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From Brant Rock tower, radio age was sparked

MARSHFIELD -- A century ago, radio pioneer Reginald A. Fessenden used a massive 420 -foot radio tower that dwarfed Brant Rock to send voice and music to ships along the Atlantic coast, in what has become known as the world's first voice radio broadcast. This week, Marshfield will lay claim to its little-known radio heritage with a three-day extravaganza to celebrate the feat -- including pilgrimages to the base of the long-dismantled tower, a cocktail to be named the Fessenden Fizz, and a dramatic reenactment of the historic moment, called ``Miracle at Brant Rock."

``Fessenden deserves credit for being the first voice and music broadcaster, the first disc jockey, the first person to play live instrumental music and talk and recite poetry" by radio, said Scott Wheeler , a member of the Fessenden Centennial Committee, playfully abbreviated as the FCC. ``We're trying to hit it big in every way, so everyone knows this Canadian guy with a big white beard is the father of communication."

The celebration, which begins Friday , has attracted the attention of local radio aficionados, as well as people from as far away as Australia.

``The main thing is to get the story out, and maybe encourage some people to do some inventing," said Dave Riley , a ham radio operator who plans to put up a 43-foot functional radio tower this fall next to the base of the original tower in Blackman's Point RV and Camping Park in Brant Rock.

Most people associate radio with Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first trans-Atlantic wireless messages, and was awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics. But Fessenden's long-forgotten work and the technology he used -- called a ``spark gap transmitter" -- was a significant step toward modern-day radio.

The year of historic milestones in radio began in January 1906, when the tower that once swayed 420 feet above the neighborhood began transmitting Morse code to its sister tower in Machrihanish, Scotland, and received a reply.

On Christmas Eve that year, Fessenden broadcast the first radio program. Ships up and down the Atlantic seaboard heard him give a speech, followed by music, in place of the usual dots and dashes.

``It's a wonderful thing to picture people at sea sending and receiving Morse code, and suddenly they hear a man's voice and a recording of a Handel piece and playing `O, Holy Night' on the violin, and throwing off their headphones and saying, `Captain, you have to hear this!' " said Wheeler, who wrote the 15-minute play, ``Miracle at Brant Rock," that will be performed by the Massasoit Radio Players at the gala cocktail party and dinner being held at the Daniel Webster Estate on Saturday .

The centennial events will be attended not just by radio historians and amateurs, but also by people discovering their radio heritage for the first time.

Peter H. Glaubitz , of Eagles Mere, Pa., said that he decided to come in honor of his grandfather, Hugo Julius Glaubitz , who was Fessenden's mechanical engineer and designed and oversaw construction of the radio tower.

Glaubitz said he only knew ``little snips" of the family lore until recently. ``I just started to take a better look at what separates fact from rumor, to find out exactly what his role was . . . in preparation for attending the festivities," he said.

He plans to visit the tower base on his first trip to Marshfield and will bring a family photo album, an honorary degree that his grandfather received from the University of Pittsburgh for the work on the tower, and his family.

The festivities will include commemorative events for radio enthusiasts and laymen alike. Ham radio operator demonstrations and a concert will fill the afternoon, beginning at 3 p.m. at the Isaac Winslow House on Friday .

On Saturday , local radio station WATD will broadcast from the Daniel Webster Estate and will feature radio personalities recreating their favorite memories of the medium from noon to 5 p.m. From 6 to 10 p.m., the Daniel Webster Estate will host a gala, including the presentation of the first Reginald A. Fessenden Award in Broadcasting -- to Gary LaPierre of WBZ-AM, who is retiring after 42 years with the Boston-based station.

There will also be dinner, dancing, and the presentation of judging for the Fessenden Fizz -- a project that committee member and self-proclaimed Fessenden activist Edward Perry says he has been training for over the past few weeks. ``Every time I go into a restaurant, I say, `Make me your most historical drink,' " he said.

Next Sunday, also at the Daniel Webster Estate, the celebrations continue at noon, with a vintage car exhibit and period costumes from the turn of the century. Finally, a music fest featuring local bands -- some of whom are working up songs that will be tributes to Fessenden -- will perform.

But the crowning moment may be something less subtle: the premiere showing of a cache of century-old glass negatives, discovered this year, that reveal more of Fessenden's contributions to radio history.

``It was -- ah! -- it was like Tut's tomb for us," said Wheeler. ``I've been involved in radio since I was a kid, and this was unbelievable -- my eyes really rolled back in my head. The opportunity to manifest Fessenden in any way we can is a real thrill."

For more information about the Fessenden festivities, visit: Reservations are required for the dinner at the Daniel Webster Estate, which costs $75 per person. Reservations can be made by calling 781-837-2403 . Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

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