by Randall Davidson, Wisconsin Public Radio
"9 X M Talking...Department of Physics...University of Wisconsin...stand by..."
Near the entrance to the University of Wisconsin-Madison building that is home to Wisconsin Public Radio, there is a historical marker touting WHA-AM as the "oldest station in the nation." While this claim is debatable, UW experimenters were indeed involved in the earliest days of what was then called "wireless." This term originally referred to "wireless telegraphy," and the earliest wireless broadcasts were sent in dots and dashes.
The usefulness of these wireless messages entered the public consciousness with the distress calls sent from the Titanic in 1912. By that time, wireless was cutting-edge research at many U.S. universities, and the UW was no exception. In 1914, Professor Edward Bennett of the electrical engineering department set up a wireless telegraphic set on campus and secured a license with the call sign 9XM. In June 1915, he arranged to transfer his license to the University of Wisconsin for use by the physics department for wireless experiments.
Physics professor Earle M. Terry was the driving force behind experiments at the UW. During this period, equipment was not available commercially, forcing Terry and his students to manufacture their own. For years, as part of the physics department, the radio station was near the University's glass-blowing laboratory, where the vacuum tubes for the radio station were made.
Terry, who passionately believed scientific advances should be put to practical use, considered operating 9XM on a regular schedule to transmit something that would be of use to all listeners. He eventually decided to send a dots-and-dashes version of the weather forecast.
The first telegraphic broadcast of the weather forecast from the 9XM "studio" in the basement of Science Hall was at 11 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 4, 1916 (this can legitimately be cited as the first regular "broadcast" by the station that would become WHA). Few could receive it-at that time, there were only about 500 radio receivers in Wisconsin. However, those receiving the forecast were encouraged to transcribe it and post it somewhere in their community for others.
Experimentation with telephonic (sound) broadcasts continued, and it was sometime in early 1917 that Professor Terry invited friends to his home for what he termed the "first broadcast," a special transmission where records were played over the air. Unfortunately, his friends were unimpressed by the demonstration! Still, Terry persisted. Early experiments found that most music broadcasts were distorted: the ones that worked the best featured Hawaiian guitars.
During World War I, President Wilson feared the new wireless broadcasts could be of use to the enemy. 9XM staff complied with Wilson's order that all civilian wireless stations be dismantled. Shortly afterward, they were told to put everything back together again, since 9XM was needed to conduct wireless experiments with the Navy.
It was during a message with the Navy in February 1919 that 9XM made its first clear, undistorted transmission of human speech. Some documents indicate a regular weekly program of the phonograph records was broadcast in early November 1920.
A regular program schedule was instituted on January 3, 1921, with the weather forecast at 12:30 p.m. six days a week and, by the end of the month, a regular program of live or recorded music Friday evenings. By the fall, farm market information had been added to the noon hour, and 9XM had successfully broadcast several live concerts. The station continued to broadcast material telegraphically in addition to the voice broadcasts.
On January 13, 1922, the station was relicensed. The call letters WHA-which remain to this day-were assigned. The rest, as they say, is history.