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A little more than a hundred years ago a Kentucky farmer proclaimed, "I have lived fifty years before my time." His words were ambiguous to his slow-minded detractors but he paved the way for the wireless technology we enjoy today in the form of cell phones. I don’t need to tell anybody where we have gone from there. Look around you. How many people do you see texting, taking photos, surfing the internet and talking on devices that were crude talk boxes only twenty years ago? Wireless technology has taken off in forms no one could’ve even predicted a few decades ago but we enjoy all this because one seemingly common man came up with a very uncommon idea and invention.
That Kentucky farmer was a man by the name of Nathan Stubblefield born in Kentucky on November 22, 1860. Many years before Marchese Guglielmo Marconi presented his radio-signaling system as his first successful invention, Nathan should have wowed the crowd that loitered around on the court house lawn in Murray, Kentucky in 1892. Hundreds of people showed up for his demonstration in which he claimed to be able to send messages through the air without wires. At points approximately two hundred feet apart on the lawn, Stubblefield set up two boxes, each two feet square and not connected in any way. The boxes contained telephones and when Stubblefield and his son talked to each other from opposite, disparate sides of the court house their voices were made clearly audible to the curious crowds which gathered around both boxes.
Even though his invention was clearly a success most of the crowd hooted and snickered like the common folk they were, not realizing the magnitude of the event they had just witnessed. Even so, he left with his equipment angry at his expectations of missing accolades. At this time, Marconi was only a teenager fresh out of Bologna University but his invention was that of telegraphy and not anything at all like what Stubblefield had discovered. At the time, Stubblefield was a telephone repairman who barely eked out an existence on his farm in Calloway County. His first demonstration barely made a ripple of recognition to the locals but he hadn’t given up at that point, quite, either. He did, however, attract national attention by the few who were astute enough to see the potential of his invention.
When news finally reached the St. Louis Post Dispatch he was sent for by the paper to go there and give a demonstration. Some weeks after they sent Nathan a letter they received a post card from him which said, "Have accepted your invitation. Come to my place any time. Nathan Stubblefield, inventor." A reporter from the Dispatch showed up on his farm on January 10, 1902 and Stubblefield gave him a simple demonstration.
This innovative genius handed him a telephone which was connected to a pair of steel rods about four feet long and told him to take the set anywhere he wanted in the neighborhood, stick the rods into the earth and put the receiver to his ear.
In a newspaper article some days later, the reporter relayed his experience. He walked at least a mile away from Stubblefield’s house, put the rods into the ground and claimed that he could hear every syllable Stubblefield’s son spoke into a transmitter as clearly as if he were standing right next to him. In explanation, Stubblefield explained that he was merely using the electrical field which permeated the earth, the water and the atmosphere itself. He predicted that some day wireless transmission of speech would enable people living in Kentucky to listen to weather reports from the nation’s capitol and hear music and news from points all over the world.
Everything snowballed after the newspaper article was published, bringing invitations for Nathan to take his invention to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in May of 1902. He gave a successful demonstration at Belmont Park in Philadelphia, May 30, 1902 and went on to Washington, D.C. presenting his invention to scientists of his time. This untutored, simple Kentucky farmer was receiving attention from the likes of Tesla at his Philadelphia demonstration. In Washington his apparatus was installed on a steamship with Bartholdi and other prominent people stationed at places of their choice along the Virginia shore of the Potomac. As the ship rolled down the Potomac River startled dignitaries communicated with those aboard the vessel, clearly and distinctly by merely sticking the customary iron rods in the earth and speaking into their telephones. On May 21, 1902 the Washington Evening Star proclaimed, "First Practical Test of Wireless Telegraphy Heard For Half Mile. Invention of Kentucky Farmer. Wireless telephony demonstrated beyond question," in the headlines.
With all the laudits he received and financiers asking him to sign contracts so the invention could be developed further, Stubblefield chose to sign on with the Wireless Telephone Company of America who were responsible for the publicity, public relations and demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. Their hope was to attract wealthy investors but when Stubblefield found them to be a fraudulent stock promotion outfit he walked away and back to his lab.
Since the company acquired the rights to his natural conduction wireless phone, he dropped work on it and began working on a prototype for his electromagnetic induction phone. In 1907 he filed for a patent on it, but the first application was rejected. He worked on the application for another year, showing his device to be an improvement on earlier applications of other inventors clear back from the 1880s but by the time they accepted the application it was already outdated and useless.
What Nathan invented was a wireless telephone using natural conduction through the magnetic field of earth and water. The difference in the later inventions of others, which still didn’t match the clarity of Stubblefield’s device, is subtle to the unvigilant eye but he made the quality of transmission unequaled by comparison. He had been experimenting with ground radio since 1882, around the time that a man by the name of Amos Dolbear filed a patent on what he termed induction wireless telephone and demonstrated it publicly in the U.S., Canada and Europe. His invention, however, used an elevated capacitance, which acts as an antenna and only uses the earth for grounding. The induction coil used is a self-inductance creating high tension in free space. In short, it was not the same as a Hertizan wave transmitter.
Around the time that Nathan was trying to show the Murray locals his invention, Tesla had been working on a transmitter that had better construction rather than of great power. He wrote, "This is essentially, a circuit of high self-induction and small resistance which in its arrangement, mode of excitation and section and action, may be said to be the diametrical opposite of a transmitting circuit typical of telegraphy by Hertizian or electromagnetic radiations." He performed double ground experiments with impulses, spoke of them in lectures and he patented embodiments of these ideas in 1901. Even so they never achieved the powerful transmission with clarity, tone and volume of Stubblefield’s ground telephony. The device which Stubblefield invented used natural energies magnifying them to full capacity. All other inventors used artificial sources such as batteries, alternators, dynamos etc.
Stubblefield’s true research was sourced in magnetic waves and never made use of ground terminals for exchanging signals. His aim was always long distance wireless telephone communication but his invention was entirely distinctive from radio transmission. From the beginning his transmitters and receivers were telephonic, not telegraphic and used the earth as a battery powering an apparatus which was connected to a long horizontal aerial line. (Apparently, the waves that Stubblefield used were longitudinal in nature.) Marconi eventually used a diagrammatic symmetry which was similar to Stubblefield’s in conjunction with grounded copper wire conductors and achieved some success with long distance transmission but Nathan had done this without use of alternators or spark exchange and his medium was voice transmission not the dot and dash system of telegraphy which was Marconi’s lot.
His system reasoning was that since electrical waves traverse the earth it would be possible to send signals to distant places. Eventually using electrical waves which were naturally present in the ground and would serve as carriers for the human voice- and more eventually. Therefore his technology made use of the earth as both power generator and signal conductor. This makes the power limitless and cannot diminish in deference to the time of day or even length of use.
As time dragged by and other inventors took up the torch for wireless technology, Stubblefield became increasingly reclusive, morose and stopped working his farm. He was sued by financial backers. His children sold his farm and his wife left him. After his death in 1928 of starvation, investigators found wires leading from the roots of trees on his property. Small arc lamps were attached to the wires and they were put out because it was believed that those lamps had been creating a strange hillside sunlight. However, it did not explain the warmth and light which emanated from the ground around his property, apparently, day and night. In addition, many people had heard loud and unfamiliar noises coming from the area surrounding his cabin. It was supposed by some that he had discovered a way to transduce natural impulses from the ground energy into audio.
Two weeks before his death he remarked to a neighbor, "The past is nothing. I have perfected now the greatest invention the world has ever known. I have taken light from the air and earth… [the same way] I did sound."
On March 28, 1928 he was found dead in his bed. Neighbors who had broken in to investigate noticed that the interior was not cold but warm as if it was heated by a strong fire. Town officials trying to locate the source of the heat found two highly polished metal mirrors which faced each other and they radiated great heat in rippling waves.
A stone memorial on the court house lawn at Murray, Kentucky, marks the spot where he made history in 1892. He is now a local hero and has a radio station named after him. The locals still seem to think that he invented radio. They don’t know the half of it.
Would you like to read more about Nathan? Check out www.icehouse.net/john1/stublefield1.html
The Castle Lady
sending you kisses you’ll never forget !
Physical science normally proceeds by inductive reasoning tested by experiment.
-Walter M. Miller, Jr. from "A Canticle for Leibowitz"