One Hundred Years of Radio in Manitoba, Canada: The Early Wireless Years

Members of a local Winnipeg senior’s theatre group, Jack Slessor (left), Garry Moir (centre) and Ron Robinson, warming up their radio voices to ring in 100 years of radio broadcasting in Manitoba. To celebrate the centennial anniversary, the group performed a musical called The Last Radio Show at the Gas Station Theatre. © Winnipeg Free Press, April 20, 2022.

During the month of April (2022), the Canadian province of Manitoba is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the introduction of official radio broadcasting in their territory.  In honor of this auspicious occasion, we begin a mini-series of interesting topics regarding the wireless and radio history of Manitoba, and in our program today, we go back to the very beginning, to the time when even experimental wireless was very young.

The Canadian province of Manitoba lies in the very center of their country and it was originally settled by waves of tribal migrations who crossed over the Bering Straits from Asia way back in ancient times.  Some 500 years ago, the first European fur traders from both France and England entered the arena; and then, in 1673, England acquired a very large tract of territory in the center of what is now Canada, and they initially named it Rupert’s Land, in honor of Prince Rupert, a nephew of King Charles 1 of England, and the first governor of the Hudson Bay Company.

Almost 200 years later (1870), the new province of Manitoba was incorporated into the three year old Dominion of Canada, though at that time, Manitoba was just a small square of territory that was informally dubbed the “postage stamp province”.  The name Manitoba was derived from the local indigenous tribal languages.

These days, the subsequently expanded province of Manitoba covers a quarter million square miles, with more than a 100,000 lakes, and a large population of white Polar Bears.  The total number of people stands at more than 1.3 million, and they speak the two official languages (English and French), though many of the locals speak the regional Aboriginal languages as well.  It is also reported that the largest population of Icelanders who live outside the island of Iceland is found in Winnipeg, the provincial capital of Manitoba.

Actually Winnipeg was already established as a trading center for the tribal peoples before the first European traders arrived.  In 1738, the French established their first trading post; and in 1809, the English established their first settlement, which included the construction of Fort Gibraltar.  The population of Winnipeg has now reached ¾ million, and like the name of the province, the name of the city was also derived from local languages, and it means muddy water.

Map of Manitoba (1900). Manitoba Historical Maps flickr account, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Before we begin the information about the early wireless story in Manitoba, there is another interesting point of historic information, about a very friendly Black Bear.  In August 1914, an English born veterinarian who was serving in the Canadian army, Lt. Harry Colbourn, bought an orphaned Black Bear that was for sale in White River, Ontario.

Teddy bear manufactured by the London-based firm of J. K. Farnell. By J. K. Farnell – http://www.vam.ac.uk/moc/images/image/27578-popup.html, Public Domain, Link

Colbourn named his new pet, Winnipeg the Bear, in honor of his adopted Canadian city, and he smuggled it into England, where it became the unofficial mascot of his Canadian army regiment.  Before his army unit moved across the English Channel into France during the events of World War 1, Colbourn gifted his pet, Winnipeg the Bear, to the London Zoo.

Now, for the well known children’s story.  Christopher Robin (Milne) was born in 1921 in England, and for his first birthday in the following year, his parents gave him a popular stuffed toy teddy bear made by the Alpha Farnell company.  Three years later (1924), four year old toddler Christopher Robin visited Winnipeg the Bear (Winnie) in the London Zoo for the very first time.

Christopher enjoyed his many encounters with Winnie in the Zoo, and he gave his toy bear the same name, Winnie.  Now on a previous occasion while on vacation in the English countryside, he had seen a beautiful snow white swan, that was apparently also quite smelly as well, that he personally named Pooh.  In a childlike way, he named his toy teddy bear in the same way, Winnie the Pooh.

Two years later again (1926), his 44 year old father Alan A. Milne began to write a series of poems and stories for children, including two major children’s books about his son Christopher Robin and his toy teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh.  Other well known characters in his writings for children were Piglet, Kanga, Roo and Tigger.  His writings about Winnie, named after Winnipeg in Canada, are read all around the world.

Early view of the Polson home. Photo: Winnipeg Places blog.

Now back to the Canadian province Manitoba and the beginning of wireless communications in that Canadian province, more than one hundred years ago, before the advent of radio broadcasting.

During the summer of the year 1909, student Alex V. Polson from the Central Collegiate in Winnipeg Manitoba visited one of the several wireless stations that Dr. Lee De Forest had erected along the eastern coast of the United States.  Enthralled with the wonders of the new wireless that he had observed, young Polson, together with several other students in the Central Collegiate on Kate Street in Winnipeg, began experimenting in the same way.

Their first successful wireless transmission was made from the Polson home at 94 Cathedral Avenue in the autumn of 1909, and the Morse Code message was received by student Melville Sayer in his home at the Alexandria Block on Graham Avenue, a distance of about 3 miles.

November 18, 1911, Winnipeg Free Press. Image: Winnipeg Places blog.

During the following year, 1910, Dr. Lee De Forest of the United Wireless Telegraph Co., made his first official visit to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

United Wireless rented an imposing suite of offices in the recently constructed Union Bank Building on Main Street in Winnipeg for the purpose of establishing the company’s international public headquarters for a growing wireless enterprise.  The six year old 10 storey high Union Bank Building, with its steel frame work and ornamental stone facing, was described as the first sky scraper building in Canada.

Dr. Lee de Forest arrived in Winnipeg on Wednesday April 13 (1910), whereupon he was interviewed by news reporters from three different newspapers.  As he explained, United Wireless planned to establish a wireless laboratory and factory in Winnipeg, and they had already leased space for this purpose in Enderton Building at the corner of Portage Avenue and Hargrave Street.

They also intended to erect a long distance wireless station in the Winnipeg area for Morse Code and voice communication via a chain of relay stations between their Chicago master station and the American Pacific coast.  The implementation of voice transmissions was planned with the use of their newly developed Aerophone wireless equipment.

Lee de Forest (1907). Photo: Encyclopædia Britannica

On the Thursday evening (April 14, 1910), de Forest presented the first of three lectures on recent wireless developments to an overflow crowd in the Science Building at the University of Manitoba.  On the Tuesday morning, (April 19, 1910) de Forest presented a practical demonstration of his Aerophone wireless equipment (both transmitter and receiver) on the roof of the Royal Alexandra Hotel and on the roof of Eaton’s Department Store.

The portable transmitter was housed in a polished mahogany wooden cabinet, and the receiver in a separate though similar cabinet.  The transmitter in a second pair of similar wireless units was damaged in transit, so only one transmitter was in use for the public demonstration, though with two receivers.

The public demonstration of wireless transmission took place at two major locations in Winnipeg.   The 500 watt portable transmitter was installed on the roof top of the Royal Alexandra Hotel on Higgins Avenue, and the portable receiver was installed on the roof top of Eaton’s Departmental Store on Portage Avenue, a distance of less than a mile.

Transmissions in Morse Code, speech, and music from a gramophone record, were transmitted and successfully received, and it was stated that the audio quality of the music reproduction was equivalent to the same sound as gramophone records of that era.  The newspapers of the day were profuse with their high commendations for the magnificent success of the experimental radio transmissions.

So, what happened after all that in the extensive de Forest ambitions for radio developments in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.  Nothing, just absolutely nothing!

However in February of the following year 1911, the first wireless club in Canada was formed, the Canadian Central Wireless Club, with Alex Polson as the first president, and twelve young men as members.  The annual fee for membership in this now historic wireless club was 50 cents, per year. 

Aerial view of Port Nelson (1917). Source: Source: Archives of Manitoba, R. W. Patterson Collection 252, N1311.

The club members built their own spark wireless equipment, usually based on a Ford Model T ignition coil.  One of their favorite wireless games was Checkers (Draughts), using numbered squares.  The wireless club members usually played against wireless students who were studying with the new Kelvin Technical College on Harrow Street in Winnipeg.

Then during the year 1913, two commercial wireless communication stations were installed in Manitoba in conjunction with the development of a new regional railway line, one at The Pas and the other at Port Nelson.  Both stations operated on longwave with 10 kW on 1800 m, 66 kHz, and the first operators were capable of receiving and sending in two different systems of Morse Code, American and Continental.

The first test signals were received at The Pas station VBM, on November 22, 1913; and early in the next year, on February 20 (1914), the Port Nelson station VBN was taken into full service.  There was also another similar station at Port Arthur, which operated under the callsign VBA.

However with changing circumstances after the end of World War 1, the railway line was no longer needed, so the two wireless stations, VBN at Port Nelson and VBM at The Pas, were closed, permanently closed.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX programs of April 24, 2022 & May 15, 2022

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