Nathan Stubblefield

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Nathan B. Stubblefield
Nathan b stubblefield.jpg
Stubblefield with his wireless telephone
Born (1860-11-22)November 22, 1860
Died March 28, 1928(1928-03-28) (aged 67)
Cause of death starvation
Resting place Bowman Cemetery
Residence Murray, Kentucky
Nationality American
Occupation inventor
Known for wireless telephony
Spouse(s) Ada Mae Stubblefield
Children Frederic, Bernard Bowman, Pattie Lee, Victoria Edison, Nathan Franklin, Oliver (RayJack), Helen Joe, William Tesla
Parent(s) William "Capt. Billy" Jefferson Stubblefield (1830–1874) and Victoria Bowman (1837–1869)

Nathan B. Stubblefield (November 22, 1860 – March 28, 1928) was an American inventor and Kentucky melon farmer. It has been claimed that Stubblefield demonstrated radio in 1892, but his devices seem to have worked by audio frequency induction or, later, audio frequency earth conduction [1] (creating disturbances in the near-field region) rather than by radio frequency radiation for radio transmission telecommunications.

Though there were contemporaneous experiments by others such as William Preece, Stubblefield has been proposed as a claimant for the invention of wireless telephony, or wireless transmission of the human voice, which would, however conflict with the four documented patents for the photophone, invented jointly by Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter in 1880. The photophone allowed for the transmission of sound on a beam of light, and on June 3, 1880 Bell and Tainter transmitted the world's first wireless telephone message on their newly invented form of telecommunication.[2][3]


Early years and family life[edit]

Stubblefield was the second of seven sons of a lawyer, William "Capt. Billy" Jefferson Stubblefield (1830–1874), and his mother Victoria Bowman (1837–1869) died of scarlet fever. Stubblefield lived in Murray, Kentucky. Stubblefield was tutored by a governess and later attended a boarding school called the "Male and Female Institute" in Farmington, until his father died in 1874, leaving Stubblefield an orphan at 14 years old.

Stubblefield was additionally self-educated by reading whatever publications were available in Murray, such as Scientific American and Electrical World. He married Ada Mae Buchannan in 1881. They had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. Six of Nathan's seven children did not bear descendants. The seventh child, their son Oliver (RayJack), married Priscilla Alden who bore three children, two daughters and Nathan's only grandson, television and recording personality Troy Cory.[4] Nathan's son Bernard was his primary assistant in the wireless telephone experiments. From 1907 to 1911, Stubblefield operated a home school called "The Nathan Stubblefield Industrial School," or "Teléph-on-délgreen Industrial School" built on his 85-acre (340,000 m2) melon farmland.[5] It is now the campus of Murray State University.


Bob Lochte (2001) has argued that when Stubblefield spoke of "wireless" telephony in the 1880s he merely meant his acoustic telephone, which could operate with string. However, in the 1880s, Scientific American had already carried articles describing attempts at wireless telephony and telegraphy experiments by induction systems of Trowbridge, Preece, Phelps, and Edison, not using high frequency radio waves, so Stubblefield was likely familiar with all the principles needed to operate wireless telephony by induction in the 1880s[original research?]. He made private demonstrations of wireless telephony in 1892[citation needed]. Rainey T. Wells was one of the first people to hear Stubblefield's wireless voice transmissions, in that year[citation needed]. Wireless telegraphy using damped high frequency radio waves was demonstrated in 1894 by Sir Oliver Lodge, but that system could not carry voice messages or music. In 1898, Stubblefield was issued U.S. Patent U.S. Patent 600,457 for an "Electric battery", which was an electrolytic coil of iron and insulated copper wire to be immersed in liquid or buried in the ground, where it could also serve as a ground terminal for wireless telephony.

He made public demonstrations of voice and music transmission to five receiving locations on the courthouse square in Murray on January 1, 1902, witnessed by at least 1,000 people, apparently using voice frequency transmission through earth conduction, to a radius of one-half mile. Later he demonstrated wireless telephony in Washington, D.C. on March 20, 1902, where voice and music transmissions were made over a third of a mile from the steamer Bartholdi to shore. He demonstrated wireless telephony as well in Philadelphia on May 30, 1902 to a distance of a half mile. Tests in New York City in June 1902 were less successful because of electrical interference from alternating current power in widespread use there. His experiments were discussed in leading scientific journals.[6] He joined wireless inventor Archie Frederick Collins and stock promoters in the Collins Wireless Telephone Company. In December, 1909 Collins Wireless Telephone Company became a part of the Continental Wireless Tel. & Tel. Company, with A. Frederick Collins as Technical Director. Stubblefield resigned as a director in December 1911, because of what he described in a letter as their sometimes-fraudulent stock promotion practices. The other principals of the company were later convicted of fraud.[5][7]

Back home in Murray, he continued to experiment with wireless telephony, using large circular conduction coils to transmit voice frequencies to receiving stations. In 1903, he could transmit 375 feet (114 m) without earth connections, using induction. In 1904, he could transmit 423 yards. The total wire required for the transmitting and receiving coils was of a greater length than what would be required to simply interconnect the transmitter and receiver, but the invention would allow mobility. By 1907, with a 60-foot (18 m) transmitting coil, he could work 1/4 mile or 1,320 feet (400 m) "nicely." On May 12, 1908, he received U.S. patent 887,357 for his Wireless Telephone, using the voice frequency induction system. He said in the patent that it would be useful for "securing telephonic communications between moving vehicles and way stations". The diagram shows wireless telephony from trains, boats, and wagons. In foreign patents he showed wireless telephony with cars. However, there is no indication that he was using voice-modulated continuous high frequency waves, as used for radio today.[5]

Reginald Fessenden would later claim to have made a radio voice broadcast, using a rotary spark gap transmitter, on December 24, 1906. (Broadcasting historian James E. O'Neal, in a series of articles on the Radio World website [8] ,[9] suggests that Fessenden, writing a quarter-century after the fact, may have confused the dates; O'Neal suggests Fessenden was remembering instead a series of tests he'd conducted in 1909.) His technique was in fact voice modulated high frequency radio transmission. Two way voice radio communication and regular news broadcasts by voice using vacuum tube technology to provide high frequency amplitude modulated radio transmission became common by the mid-1920s.

Stubblefield's inventions did not lead directly to radio as the technology works today, but the public demonstrations in 1902 and the press coverage in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, the Louisville Courier-Journal, Scientific American, and elsewhere helped to spur public interest in the possibilities of wireless transmission of voice and music. Most other inventors of the era sought to provide point-to-point messaging, to compete with telephone and telegraph companies. Stubblefield in the 1902 was in a sense the "Father of Broadcasting", in that he said to the St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter in 1902, " is capable of sending simultaneous messages from a central distributing station over a very wide territory. For instance, anyone having a receiving instrument, which would consist merely of a telephone receiver and a signalling gong, could, upon being signalled by a transmitting station in Washington, or nearer, if advisable, be informed of weather news. My apparatus is capable of sending out a gong signal, as well as voice messages. Eventually, it will be used for the general transmission of news of every description".

Final years[edit]

Stubblefield later lived in a self-imposed isolation in a crude shelter near Almo, Kentucky and eventually starved[citation needed] to death on March 28, 1928. He was buried in the Bowman Cemetery in Murray, Kentucky.

Evaluation of his contributions[edit]

Since his death, various individuals and groups in Murray, Kentucky have publicized Murray as the Birthplace of Radio, a claim which is not widely recognized, and Stubblefield as the Father of Broadcasting, a claim which has more merit. Loren J. Hortin, Journalism Professor at Murray State, organized his students to investigate Stubblefield's work, leading to the dedication of a monument on campus in 1930. Hortin later said "Radio is a device that transmits and receives voice over considerable distance without connecting wires. Stubblefield invented, manufactured, and demonstrated such a device and did so before anyone else on the planet." The radio station in Murray, WNBS, uses Stubblefield's initials in its call letters.[5] The physics club of Murray State University is named in his honor.


1892:First to broadcast human voice, using his wireless telephone attached to ground electrodes.
May 8, 1898: patented "electric battery" (wireless telephone transmission coil) U.S. Patent 600,457.
1902: First Ship-to-shore wireless telephone broadcast, using wires dropped in the water from the steamer Bartholdi
1908: Patented the inductive Wireless Telephone for auto/ship/train: U.S. Patent 887,357.

Further reading[edit]

Documents during Stubblefield's lifetime
  • Fawcett, Waldon, The latest advance in wireless telephony, Scientific American, May 24, 1902, p. 363
  • "Kentucky farmer invents wireless telephone", St. Louis Post Dispatch, January 12, 1902
  • Practical Tests of Wireless Telephony, Washington Times, March 24, 1902, p. 4
  • "To Try Wireless Telephony. Inventor Stubblefield to Give an Exhibition of His Apparatus Thursday on the Potomac River"' New York Times, March 17, 1902, p. 1
  • Nathan B. Stubblefield Papers, Pogue Library, Murray State University, Murray, KY
  • "Radio Pioneer Dies, Poor and Embittered. Kentucky Hermit, Stubblefield Had Wireless Phone in 1902-Predicted Broadcasting", New York Times, April 24, 1928, p. 25
  • Stubblefield Collection, Wrather Museum, Murray State University, Murray, KY
  • White, Trumbull, Telephoning Without Wires, pp. 297–302, in Our Wonderful Progress: The World's Triumphant Knowledge and Works, book 2, "The World's Science and Invention", 1902
  • "Wireless Telephony Tests. Partial Success of Inventor Stubblefield Near Washington", New York Times, March 21, 1902, p. 2
Books, Periodicals, journals, and dissertations after 1928 discussing Stubblefield
  • Cory-Stubblefield, Troy and Josie Cory, Disappointments Are Great! Follow the Money... Smart Daaf Boys, The Inventors of Radio & Television and the Life Style of Stubblefield, Marconi, Ambrose Fleming, Reginald Fessenden, Tesla, ... DeForest, Armstrong, Alexanderson and Farnsworth, 2003, Library of Congress Catalog Card #93-060451, ISBN 1-883644-34-8
  • Horton, L.T.(sic) (L.J. Hortin), Murray, Kentucky, Birthplace of Radio, Kentucky Progress Magazine, March 1930
  • Kane, Joseph, et al., Famous First Facts 5th Edition, New York: Wilson, 1997. p. 455, item 6262, First radio broadcast demonstration (by Stubblefield, 1892). p 590, item 7716, First mobile radio telephone marine demonstration, March 20, 1902 (by Stubblefield)
  • "Listening In" by Orrin E. Dunlap Jr., New York Times, April 13, 1930, p. 137
  • Lochte, Bob, Kentucky Farmer Invents Wireless Telephone! But Was It Radio? Facts and Folklore About Nathan Stubblefield, All About Wireless, 2001, ISBN 0-9712511-9-3
  • Morgan, Thomas O., The Contribution of Nathan B. Stubblefield to the Invention of Wireless Voice Communications, dissertation, Florida State University, 1971
  • Nahin, Paul J. "The Science of Radio, 2nd Ed." Springer Verlag, New York, 2001, p 7
  • Sivowitch, Elliot N., A Technological Survey of Broadcasting's 'Pre-History,' 1876–1920., Journal of Broadcasting, Winter 1970–1971

See also[edit]


  1. ^ History of the Radio Industry in the United States to 1940 by Carole E. Scott, State University of West Georgia
  2. ^ Carson, Mary Kay (2007) Alexander Graham Bell: Giving Voice To The World, Sterling Biographies, New York, NY 10016: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.. pp. 76–78. ISBN 978-1-4027-3230-0. OCLC 182527281
  3. ^ Phillipson, Donald J.C., and Neilson, Laura Bell, Alexander Graham, The Canadian Encyclopedia online. Retrieved 2009-08-06
  4. ^ – Troy Cory
  5. ^ a b c d ~~~~ Lochte, Bob, Kentucky Farmer Invents Wireless Telephone! But Was It Radio? Facts and Folklore About Nathan Stubblefield, All About Wireless, 2001, ISBN 0-9712511-9-3
  6. ^ "Notes". Nature (New York: MacMillan and Co., Limited) LXVI (1702): 158. 12 June 1902. doi:10.1038/066157b0. Retrieved 4 November 2008. It is easy to conceive of many circumstances in which an earth conduction telephonic system, even of limited range, would be very valuable. 
  7. ^ The Collins Wireless Telephone
  8. ^ O'Neal, James E. "Fessenden: World's First Broadcaster?--A Radio History Buff Finds That Evidence for the Famous Brant Rock Broadcast Is Lacking" Radio World Online. October 25, 2006
  9. ^ O'Neal, James E. "Fessenden — The Next Chapter" Radio World Online. December 23, 2008, retrieved 2009 June 29

External links[edit]


Pro-Stubblefield pages

(ed. The links below are cited in Troy Cory-Stubblefield and Josie Cory book)