KNOWN RADIO RECORDINGS 1920-1924
(The following section draws heavily on the research of Dr. Michael Biel, professor of Radio/TV at Moorehead State University in Kentucky, and the pre-eminent authority on early broadcast transcriptions in the US. His 1977 doctoral dissertation "The Making and Use Of Recordings in Broadcasting Before 1936" remains the definitive work on the subject, and is highly recommended to anyone with a serious interest in the story behind the recordings we all enjoy. My thanks to Dr. Biel for his help in preparing this material.)
The earliest surviving recordings of a radio signal are segments of Morse code transmissions recorded off the air in late 1913 or 1914 by Charles Apgar, a New Jersey radio amateur who fitted the electrical element of a headphone to a home-made electrical recording head attatched to an ordinary Edison cylinder phonograph. This contrivance enabled Apgar to electrically record radio signals picked up by his receiver on wax cylinders. and he made several such transcriptions during 1913-1915 -- some of which led to the discovery of high-speed coded messages being transmitted by German spies thru the Telefunken wireless station at Sayville, Long Island.
Other recordings made by Apgar were more prosaic -- including examples of Morse code news bulletins transmitted by the New York Herald's wireless station WHB in Manhattan.
Apgar's original wax cylinders are lost -- but samples of his recordings survive, courtesy of an uncoated aluminum aircheck of Apgar's appearance on station WJZ in New York on December 27, 1934. Apgar was interviewed by NBC announcer George Hicks, and highlighted his description of his experiments by playing two of his cylinders into the microphone -- one containing a sample of a New York Herald news transmission and the other an example of one of the "spy" transmissions. Twelve-inch aluminum copy discs of this program are owned by the Antique Wireless Association, and a tape copy is owned by the Library of Congress.
No authenticated radio recordings are currently known to exist from this time period.
The Museum of Radio and Television in New York has listed a 1920 vice-presidential campaign speech on "Americanism" by Franklin D. Roosevelt as the supposedly-oldest broadcast in its collection, but this is incorrect. The recording cited by the museum is actually a commercial phonograph record released on the "Nation's Forum" label (N. F. #20, matrix number 49871) This recording was made in the New York studios of the Columbia Graphophone Company, and was not derived from a radio broadcast, nor was the record intended for broadcast use.
Also not authentic are the various recreations of KDKAs 1920 Election Night coverage. Several recreations were made over the years by KDKA or by Westinghouse to celebrate various anniversaries, as well as one supervised by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly for Volume 3 of the "I Can Hear It Now" record series released by Columbia Records in 1950. The latter recording may actually be voiced by the man who announced the KDKA broadcast, but it nonetheless cannot be considered an authentic representation of what was actually heard that evening. The third volume of "I Can Hear It Now" has long been a source of confusion for unknowing collectors as well as documentary producers, who have often sampled its contents for the soundtracks of various film and television projects -- unaware of the fact that all of the 1920s "broadcasts" excerpted on the album are dramatic recreations and not authentic recordings.
Documentation exists of numerous recordings of broadcasts made by technicians working for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company and the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1921-23, but none are known to survive. Periodic mentions of other experimental recordings in the US and abroad are found in the radio magazines of the day, but none of these examples have survived.
11/10/23--Armistice Day Speech by former President Woodrow Wilson. WEAF, New York-WCAP, Washington-WJAR, Providence. Recorded by Frank L. Capps, a prominent recording technician and experimenter. The specific techniques used to make this recording are shrouded in mystery, but the recording is believed to be electrical. The existing vinyl pressing of the recording was made by the Compo Company of Lachine, Quebec around 1940, and is in the possession of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. Both sides of the disc contain the same material, but the dubs differ slightly. Audio quality of the recording leaves a great deal to be desired -- in part due to the technology used, and in part due to Wilson's ill health. His voice is weak and distant as he discusses the significance of Armistice Day, and stresses the need for international cooperation in the future. The recording runs just over three and a half minutes, and includes no announcements.
Several excerpts from 1923-24 New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra broadcasts over station WEAF were recorded as experiments by Bell Laboratories, and numerous examples survive. These are brief segments, and not complete programs. Some have recently been released on CD by the Philharmonic in a collection entitled "Historic Broadcasts: 1923-1987" with a five minute segment from a December 1923 broadcast being the earliest. There are no announcements on any of these music recordings.
4/23/24 -- Speech by King George V, delivered at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. This British Broadcasting Company broadcast was recorded by the acoustic method -- a loudspeaker was placed before an old-fashioned recording horn -- by the Gramophone Company of London, and rush-processed into finished shellac records for a repeat broadcast in the evening. A substantial portion of the broadcast was recorded for possible commercial release on the HMV label, but only the Kings speech is currently confirmed to exist.
June, 1924--Speech by F. D. Roosevelt at the Democratic National Convention, Madison Square Garden, New York. Broadcast over a twelve station Bell System network headed by WEAF and WCAP. Recorded by "Advertisers Recording Company" This unusual celluloid disc recording is cut at the non-standard speed of 60 rpm -- and appears to have been a giveaway or promotional item. It is probable that this recording was made from the broadcast, but this cannot be positively confirmed. Another Advertisers Recording Company disc containing a 1924-vintage political speech by President Coolidge is known to exist, and this may be from a broadcast as well. It is unclear if the recordings are electrical or acoustic. Not in my collection but known to exist.
9/12/24-- National Defense Test Day Broadcast. WEAF-WCAP network of eighteen stations. Linecheck recorded by Western Electric. A ninety-minute program aired to demonstrate how radio could respond to national emergencies thru the interconnection of stations in various cities. Speeches by Secretary of War Weeks, General Pershing, General Saltzman of the Signal Corps, and General J. F. Carty of AT&T. This broadcast marked the first major demonstration of multiple remote cut-ins on a single program, with engineers in fourteen cities responding on cue, followed by two-way conversations between General Pershing and generals representing each of the Army Corps areas. Most of the program was recorded and pressings of the discs were presented to General Pershing. Sets of the discs are also held by the Library Of Congress and the National Archives. Audio quality of the recording is excellent, but two of the sides recorded were damaged during processing and do not survive.
Elizabeth McLeod's Documenting Early Radio Page.