To this end, Mr. Stubblefield experimented with the buried power receiver and a system of telephone sets. He found it possible to send vocal signals through the ground to a distant receiver, referring to this system as a “ground telephone”. Telephoning through the ground became routine for this remarkable man.
Signals sent through the Stubblefield method were notable for their reported “great clarity”. What is strange about this system is its elegant simplicity. Stubblefield’s transmitting system evidences an almost crude minimalism, which offends some researchers, while surprising others. Numerous private and public demonstrations of this first system were made in Murray, Kentucky (1886-1892), where his mysterious “black boxes” were seen. Two metal rods were stuck into the ground a few feet apart from each distantly placed set. Speech between the two sets was loud and clear despite distances of 3500 to 6000 feet.
These transmissions were made through the ground itself and used the Stubblefield cell for power. In several photographs we see special loud-speaking telephones outfitted with long (1 foot) horns, designed to act as annunciators. Calls from these annunciators brought his son Bernard to the telephone transmitter. The system was never switched off. Power was limitless and did not diminish with time of day or length of use.
While Marconi and others were barely managing the transmission of telegraph signals for equivalent distances, Nathan Stubblefield was transmitting vocal dialogue. The clarity of these signals and their sheer volume was the most widely recognized feature of the Stubblefield system. He was developing the system to operate through far greater distances, using automatic relays to boost signals for very great distances.
He published an extraordinary brochure in 1898 to attract investors who had expressed interest in consolidating a small corporation around his work. In this brochure, Stubblefield insisted that power for his device was not generated in the cell. He calmly stated that the cell received its surplus energy from the earth. In a less discussed portion of this brochure, Stubblefield stated that “electrotherapeutic” devices had been developed from his earth battery. Other researchers made similar claims for their earth batteries (Hicks, Mellon).
In 1902, Stubblefield set up one of his sets in a “Main street” upper office … in a hardware shop. From that point to his farm (some 6000 feet distant) he conducted continuous conversations with his son Bernard. Tapping with a pencil on his one-piece transceiver, Bernard was quickly heard in a loud, very clear voice. This transceiver was a carbon button placed in a tin snuffbox. Speech and response were transacted through the self-same device, which acted as both microphone and loudspeaker. Cells were placed downstairs from the office in the ground. They were never removed and never wore out, though operating twenty-four hours around the clock.
Nathan Stubblefield offered to construct a large-scale power station for the town of Murray. His quoted initial installation costs were estimated at five thousand dollars. The town politicians declined the offer. Now, the technique of drawing up electricity from the earth remains a mystery.
The Stubblefield ground radio system was demonstrated for approximately one thousand Murray residents (January 1902). Photographs of Stubblefield and his family, and a good crowd of witnesses from town show the cell lying on the ground among all his assembled inventions; a flowerpot sized coil of good volume. Other devices show motors and large capacitor stacks for aerial voice transmission experiments.
After the successful completion of these preliminary tests, Stubblefield traveled to Washington, D.C. for a public demonstration, which was to be one of his crowning public achievements (March 1902). Stubblefield sent wireless messages from a steamship to stations on the shores of Georgetown. In this successful test, Stubblefield trailed long wires in the river water. Signals were engaged from ship to shore in a remarkable demonstration. Witnesses later acknowledged that Stubblefield’s ground telephony sounded louder and came through with greater clarity than the subaqueous tests. Photographs of this event are all available.
During this time, Stubblefield declared that news, weather, and other announcements could be broadcast through the ground across a great territory for private reception. He also added that simultaneous messages and news of all kinds would soon be transmitted through the ground from a central distribution station.
Nathan also stated that, while such broadcasts required district-wide transmissions, he was developing a means by which privacy of telephonic messages could be maintained among callers. This “method of individuation” would also take place through the ground, insuring that no one could eavesdrop on conversations. Stubblefield had conceived and demonstrated these systems some twenty years before, anticipating statements made by Nikola Tesla, when referring to his Wardenclyffe Station.
The Washington D.C. demonstrations were followed by a trip further north. Mr. Stubblefield took his apparatus to New York City for additional tests, preparing for a public demonstration in Manhattan’s Central Park. The demonstration was to take place in less than twenty-four hours after his arrival. To his very great shock, Stubblefield found that the ground was not conducive to easy ground telephony, there being no “power points” available. He requested more time to discover the power points before setting up the stations properly. Time to “work the stony earth” of the Park left a few investors foolishly wary of the system’s worth. This demonstration was immediately withdrawn.
His next public expositions were given in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park with greater success (May 1902). He now recognized, more than ever before, the role of geologic formations in determining and establishing his stations. Natural power points would determine the location of each such station central. Stubblefield published a prospectus for his WTCA (Wireless Telephone Company of America), stating that “I can telephone without wires a mile or more now, and when the more powerful apparatus I am working on is finished and combined with further developments, the distance will be unlimited”.
Despite each of these remarkably extensive demonstrations, Stubblefield sold only one telephonic system to another corporation, the Gordon Telephone Company of Charleston. This system was used to communicate with offshore islands. It would be interesting to retrieve this system and examine its contents.
- HEARING THROUGH WIRES: Antonio Meucci
- BROADCAST POWER: Nikola Tesla