Nathan Stubblefield

nathan stubblefield


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Table of Contents

How It Began - A child's question piques the author's curiosity.

Early Life - The Stubblefields arrive in west Kentucky to claim a large Revolutionary War land grant. Nathan Stubblefield, the child of a prosperous lawyer, is born in Murray in 1860, orphaned at age 14 and married at age 21. He starts life as a farmer but soon turns his attention to tinkering with inventions.

Stubblefield's Telephone Business - Nathan patents an acoustic "vibrating" telephone and enjoys modest success selling and installing telephone systems in Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Mississippi and elsewhere. A group of his customers in Murray buys a Bell Telephone franchise and competition puts Nathan out of business.

Wireless in 19th Century America - Beginning with Morse's 1842 experiments, American inventors including Bell and Edison confront the challenge of wireless telegraphy and telephony with limited success. By 1891, most of them have abandoned their efforts.

"Hello, Rainey." - In 1892, ignorant of the wireless inventions of the past 60 years, Nathan creates an electromagnetic induction wireless telephone and demonstrates it to his friend Rainey Wells. A few years later, Nathan develops a superior wireless telephone that uses natural conduction through the earth and water.

The Wireless Telephone Company of America - After a well-publicized public demonstration of his wireless telephone on New Years Day 1902 in Murray, including its broadcasting capabilities, Nathan's work attracts national attention. He follows this event with a demonstration in Washington DC, where he makes a ship to shore telephone call, and eventually accepts an offer of cash and stock to sell his invention to the Wireless Telephone Company of America. The company sends Nathan and his eldest son Bernard to Philadelphia and then New York to demonstrate the system for wealthy potential investors. The first presentation is successful, but the New York demonstration is a failure. Nathan returns to Murray to expose the company as a fraudulent stock promotion scheme.

Back on the Farm - With the company in control of his natural conduction wireless telephone, Nathan ceases to work on that design and reverts to his earlier experiments with electromagnetic induction. Eventually, he develops a prototype and files a patent application in 1907. The US Patent Office initially rejects Nathan's invention because it resembles prior patents for wireless devices from the 1880s. He revises his application to show that his device is an improvement on the earlier ones and earns a patent in 1908. By then, there is no market for this outdated technology.

Hard Luck and Trouble - Nathan experiences a series of devastating events. His financial backers sue him; his children sell the family farm; and his wife abandons him. He becomes an eccentric hermit, moving about from shack to shack, and subsisting on donations from charitable relatives and neighbors. He dies in 1928 of starvation. The New York Times prints his obituary.

The Legend Begins - A few months after Nathan's death, a college journalism instructor and his students begin to chronicle the inventor's life. The result is a publicity campaign to establish a shrine to Nathan Stubblefield and to recognize Murray, Kentucky as the "Birthplace of Radio." RCA considers contributing to the effort, but rejects the idea on the advice of a corporate historian who claims that Nathan's inventions had nothing to do with radio.

"The Birthplace of Radio" - After World War II, the Murray business community takes up the Stubblefield cause as a way to call attention to the town and encourage investment in the local economy. Murray's first local radio station goes on the air with the call letters WNBS for Nathan B. Stubblefield.

Under the Microscope - In the 1970s media scholars and historians of technology examine the Stubblefield story and come to the conclusion that there is no connection between his invention and the technology that became radio. Some give him credit for forecasting broadcasting.

Reevaluating the Legend - Back in Murray Nathan's status as a folk hero is intact despite the refusal of the outside world to recognize the community's claims.

A Centennial Celebration - In 1992, a hundred years after Stubblefield's first verified tests, a college professor and a television engineer create working replicas of Nathan's two wireless telephone systems and demonstrate them publicly throughout the year. One of Nathan's grandsons mounts a new campaign to have his ancestor recognized as the true inventor of radio, but his effort is mired in controversy.

Some Thoughts on Immortality - The author looks at Nathan's contemporary image and takes a final stab at separating fact from folklore.


Nathan Stubblefield's US Patents - These are copies of the 4 US Patents issued to Nathan.

Stubblefield's Statement on Wireless Telephony, 1902 - Nathan explains his work in detail.

Waldon Fawcett's Article from Scientific American, 1902 - This account, published after Nathan's Washington DC demonstration, describes the event and puts it into context with similar inventions and inventors of the era.

L.J. Hortin's Article from Kentucky Progress, 1930 - This melodramatic and sensational article, the first comprehensive story of Nathan's life and work, is the source of much Stubblefield folklore, including the claim that Murray, Kentucky is the "Birthplace of Radio."

James Johnson's Speech to the Kentucky Broadcasters Association, 1961 - This speech is the culmination of Murray's attempt to profit from Stubblefield's technological heritage, serving as the official statement from the Murray Chamber of Commerce for many years.

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