In the early 1930s, tensions were running high between two competing news sources: newspaper publishers were feeling the strength of their monopoly slipping away as the public’s appreciation for radio news broadcasts grew. This time of conflict in communications history is known as “The Press-Radio War.”
Publishers felt especially threatened by the nimbleness of radio networks. Broadcasters could share breaking news immediately over the airwaves, rather than having to wait for the next day’s run of newspapers to be printed and distributed. At first, newspaper companies tried to boycott radio’s ability to grow into something more than just an entertainment medium by asking wire services to block the flow of newsworthy information to radio stations. But eventually, the two media formats settled into a truce by the late 1930s, partly owing to the demand for reliable information-sharing as the threat of World War II grew.
The Detroit News “autogiro” aircraft flies over the WWJ transmitter towers on the roof of the Detroit News building. The autogiro used a swiveling camera to take aerial photos of newsworthy events and quickly transported reporters to the sites of developing stories. /THF238502
Some newspapers saw the financial benefit in blending formats and went so far as to cut out the competition by starting their own radio news stations. The Detroit News was one of the first newspapers in the United States to incorporate a commercial radio station into its operations. In August 1920, WWJ (then owned by the Detroit News) launched its program of nightly broadcasts under the call sign 8MK. As of 2020, WWJ has been on-air for 100 years!
In this image, the Detroit News autogiro flies over downtown Detroit. The Penobscot Building—site for the News’s experimental W8XWJ station—appears in the foreground. The original vertical “whip” antenna is just visible on the ball that tops the metal tower. /THF239963
In 1936, the Detroit News launched experimental audio broadcasting station W8XWJ from the 47th floor of the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. W8XWJ was formed under the FCC’s ultra-high short-wave “Apex” station program, an experiment designed to provide listeners with higher quality AM signals. The station’s original 100-watt AM vertical “whip” antenna was attached to the beacon sphere that tops the metal tower perched on the roof of the Penobscot Building. The height of the Penobscot—the tallest skyscraper in the city at that point—helped to disperse the radio waves over the entire city. Many people are familiar with the glowing red beacon at the top of the Penobscot, but its connection to the growth of radio in the city is not as well known.
From 1938-1940, W8XWJ ran a fascinating but ultimately short-lived experiment with an emerging technology called “radio facsimile.” Customers would hook a special “radio printer” up to their own radio, which would print the news overnight while they slept. In the morning, the news would be ready to enjoy with morning coffee – no need to deliver a physical newspaper!
One of the original Finch Facsimile Transmitters from W8XWJ, complete with original station badge visible and a sample of a radio fax. /THF160295
At W8XWJ, a Finch Facsimile Transmitter was used to convert images and text into audio tones. These signals would arrive in customer’s home via radio waves, where their “radio printer” would translate the tones into human language. Everything would print out onto continuous rolls of thermal paper.
This is a Crosley Reado Radio Printer – the type of device that people would connect to their home radio and would receive their faxed newspapers on. When The Henry Ford conserved this artifact through an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant, our conservators were excited to find an example of a facsimile still on the drum inside the machine. In this image, you can see an original radio facsimile portrait of Boris Karloff, who was famous for his 1931 portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster.
The Henry Ford’s collections also include the original transmitter and amplifier that powered the W8XWJ station.
W8XWJ’s Western Electric 500 Watt Ultra Shortwave Transmitter and Amplifier. These two devices are visible in their original installation here. /THF173159, THF173165
The idea behind W8XWJ’s radio facsimile experiment was revolutionary, but the process was slow and fussy. It could take over 20 minutes to print a single page of news, and signal reception became unreliable beyond a mile or two away from the transmitter. In 1940, W8XWJ ended its radio facsimile project.
While the original “whip” antenna for W8XWJ was replaced by a FM antenna in the early 1940s, if you look toward the top of the Penobscot building today, there is a tangle of communication equipment visible from street level. And in the interesting way that the new and the old can merge and converge within the histories of technology, some of this contemporary equipment fulfills radio facsimile’s promise to provide easily accessible information—the top of the Penobscot now serves as an important hub for Detroit’s wireless Internet network.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
A LINC console built by Jerry Cox at the Central Institute for the Deaf, 1964.
There are many opinions about which device should be awarded the title of "the first personal computer." Contenders range from the well-known to the relatively obscure: the Kenbak-1 (1971), Micral N (1973), Xerox Alto (1973), Altair 8800 (1974), Apple 1 (1976), and a few other rarities that failed to reach market saturation. The "Laboratory INstrument Computer" (aka the LINC) is also counted among this group of "firsts." Two original examples of the main console for the LINC are now part of The Henry Ford's collection of computing history.
The LINC is an early transistorized computer designed for use in medical and scientific laboratories, created in the early-1960s at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory by Wesley A. Clark with Charles Molnar. It was one of the first machines that made it possible for individual researchers to sit in front of a computer in their own lab with a keyboard and screen in front of them. Researchers could directly program and receive instant visual feedback without the need to deal with punch cards or massive timeshare systems.
These features of the LINC certainly make a case for its illustrious position in the annals of personal computing history. For a computer to be considered "personal," the device must have had a keyboard, monitor, data storage, and ports for peripherals. The computer had to be a stand-alone device, and above all, it had to be intended for use by individuals, rather than the large "timeshare" systems often found in universities and large corporations.
The inside of a LINC console, showing a network of hand-wired and assembled components.
Prototyping In 1961, Clark disappeared from the Lincoln Lab for three weeks and returned with a LINC prototype to show his managers. His ideal vision for the machine was centered on user friendliness. Clark wanted his machine to cost less than $25,000, which was the threshold a typical lab director could spend without needing higher approval. Unfortunately, Clark’s budget goal wasn’t reached—when commercially released in 1964, each full unit cost $43,000 dollars.
The first twelve LINCs were assembled in the summer of 1963 and placed in biomedical research labs across the country as part of a National Institute of Health-sponsored evaluation program. The future owners of the machines—known as the LINC Evaluation Program—travelled to MIT to take part in a one-month intensive training workshop where they would learn to build and maintain the computer themselves.
Once home, the flagship group of scientists, biologists, and medical researchers used this new technology to do things like interpret real-time data from EEG tests, measure nervous system signals and blood flow in the brain, and to collect date from acoustic tests. Experiments with early medical chatbots and medical analysis also happened on the LINC.
In 1964, a computer scientist named Jerry Cox arranged for the core LINC team to move from MIT to his newly formed Biomedical Computing Laboratory at Washington University at St. Louis. The two devices in The Henry Ford's recent acquisition were built in 1963 by Cox himself while he was working at the Central Institute for the Deaf. Cox was part of the original LINC Evaluation Board and received the "spare parts" leftover from the summer workshop directly from Wesley Clark.
Mary Allen Wilkes and her LINC "home computer." In addition to the main console, the LINC’s modular options included dual tape drives, an expanded register display, and an oscilloscope interface. Image courtesy of Rex B. Wilkes.
Mary Allen Wilkes Mary Allen Wilkes made important contributions to the operating system for the LINC. After graduating from Wellesley College in 1960, Wilkes showed up at MIT to inquire about jobs and walked away with a position as a computer programmer. She translated her interest in “symbolic logic” philosophy into computer-based logic. Wilkes was assigned to the LINC project during its prototype phase and created the computer's Assembly Program. This allowed people to do things like create computer-aided medical analyses and design medical chatbots. In 1964, when the LINC project moved from MIT to the Washington University in St. Louis, rather than relocate, Wilkes chose to finish her programming on a LINC that she took home to her parent’s living room in Baltimore. Technically, you could say Wilkes was one of the first people in the world to have a personal computer in her own home.
Wesley Clark (left) and Bob Arnzen (right) with the "TOWTMTEWP" computer, circa 1972.
Wesley Clark Wesley Clark's contributions to the history of computingbegan much earlier, in 1952, when he launched his career at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. There, he worked as part of the Project Whirlwind team—the first real time digital computer, created as a flight simulator for the US Navy. At the Lincoln Lab, he also helped create the first fully transistorized computer, the TX-0, and was chief architect for the TX-2.
Throughout his career, Clark demonstrated an interest in helping to advance the interface capabilities between human and machine, while also dabbling in early artificial intelligence. In 2017, The Henry Ford acquired another one of Clark's inventions called "The Only Working Turing Machine There Ever Was Probably" (aka the "TOWTMTEWP")—a delightfully quirky machine that was meant to demonstrate basic computing theory for Clark's students.
Whether it was the “actual first” or not, it is undeniable that the LINC represents a philosophical shift as one of the world’s first “user friendly” interactive minicomputers with consolidated interfaces that took up a small footprint. Addressing the “first” argument, Clark once said: "What excited us was not just the idea of a personal computer. It was the promise of a new departure from what everyone else seemed to think computers were all about."
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
An image from the set of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.
For many people—especially those who grew up between the decades of the 1970s through the 1990s—the sight of a boombox often prompts the thought: “I wonder how heavy that thing would feel, if I carried it around on my shoulder?” Boomboxes are infused with the promise of human interaction, ready for active use—to be slung from arm to arm, hoisted up on a shoulder, or planted with purpose on a park bench or an empty slice of asphalt in a city somewhere.
Here at The Henry Ford, we recently acquired a trio of classic boomboxes to document stories about the growth of mobile media and the social communication of music in American culture.
The Norelco 22RL962 was developed in the mid-1960s by the Dutch company, Philips. A combination radio and compact cassette player, it had recording and playback functions as well as a carrying handle. While it was generally thought of as the first device that could be accurately called a “boombox,” the Norelco failed to gain mass traction. The core issue wasn’t due to poor performance from a technological standpoint, but rather the bad sound quality of the tapes. In 1965, the American engineer Ray Dolby invented the Dolby Noise Reduction system, which led to clean, hiss-free sound on compact cassette tapes. His invention sparked a revolution in hi-fi cassette audio.
The ubiquitous compact cassette tape.
In the early 1970s, Japanese manufacturers began to make advancements in boombox technology as an outgrowth of modular hi-fi stereo components. Living spaces in Japan were typically small, and there was a desire to condense electronics into compact devices without losing sound quality.
Later that decade, the improved boombox made its way to the United States, where it was embraced by hip hop, punk, and new wave musicians and fans—many of whom lived in large cities like New York and Los Angeles. In many ways, the boombox was a protest device, as youth culture used them to broadcast politically charged music in public spaces.
An early image of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York Skyline. THF113708
Boomboxes literally changed the sonic fabric of cities, but this effect was divisive. By the mid-1980s, noise pollution laws began to restrict their use in public. The golden years of the boombox were also short lived due to the rising popularity and affordability of personal portable sound devices like the Sony Walkman (and later, the MP3 player), which turned music into a private, insular experience.
This boombox was built for the street, and it is meant to be played loud. Its design is rugged, with a carrying handle and protective “roll bars” in case it is dropped. Many classic photos from the early years of hip-hop depict fans and musicians carrying the El Diablo around cities and on the subway in New York.
The JVC RC-550 is a member of what sound historians refer to as the “holy trinity” of innovative boomboxes. While the origins of its “El Diablo” nickname are uncertain, it is believed to stem from the impressive volume of sound it can transmit—or its flashing red sound meters. It is a monophonic boombox, meaning that it has one main speaker and it is incapable of reproducing sound in stereo. A massive offset 10-inch woofer dominates its design, coupled with smaller midrange and tweeter speakers. As with most boomboxes of this time, bass and treble levels could be adjusted.
An input for an external microphone led to the RC-550 being advertised as a mobile personal amplifier system. Brochures from the Japanese version show the boombox being used by salesmen to amplify their pitches in front of crowds, as a sound system in a bar, and by a singing woman accompanied by a guitarist. Recording could take place directly through the tape deck, or through the microphone on top, which could be rotated 360-degrees.
JVC 838 Biphonic Boombox The JVC 838 is important for its transitional design. It was one of the first boomboxes to incorporate the symmetrical arrangement of components that would become standard in 1980s portable stereos: visually balanced speakers, buttons and knobs, and a centered cassette deck.
As boombox designs evolved, they began to include (almost to the point of parody) sound visualization components such as VU meters and other electronic indicators. In many cases, these were purely for visual effect rather than function. The needle VU meters on the JVC 838 however, were accurate.
A unique feature of the JVC 838 boombox is its “BiPhonic” sound—a spatial stereo feature that creates a “being there” effect through its binaural speaker technology, resulting in “three-dimensional depth, spaciousness, and pinpoint imaging.” The box also includes an “expand” effect to widen the sound even further.
Sharp GF-777 “Searcher.” THF177382 Sharp “Searcher” GF-777 The Sharp “Searcher” GF-777 is an exercise in excess. Often referred to as the “king of the boomboxes,” it was also one of the largest ever produced. Weighing thirty pounds (minus ten D-cell batteries) and measuring over one foot tall and two feet wide, it took a certain amount of lifestyle commitment to carry this device around a city.
The Searcher played a key part in the performance and representation of hip-hop music. Its six speakers include four woofers individually tuned for optimal bass transmission and amplitude. It appeared in a photograph on the back cover of the first Run-DMC album, found its way into several music videos, and was photographed alongside breakdancing crews.
Many people used this boombox as an affordable personal recording studio. Two high quality tape decks opened the possibility for people to create “pause tapes” – a way of creating looped beats through queuing, recording, rewinding, and repeating a short phrase of music. A microphone input and an onboard echo effect meant people could rap or sing over top of music backing tracks.
Much like Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the boombox came full circle, allowing people to record and play back music for public and communal consumption. And while they may not mesh with our ideas of what a “mobile” device is in our age of smartphones and streaming services, their reach permeated popular culture in the 1970s well into the 1990s. Sometimes acting as portable sound systems, sometimes used as affordable personal recording studios—carrying a boombox through the streets (wherever you happened to live) was as much a fashion statement and lifestyle choice as it was a celebration of music and social technology.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Henry Ford used wireless radio to communicate within Ford Motor Company (FMC) starting after October 1, 1919. This revolutionary new means of communication captured Ford’s interest because it allowed him to transmit messages within his vast operation. By August 1920, he could convey directions from his yacht to administrators in FMC offices and production facilities in Dearborn and Northville, Michigan. By February 1922, Ford’s railroad offices and the plant in Flat Rock, Michigan were connected, and by 1925, the radio transmission equipment was on Ford’s Great Lake bulk haulers and ocean-going vessels. Historian David L. Lewis claimed that “Ford led all others in the use of intracompany radio communications” (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 311).
Ford Motor Company also used radio transmissions to reach external audiences through promotional campaigns. During 1922, FMC sales branches delivered a series of expositions that featured Ford automobiles and Fordson tractors. An article in Motor Age (August 10, 1922) described highlights of the four-month tour of western Oregon:
“The days are given over to field demonstrations of tractors, plows and implements, while at night a radio outfit that brings in the concerts from the distant cities and motion pictures from the Ford plant, keep an intensely interested crowd on the grounds until the Delco Light shuts down for the night.”
The Ford Radio and Film crew that broadcast to the Oregon crowds traveled in a well-marked vehicle, taking every opportunity available to inform passers-by of Ford’s investment in the new technology – radio – and the utility of new FMC products. Ray Johnson, who participated in the tour, recalled that he drove a vehicle during the day and then played dance music in the evenings as a member of the three-piece orchestra, “Sam Ness and his Royal Ragadours.”
Ford and Fordson Power Exposition Caravan and Radio Truck, Seaside, Oregon, 1922 . THF134998
In 1922, Intra-Ford transmissions began making public broadcasts over the Dearborn’s KDEN station (call letters WWI) at 250-watts of power, which carried a range of approximately 360 meters. The radio station building and transmission towers were located behind the Ford Engineering Laboratory, completed in 1924 at the intersection of Beech Street and Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn.
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, March 1925. THF134748
Staff at the station, conveying intracompany information and compiled content for the public show which aired on Wednesday evenings.
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, August 1924. THF134754
The station did not grow because Ford did not want to join new radio networks. He discontinued broadcasting on WWI in early February 1926 (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 179).
Ford did not discontinue his intracompany radio communications. FMC used radio-telegraph means to communicate between the head office in Dearborn and remote locations, including, Fordlandia, a 2.5-million-acre plantation that Ford purchased in 1927 and that he planned to turn into a source of raw rubber to ease dependency on British colonies regulated by British trade policy.
Brazil and other countries in the Amazon of South American provided natural rubber to the world until the early twentieth century. The demand for tires for automobiles increased so quickly that South American harvests could not satisfy demand. Industrialists sought new sources. During the 1870s, a British man smuggled seeds out of Brazil, and by the late 1880s, British colonies, especially Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) and Malaysia, began producing natural rubber. Inexpensive labor, plus a climate suitable for production, and a growing number of trees created a viable replacement source for Brazilian rubber.
British trade policies, however, angered American industrialists who sought to establish production in other places including Africa and the Philippines. Henry Ford turned to Brazil, because of the incentives that the Brazilian government offered him. His goals to produce inexpensive rubber faced several hurdles, not the least of which was overcoming the traditional labor practices that had suited those who harvested rubber in local forests, and the length of time it took to cultivate new plants (not relying on local resources).
Ford built a production facility on the Tapajós River in Brazil. This included a radio station. The papers of E. L. Leibold, in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center, include a map with a key that indicated the “proposed method of communication between Home Office and Ford Motor Company property on Rio Tapajos River Brazil.” The system included Western Union (WU) land wire from Detroit to New York, WU land wire and cable from New York to Para, Amazon River Cable Company river cable between Para and Santarem, and Ford Motor Company radio stations at each point between Santarem and the Ford Motor Company on Rio Tapajós. Manual relays had to occur at New York, Para, and Santarem.
Map Showing Routes of Communication between Dearborn, Michigan and Fordlandia, Brazil, circa 1928. THF134693
Ford officials studied the federal laws in Brazil that regulated radio and telegraph to ensure compliance. Construction of the power house and processing structures took time. The community and corporate facilities at Boa Vista (later Fordlandia) grew. By 1931, the power house had a generator that provided power throughout the Fordlandia complex.
Generator in Power House at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931. THF134711
Power House and Water Tower at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931. THF134714
Lines from the power house stretching up the hill from the river to the hospital and other buildings, including the radio power station. The setting on a higher elevation helped ensure the best reception for radio transmissions.
Sawmill and Power House at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931.
Workers built the radio power house, which held a Delco Plant and storage batteries, and the radio transmitter station with its transmission tower. The intracompany radio station operated by 1929.
Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.THF134697
Radio Transmitter House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
Storage Batteries in Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
Delco Battery Charger for Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
Radio Power House Motor Generator Set, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
The radio power house is visible at the extreme left of a photograph showing the stone road leading to the hospital (on an even higher elevation) at Fordlandia.
Stone Road Leading to Hospital, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134709
Radio Transmitter Station, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134707
Back at FMC headquarters in Dearborn, Ford announced in late 1933 that he would sponsor a program on both NBC and CBS networks. The Waring show aired two times a week between 1934 and 1937, when Ford pulled funding. Ford also sponsored World Series broadcasts. The most important radio investment FMC made, however, was the Ford Sunday Evening Hour, launched in the fall of 1934. Eighty-six CBS stations broadcast the show. Programs included classical music and corporate messages delivered by William J. Cameron, and occasionally guest hosts. Ford Motor Company printed and sold transcripts of the weekly talks for a small fee.
On August 24, 1941 Linton Wells (1893-1976), a journalist and foreign correspondent, hosted the broadcast and presented a piece on Fordlandia.
Program, "Ford Summer Hour," Sunday, August 24, 1941. THF134690
Linton Wells was not a stranger to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, he and his wife, Fay Gillis Wells, posed for a tintype in the village studio on 2 May 1940.
Tintype Portrait of Linton Wells and Fay Gillis Wells, Taken at the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, circa 1940. THF134720
This radio broadcast informed American listeners of the Fordlandia project, in its 16th year in 1941. Wells summarized the products made from rubber (by way of an introduction to the importance of the subject). He described the approach Ford took to carve an American factory out of an Amazonian jungle, and the “never-say-quit” attitude that prompted Ford to re-evaluate Fordlandia, and to trade 1,375 square miles of Fordlandia for an equal amount of land on Rio Tapajós, closer to the Amazon port of Santarem. This new location became Belterra. Little did listeners know the challenges that arose as Brazilians tried to sustain their rubber production, and Ford sought to grow its own rubber supply.
By 1942, nearly 3.6 million trees were growing at Fordlandia, but the first harvest yielded only 750 tons of rubber. By 1945, FMC sold the holdings to the Brazilian government (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 165).
The Ford Evening Hour Radio broadcasts likewise ceased production in 1942 after eight years and 400 performances.
First portable “superhet” radio receiver, made by Edwin Armstrong in 1923. THF 156549
Edwin Armstrong’s First Portable Superheterodyning Receiver
A far cry from today’s pocket-sized MP3 players, the radio pictured above nonetheless advanced the idea of “portable radio.” This device was created in 1923 by Edwin Howard Armstrong—an inventor and pioneering electrical engineer. As the world’s first portable “superhet” radio receiver, this set is powered by six vacuum tubes, has a compartment for a battery, and a detachable horn for amplifying sound. It can be latched shut and conveniently carried by its handle, like a suitcase.
Armstrong’s legacy is rooted in three essential advances in radio history: regenerative circuits, superheterodyning, and frequency modulation (known to us today as FM radio). Individually, each of these concepts acted as some of the most important discoveries in radio history. Together, they helped to raise radio up to a new level. These concepts amplified radio waves, allowing voices to be carried rather than the dots and dashes of Morse code, and by extension, turned radio into an accessible and collective experience.
Superheterodyning The superheterodyning principle discovered by Armstrong is embedded within the radio receiver above, and has carried over to virtually every modern radio created since. Heterodyning involves mixing two different radio frequencies to create a third frequency, which could be used to tap into very sensitive high-frequency radio waves. Modern radio as well as televisions and cell phones owe a lot to the “superhet” concept.
Edwin and Marion Armstrong, on the beach, 1923. THF 120661
Tunes for the Honeymoon Not only was Armstrong an intrepid inventor, he was also a daredevil. His shy persona was a contrast to his bold innovations and daring publicity stunts. Before he married his wife Marion, he climbed to the top of the RCA tower in New York City to impress her. Apparently, it worked—because we soon see Marion and Armstrong on their honeymoon, sitting on the shore of Palm Beach in Florida. Armstrong built the portable radio in this image as wedding gift to Marion, and it is the same radio in the collections at The Henry Ford.
Marion Armstrong at The Henry Ford, 1967. THF 131774
Armstrong’s Legacy Armstrong was well known in his own time, and was highly respected. His story is also tragic, because he spent decades of his career in legal battles over patents that other inventors raised against him. Even though he would receive credit for his contributions to radio, much of that vindication came after his 1954 death. In the image above, we see Marion Armstrong donating her husband’s radio to The Henry Ford in 1967.
Although today’s radio formats are shifting towards satellite and subscription services, if you’ve ever listened to a car radio where you a spin a dial to tune in to a station—you’re listening to Armstrong’s FM radio.
The sonic imprints of his legacy continue to bleed into our everyday lives: from voices on the airwaves, to entertainment on the road, to enlivening a relaxing walk with headphones—or a summery day with music at the beach.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull’s “A Signal From Mars March and Two-Step,” 1901 imagines two inhabitants of Mars using a signal lamp to communicate with Earth. THF129403
The concept of "life on Mars" and "Martian Fever" was not incited in the pages of the tabloid magazine Weekly World News—but actually reaches much further back to 1877—with Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. The astronomer himself was not to blame: a single word in his report—canali, which is Italian for “channels”—was misinterpreted to mean "canal" once translated into English. In Schiaparelli’s time, telescopes became more advanced and powerful, allowing him to make detailed maps of the planet’s surface. At the time of this mapping, Mars was in “opposition,” bringing the planet into close alignment with Earth for easier observation. While creating his maps, however, Schiaparelli fell victim to an optical illusion. He perceived straight lines crisscrossing the surface of the planet, which he included in his records, assigning them the names of rivers on Earth. These were the canali—and the source of a misunderstanding which morphed into a self-perpetuating legend about intelligent, ancient, canal-building Martian lifeforms.
Much to Schiaparelli’s annoyance, the American astronomer Percival Lowell continued to pursue this "life on Mars" theory. Beginning in 1895, Lowell published a trilogy of books about the “unnatural features” he saw through his telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. He created his own maps of the planet, much of which Schiaparelli believed to be pure fantasy. In reality, the imagery Lowell was seeing was likely caused by diffraction illusion in his equipment. Lowell was not alone in popularizing the concept of an intelligent Red Planet. The astronomer, psychical researcher, and early science fiction writer Camille Flammarion published The Planet Mars in 1892, which collected his archival research and historic literature exploring the idea of an inhabited planet. In 1899, Nikola Tesla claimed to have tapped into intelligent radio signals from Mars; in 1901 the director of Harvard’s Observatory Edward Charles Pickering claimed to have received a telegram from Mars.
In 1901—the year that Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull’s "A Signal from Mars" sheet music was published—"Mars Fever" had officially taken hold, as scientists and enthusiasts alike actively explored the potential for two-way communication with Mars. This piece of music, made in tribute to the planet, is a prime example of the exoticism of science, space travel, and speculation about the limits of technology (along with a few missteps) colliding with future-forward, popular, and artistic culture.
Amazing Stories, September 1950. THF344586 Speculative thinking about Mars did not end in 1901—it has continued to provide a source of inspiration and exploration for both popular and scientific cultures. The Red Planet and its hypothetical inhabitants often appeared in early pulp and science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. The first issue of Amazing Stories was published in April 1926 by inventor Hugo Gernsback, and was the first magazine to be fully dedicated to the genre of science fiction. Gernsback himself is credited as the “father” of science fiction publishing—or, as he called it, “scientification.” The magazine introduced readers to far-reaching fantasies with journeys to internal worlds like Jules Verne’s “Trip to the Center of the Earth,” and explorations of other dimensions and galaxies, time travel, and the mysterious powers of the human mind. Throughout its publication of over 80 years, Amazing Stories included many fictional accounts of Mars, including H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds,” Cecil B. White’s “Retreat to Mars,” pictured here, E.K. Jarvis’s “You Can’t Escape from Mars!”
Standing left to right are H.G. Wells and Henry Ford at Cotswold Cottage, Greenfield Village, 1931. This photograph was taken 7 years before the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of Wells’s War of the Worlds. This radio-play used media as an all-too-effective storytelling device, inciting a public panic about an alien invasion in the process. THF108523 In 1924, with Mars once again in opposition to Earth, a new round of astronomical experiments and observations emerged. In order to test theories of advanced cultures inhabiting the planet, the inventor Charles Francis Jenkins and astronomer David Peck Todd were commissioned by the US military to conduct a study to “listen to Mars.” For the purposes of this experiment, Jenkins created an apparatus called the “radio photo message continuous transmission machine,” capable of creating visual records of radio phenomena on a long strip of photographic paper. Jenkins’s device was connected to an ordinary SE-950 NESCO radio receiver, serving as the “listening ear” in this experiment. Any incoming signal would trigger a flash of light on the paper, creating black waveform-like lines and thus revealing any chatter of alien radio waves.
The Army and Navy proceeded to silence radio activity for short periods over the three days of Mars’s closest course, believing that anyone who was bold enough to defy military-ordered radio silence would surely be extraterrestrial in origin. The Chief of US Naval Operations, Edward W. Eberle, sent this telegram on August 22nd:
7021 ALNAVSTA EIGHT NAVY DESIRES COOPERATE ASTRONOMERS WHO BELIEVE POSSIBLE THAT MARS MAY ATTEMPT COMMUNICATION BY RADIO WAVES WITH THIS PLANET WHILE THEY ARE NEAR TOGETHER THIS END ALL SHORE RADIO STATIONS WILL ESPECIALLY NOTE AND REPORT ANY ELECTRICAL PHENOMENON UNUSUAL CHARACTER AND WILL COVER AS WIDE BAND FREQUENCIES AS POSSIBLE FROM 2400 AUGUST TWENTY FIRST TO 2400 AUGUST TWENTY FOURTH WITHOUT INTERFERRING [sic.] WITH TRAFFIC 1800
Radio Receiver, Type SE-950, Used by Charles Francis Jenkins in Experiment Detecting Radio Signals from Mars. THF156814 When the paper was developed, the researchers were surprised to find that it contained images. These graphics were interpreted by the public to be “messages” composed of dots and dashes and “a crudely drawn face” repeating down the thirty-foot length of film. Jenkins, however, feared that his machine would be perpetrated as a hoax, so when the films were released he did so with this caveat: “Quite likely the sounds recorded are the result of heterodyning, or interference of radio signals.” While the popular press used these images as confirmation of life on Mars (in fact, this 1924 experiment has appeared as “evidence” in the tabloid, Weekly World News), the scientific community provided logical explanations: static discharge from a passing trolley car, malfunctioning radio equipment, or the natural symphonic radio waves produced by Jupiter. The SE-950 radio used by Jenkins in this experiment is now part of The Henry Ford’s collection: a simple rectangular wood box with knobs and dials that easily hides its deeper history as part of an experiment to communicate with Mars.
From Schiaperelli to Lowell; from the adventure tales of H.G. Wells to the first science fiction magazines of Hugo Gernsback; from a curious piece of turn-of-the-century sheet music to an even stranger experimental radio—Mars has acted as an inspirational and problematic site for creative and scientific pursuits alike. In July of 1964, the fly-by images gathered by the spacecraft Mariner 4 put an end to the most far-flung theories about the planet. As Mariner 4 transmitted images back to Earth, there were no signs of canals, channels—or a populated planet. And finally, in recent years, technological innovation has allowed our knowledge of Mars to grow at a rapid pace, with NASA’s on-planet rover missions and SpaceX’s Falcon and Dragon vehicle programs. Martians or not, despite the fact that the Red Planet lingers an average of 140 million miles away from Earth, it continues to broadcast an inspirational signal of astounding strength, which reaches straight into the human imagination.
Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communication and Information Technology, The Henry Ford.
( Telegram from the Secretary of the Navy to All Naval Stations Regarding Mars, August 22, 1924, Record Group 181, Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments, 1784-2000, ARC Identifier 596070, National Archives and Records Administration.)