Carlos A. Altgelt

Setting the stage

While the first broadcast in Argentina took place on August 27, 1920, Argentina had public telephony services since 1881. By 1883, the Compañia Telefónica del Plata served Buenos Aires with a few hundred subscribers. Radio broadcasting as such, began almost forty years later in Buenos Aires with the optimistic efforts of a graduate medical doctor and three of his friends, all young students of medicine.

During the 1910s, Enrique Susini (25), his nephew Miguel Mugica—frequently misspelled as Mujica (18), Luis Romero Carranza (22), and César Guerrico, were fascinated by the early efforts of Guglielmo Marconi but frustrated by the difficulty created with galena radio reception.

As luck would have it, Susini was sent to France during the First World War as an Navy Ministry doctor. His mission was to investigate the toxic effects of gassing in the trenches. While in France, Susini became acquainted with the vacuum tubes made by Pathé and Metal. He smuggled back some sample tubes with him in 1919 and eagerly showed them to his three friends who promptly began experimenting with the tubes.

The following year Susini, who had left the Navy, got a job transforming an old circus site into a theater. That theater, Teatro Coliseo, happens to be in Charcas Street (now Marcelo T. de Alvear) next door to where I used to live for 14 years: Charcas 1173.

It didn’t take long for Susini to realize that, with the help of his three friends, he could set up a make-shift studio and broadcast an opera to several well-to-do people in Buenos Aires who were the proud owners of radio receivers (and I’m using the word "radio receiver" loosely). Faustino da Rossa and Walter Mocchi, owners of the Italian theater, supported Susini’s idea wholeheartedly. Their target was August 1920 for the world’s first true-broadcast transmission.

Somewhat disappointed with the news that Marconi transmitted a concert by the Australian soprano Nellie Melba from New York City on May 19, our friends carried on feverishly with their project. They were going to better Marconi, they were going to start regular broadcasts, not a one-shot deal.

A week before the actual transmission, an antenna was erected between one of the theater roof towers and a dome—one of the dozens of domes that adorn Buenos Aires to this day—120 feet away.

The First Transmission

The evening of August 27th, everything was ready: the W.W.I 5 watt transmitter, the precarious roof antenna, a microphone for deaf people placed in the gallery to which a wooden horn was added. The venue: Parsifal, by Richard Wagner.

At 8:30 PM, Susini flicked the switch and announced with that famous baritne voice of his:

Ladies and gentlemen: the Radio Argentina Society offers to you today the opera Parsifal by Richard Wagner, with the participation of tenor Maestri, the Argentinean soprano Sara César, baritone Aldo Rossi Morelli, and basses Chirino and Paggi, all under the direction of Félix von Wingartner, accompanied by the chorus and orchestra of the Constanzi Theater of Rome.

And then von Wingartner started the overture to that historical transmission. While the transmission was rather noisy, none of the listeners made any complaints. On the contrary, even the president, Hipólito Yrigoyen, had this to say the following day: "When young men play with science, it’s because they posses genius within."

The Audience

What made this transmission a true broadcast, thus different from the many one-off experiments that went before it, is the amount of people listening to it. Among them the records lists: Ezequiel P. Paz. director of the prestigious La Prensa newspaper; the brothers Manuel and Rodolfo Erp; Messrs. Antonio Devoto and Benjamín Gachi, future owners of the popular Radio Splendid; the radio amateurs Horacio Martínez Seeber, Emilio Quevedo, Federico Kiku Frías, Lorenzo Maza, Ricardo Scoda, the brothers Del Ponte (future licensees to Radio Cultura), Carlos Di Giorgi, Dr. Valdivieso, Dr. Sauce, Mr. Molagiodi, and Mr. Bronenberg; military radio operators; the future popular singer and actor, Juan Carlos Thorry. It is said that the transmission was even received by a ship anchored in the bay of Santos, Brazil.

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary, Thorry revealed the reason why he was able to participate on that memorable event: "I was 12 years old in 1919 and was living with my uncle and aunt in a petit hotel in Moreno Street, between Lima and Salta Streets. My uncle was rather well-to-do; he spoiled me. One day I asked him to buy me radio amateur equipment. That’s the reason why the first galena radio arrived in our home. It stayed in my room all the time." And remembering that first broadcast, he added: "That night, everyone was in my room to listen to the novelty. To be truthful, the transmission wasn’t that good; the sound disappeared sometimes. My uncle and aunt didn’t believe that the sound came through the ether, but I never doubted it, I was in love with the idea. Most people took a long time understanding the impact of that transmission."

La Razón newspaper poetically announced: "Yesterday, from 9 PM to midnight, a sound wave ondulated through the ether, as if opening the most capricious, rich, and abundant noble emotions in the whole city with its subtle sky-light of harmonies. And for three hours, not only those initiated in the secret, but many that for reasons of their trade or sheer coincidence—sailors with ships equipped with radio, radiotelegraphists, slaves all in listening to it—were offered the present of Parsifal." If current radio reviews were to be as lyrical!

In contrast, the journalist reporting the event in El Diario described the opera but ignored the broadcast completely.

The Broadcasts Continue

Susini and his friends carried on with the broadcasts from the Teatro Coliseo for the following 19 days. More operas were transmitted: Verdi’s Aida, with Bernardo de Muro on August 28; Mascagni's and Illica's Iris, with Gilda Dalla Rizzia and the world-renowned tenor Beniamino Gigli; Verdi’s Rigoletto, with Angeles Otein and Giacomo Lauri Volpi; Massenet’s Manon, with Genevieve Vix and Grabbe; special transmissions with the Lyric Company of the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theater, directed by Eduardo Vitale.

Once the opera season at the Teatro Coliseo was finished, our four friends forged ahead and created productions of their own under the name Radio Argentina. The multifaceted Susini would sing in five different languages changing his name with each interpretation so listeners wouldn’t catch on the fact that the whole studio was manned by no more than four people!

Soon they were transmitting live not only from the magnificent Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires world-renowned opera house), but from a night-club in Güemes Street and the club Abdullah. As more equipment and receivers became available from both Germany and the United States, the audience grew with the improved transmissions. Part of the growth was due to affordable receivers that had outputs for more than one headset, so listening became a family gathering.

A significant milestone was the founding of the Radio Club Argentino in 1921, the first club of its kind in the Americas (which is not surprising, since one of its members, Mr. Bellocq had a radio amateur license granted in 1913—the first in Argentina). The following year the station moved one block away, to the roof of the auction house of Guerrico & Williams which was owned by the father of César Guerrico, one of the four Argentinian radio pioneers.

It was in that year of 1922 that a commercial consortium owned by Italian entrepeneurs founded the Corporación Argentina de Radio Sud América with studios located in the corner of San Martín and Corrientes Street. Even though their programs consisted mostly of popular music, the enterprise soon folded and Radio Sud América was taken over by our four friends, owners of Radio Argentina.

The following year, Juan Barnetche, mayor of Buenos Aires, pioneered legislation granting licenses for radio broadcasts, one of the first in the world. Radio Argentina changed its name to Radio Cultura with LOX as its call letters. Commercials soon followed and Susini even had to pay an artist to perform! In 1924, there were already five stations in Buenos Aires alone. Radio was here to stay.

Was It the First Transmission?

Besides Marconi’s transmission of May 19, 1920, mentioned earlier, other pioneers such as Stubblefield, Fessenden, Murgas, and De Forest, had the entrepeneurial spirit to experiment with radio broadcasts.

While the following list doesn’t pretend to be complete—in fact, it cannot be—it highlights some of the major milestones preceding and immediately following the historic transmission from the Teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. All transmissions originated in the United States unless noted.

- 1892: Natham B. Stubblefield astonishes his hometown neighbors of Murray, Kentucky, by transmitting the human voice over his "wireless telephony," actually amplitude modulation, or AM. This alleged feat has been questioned by many sources, including the Kentucky Association of Broadcasters since it is believed that he used induction fields rather than radio waves (RF).

- 1906: Canadian Professor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, a physicist, amazes radio operators in Brant Rock, Massachusetts and wireless operators at sea, when on Christmas Eve, after a series of CQ transmissions in Morse Code, they can hear the professor reading from the Bible and poetry, followed by a woman singing, a violin solo by Fessenden himself, and a short speech, also by Fessenden. The 2 kW transmitter, built by the Swede Dr. Ernst Alexanderson, was installed in a shore telegraph station 11 miles from Plymouth, Mass., and operated at 100 kHz.

- 1907: Rev. Joseph Murgas (born in Slovakia in 1864) is able to transmit speech from his experimental station in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.

- 1908: Lee De Forest transmits a program of phonograph records from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

- 1909: Charles David Herrold begins a 24-hour broadcast of music and news fromthe Herrold’s College of Wireless and Engineering in San Jose, California, using a 15 w spark transmitter. Herrold carried on with a regular schedule of transmissions (off and on) until 1917. His station, later known as Herrold’s School of Radio (call letters FN, 6XE, 6FX, and SJN), eventually became KQW in 1921 and then KCBS in 1949.

- 1910: January 13. Lee De Forest transmits live Cavalleria Rusticana with the voice of Enrico Caruso from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City—the first broadcast of its kind.

- 1913: The Physics Department at Iowa State University begins wireless transmissions including a public demonstration two years later at the Iowa State Fair. It eventually became station 9YI and later WOL.

- 1914: In Belgium, the Post Office begins wireless transmissions of music.

- 1915: De Forest transmits the human voice from Arlington, Virginia, across the Atlantic Ocean to a receiving antenna atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

- 1916: De Forest inaugurates radio concerts three nights a week and the first news broadcast by radio from an experimental station at High Bridge, New York. In november, he broadcasts results of the Woodrow Wilson-Charles Evans Hughes presidential campaign.

- 1916: As part of a war effort development for the Navy of a radio-telephone transmitter, Westinghouse Electric engineer and ham radio operator Frank Conrad begins experimental transmissions from a shed behind his house in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. The station call letters were 8XK.

- 1917: 9XM, the call leters for the University of Wisconsin in Madison, experiments with voice and music transmissions. Constructed by Edward Bennet and Earle Melvin Terry in 1909, it is not exacty known when the station converted from telegraphy to telephony and then radio. It later became WHA.

- 1918: Guglielmo Marconi transmits from New Brunswick, New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson’s ultimatum to Germany bringing World War I to an end. The 200 kW transmitter was designed and built by Dr. Ernst Alexanderson.

- 1919: January 3. 9XM in Madison, Wisconsin, begins radio-telephone broadcasts of weather reports.

- 1919: October 17, 1919. Frank Conrad of 8XK begins broadcasting phonograph records. His experimental transmissions of speech and music to the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh were not only well received by other radio amateurs, but by Conrad’s bosses at Westinghouse as well. Conrad’s transmissions led to Westinghouse’s decision to build pioneer station KDKA in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (see 1920 below).

- 1919: November. Dutch engineer Idzerda begins experimental transmissions from The Hague, The Netherlands. His transmissions continue off-and-on until 1924.

- 1919: Canadian experimental broadcast with a concert by singer Dorothy Lutton.

- 1919: Successful transmission of the human voice from Ireland across the Atlantic. This success less to the erection of a 6 kW transmitter in Chelmsford, England.

- 1920: May 19. Marconi transmits a concert by the Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba from New York City. The call letters were XWA, owned by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. Two daily half-hour programs of speech and music followed for one year. On June 20, in Britain's first advertised public broadcast, she repeated the song recital from Marconi's Works in Chelmsford, England. The transmissions were allowed under a short-lived license, soon withdrawn on the grounds that they interfered with "legitimate" services.

- 1920: August 20. Operated by The Detroit News, 8MK, Detroit, Michigan, begins operations on August 20 by broadcasting the words "This is 8MK, calling" at 8:15 PM, followed by the playing of two phonograph records: "Annie Laurie" and "Roses of Picardy," a query by an announcer asking his listeners "How do you get it?" and closing with the playing of taps. It is reported that the broadcast, launched under the name "Tonigh'ts Dinner," was received in 30 Detroit homes. On August 31, it broadcasts the results of a local election. The station call letters were later changed to WBL and is currently WWJ.

- 1920: August 27. Radio Argentina begins regularly scheduled transmissions from the Teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires.

- 1920: September 10. Fred Christian begins broadcasting records that he has borrowed from music stores. Granted the call letters 6ADZ, he broadcasts from Hollywood, California, with a 5 w transmitter. In March 1922 the station was assigned the call letters KNX, Los Angeles, currently with 50 kW.

- 1920: October 14. A college radio station, WRUC, Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., starts playing weekly music programs using phonograph records. The programs were broadcast from 8 PM to 8:30 PM with a three-minute interval. Owned by the trustees of the college, the station was heard from at least a 50-mile radius.

- 1920: November 2. Once the wartime ban on entertainment was lifted, 8ZZ (later KDKA) in Pittsburgh, Penna., broadcasts the election results of the Harding-Cox presidential race with a 100 w transmitter. This was, and still is, reported as the very first broadcast in the world (but we know better). Built by Frank Conrad in 1916 and licensed on October 27, the station started with a daily one-hour evening program, from 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM, expanding to longer hours soon afterwards. KDKA is regarded by most as the nation’s first true radio station, broadcasting regularly scheduled music programs, news, and sports.

- 1920: Developed by Earnest Fisk, Amalgamated Wireless Australasia begins conducting experimental radio broadcasts in Sydney, Australia (call letters 2SB, later 2BL).

- 1920: Danmarks Radio begins experimental transmissions in Denmark.

- 1920: Radio Paradizábal of Montevideo, Uruguay, broadcasts music from popular operas.

- 1920: A group of Soviet scientists in Russia experiment by transmitting the human voice via radio waves.

- 1920: First regular broadcasts begin from Montreal, Canada.

- 1920: Established to broadcast fire alarms, WRR, Dallas, Texas, plays phonograph records so owners can check if they were tuned in. In 1925 the station sells time spots to sponsors.


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- "Swede Invented Modern Transmitter," by Barry Mishkind, Radio World, March 18, 1998.

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