, one of them decided to take affairs in his own hands. He quickly made a deal with a local music store on Ste. Catherine Street West (0.5 miles from the William Street factory) to test wireless connectivity by playing phonograph records. Very similar to today, money to support advanced engineering ``skunkworks`` was limited and the company refrained from actually buying a gramophone. The engineer offered instead to regularly acknowledge the contribution of the music store over the air, having established one of the first ``sponsored`` programs in the world . From the widely enthusiastic response of the ship and amateurs community listening to XWA test programs, MWTCC suddenly understood that the lack of privacy in voice and audio transmissions over the air was not a handicap but something that could turn out to be a gigantic business opportunity. The station decided to support a regular program of test broadcasting in December 1919. This programing, and the May 20, 1920 broadcasting event 6 months later between Montreal and Ottawa lead the way to establishing a large number of commercial stations and to the subsequent emergence of the public broadcasting system in Canada.

What features set this work apart from similar achievements?

The pioneering history of XWA stands apart from:

1. The XWA and MWTCC engineers ability to push on with a Probe and Learn test program that started before the end of the war in spite of restrictions, and lead to the fall 1919 breakthrough that broke the “wireless telegraphy paradigm” through persistence and a bright idea; 2. Its early regular test voice and music broadcast programs established as early as December 1919. These programs never ceased (after becoming CFCF in 1922, the AM station only ceased operations in 2010). Incidentally, these December 1919 programs are probably among the oldest sponsored radio programs in the world; 3. Its early broadcast of a live music performance on a regularly scheduled test program in December 1919 (live broadcasted performance of ragtime pianist William "Willie" Eckstein and singer Gus Hill); 4. The establishment of ``Scientific Experimenter, Ltd`` in fall 1919 to manage the sales and promotion of radios and radio components to the general public to facilitate the acquisition of radio broadcast receivers by amateurs. This was followed by the January 1920 decision to design a series production radio broadcast receiver that lead to the release of the commercially produced Model C in 1921; 5. A 100 miles range, bidirectional, radio national broadcasting event executed on May 20, 1920 in the presence of a large assembly of eminent Canadian citizens, government representatives and scientists gathered by the Royal Society of Canada; 6. This work done by the MWTCC and XWA engineers between March 1919 and May 1920 lead the way to establishing a large number of commercial stations in the country and to the subsequent emergence of the public broadcasting system in Canada.

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