Thursday, 22 December 2011

Come Quick, Danger

By Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2007

Fessenden, Reginald Aubrey (1866-1932) Radio engineer and inventor, born in East Bolton, Quebec, Canada. After a varied career in industry and academic life as a teacher, chemist, and electrical engineer, he became interested in adapting wireless telegraphy for voice transmission. He developed the principle of amplitude modulation (AM) and made the first broadcast of speech and music on 24 Dec 1906 from Brant Rock, MA, which was heard over 500 miles away.
- Cambridge Biographical Encyclopaedia

Not long after noon, when the sun is as high in the sky as it will get today, and the squalls of the morning have given way to an unrelieved flat greyness over Brant Rock, she straps on her snow shoes and trudges the length of Ocean Street carrying a tray of sandwiches for the fellows in the laboratory. She has covered the plates with two napkins fresh from the linen press that put the snow to shame, and for once she is glad of one of Reginald’s gadgets, the vacuum flask he copied from an account of Dewar’s original in Scientific American, for she has made a hot soup of winter squash and rosemary that will, she hopes, drive off the tickle in the throat he was complaining of when he awoke. He will need his voice tonight, of all nights.

She can already hear the roar of the generator as she passes the chapel at the end of the village, each gravestone topped with a cap of freshly-fallen snow. As she follows the shovelled path between the picket fences, against which drifts lie three or four feet deep, the thump-whir-thump of the rotary transmitter adds its competing rhythm to the waves that crash on Blackman’s point below. She gazes up at the vast antenna which stabs up from the midst of the motley collection of buildings, expecting as ever to see some sign of the force that crackles within it, the energy that races up and down its spine – 750 times a second, her husband tells her – but, as ever, it stands impassive against the grey sky.

Inside, the transmitter’s roar is loud enough to make conversation impossible. Her husband has his back to her, hunched over the alternator, his shoulders tense. Staines, in apron and goggles, raises a friendly hand as she sets the tray down on the table, holding up three fingers – hello; welcome; we’ll be with you in three minutes. She pulls up a stool, sits down to wait. After a while, she puts her mittened hands over her ears.

At last, at a signal from Reginald, Staines pulls the switch on the generator and the rotor ebbs and dies, the circle broken as its poles unblend and slow into individual visibility. Her husband turns, notices her for the first time, and his face breaks into a wide smile. Staines is already pulling off his gloves and tucking in to the sandwiches.

“How will anyone hear you over that racket?” she asks, uncorking the vacuum flask.

“Oh, I won’t be speaking from in here.” Her husband wipes his grease-stained fingers on a rag that looks no cleaner. “We’re rigging up a line to the old lookout station on the point.” He gestures to a thick cable wrapped with gutta-percha that runs across the laboratory’s grimy floor and out though an open window on the building’s seaward side. “Arthur will be in here manning the transmitter, and I shall be out there, hunched over the microphone.”

“All alone?” she asks doubtfully.

He gives a grin. “Oh no, my dear. I’ll have the whole world in there with me.”

“Or at least those that are next to a telegraph receiver,” points out Staines through a mouthful of bread and potted meat.

“The modern world, then.” He accepts the cup she hold out for him, and reaches for a sandwich.

She looks towards the open window and the roaring, relentless ocean beyond. “I pity any man stuck out there, tonight of all nights.”

He splutters crumbs into his beard in his enthusiasm. “All the more reason to reach out to them: to let them share in the Christmas spirit. Do you not see, my dear, this is exactly what we are working for? Imagine: a few years from now, the farmer on his ranch, the cripple in his bed, the lighthouse keeper at his lonely watch, the young city clerk far from his family; all of them united together in worship. One great universal congregation of the airwaves.”

She gives a weak smile. She’s heard this speech before. “Have you decided on your program yet?”

“Oh yes.” He taps the violin case which lies upon the table. “I thought I would start with a verse from a carol. And then something from the gospels.”

“You must give them a warning first. They will be frightened out of their wits.”

He smiles. “You think so?”

“To hear a human voice coming from their receiver, when all they are expecting is dots and dashes?”

He and Staines exchange amused glances. “You think we will have a rash of sailors hurling themselves overboard? Perhaps you’re right. I shall begin by assuring them there is no need to be alarmed.”

Staines sings softly into his soup: “fear not, said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds.”

“You’re quite right, Staines!” Reginald reaches for his Bible. “That’s just the thing: the warning to the shepherds. Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. Luke, isn’t it?”

His assistant smiles at her reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Mrs Fessenden: we’ll give them good warning.” He taps out the general alert on the table top – Dah dit dah dit, dah dah dit dah: CQ, CQ: Come Quick, Come Quick.

As if in answer, there comes a thumping on the door. She gives a little scream, her hand to her throat. Ridiculous. It’s just the mailman, doffing his hat and stamping the snow from his boots as her husband throws open the door for him.

“My dear fellow! Come in, come in. What brings you all the way out here in such weather?”

“Card for you, sir.” The man gazes around the laboratory, his eyes wide.

Her heart lifts. Is it from Kenny?

“West Orange, New Jersey,” her husband reads, and tears excitedly at the envelope. “Ah! It must be from Edison.”

Of course. Why would Kenny write her here? He has the house address. She enclosed it with the package she sent to his barracks. She has heard nothing back.

Even in her disappointment she remembers her manners. “Would you care to join us?” She gestures to the table. Even after Staines’ best efforts, there are plenty of sandwiches left. Her husband has hardly touched his own plate.

“No, thank you kindly, Ma’am.” The man stands, turning his hat brim in his hands, staring up at the alien bulk of the spark gap transmitter and the alternator beside it.

“Oh, but you’ll take something against the cold,” says Reginald distractedly, flipping open the card with its bright picture of Saint Nicholas on the front. “Staines, fetch out the brandy.”

The mailman will accept a dram, if it’s no trouble. Staines brings the bottle and four grubby glasses.

My dear Fezzie, I once told you that man had as much chance of broadcasting his voice as of jumping over the moon,” her husband reads. “I see from my almanac there will be no moon on Christmas Eve. Advise you take a good run-up. Ha!” He shakes the letter at the startled mailman. “You see that signature? Thom. Edison.”

“The electric man?”

“The very same.” He takes the glass that Staines is offering. “I used to work for him. Your health.”

“Much obliged, sir.” The mailman sips his brandy, draws a brawny hand across his moustache, looks around the laboratory once more. “And this is electricity, is it?” he ventures.

“Much more exciting,” Reginald assures him. “This, my friend, is wireless telephony. Using this equipment, this very night, I intend to cast my own voice out across the Atlantic. Every man with a wireless receiver will be able to hear me.”

She hates it when he shows off.

“You will put me out of business, sir.”

“Oh, not for many years yet. Come, would you like to look at it?”

He beckons him towards the transmitter, but the man holds back, unsure. “Is it safe, sir? I would not like to hear voices in my head.”

Reginald chuckles in his superior way. “My dear fellow, do you not realise that there are waves of sound passing around you at every moment? Through you, even.”

“You mean they are here, around me, invisible?”

“All around us there is a veritable cacophony of noise, if only we could hear it.” He throws an arm towards the ocean. “Out there every boat captain and coast guard and weather bureau and shipping office is firing off messages into the aether, all squabbling and gossiping and arguing and feuding and calling out for help: a great maritime Babel spreading out across the waves courtesy of Messrs Morse and Marconi, and every dot and every dash of it is echoing off those cliffs below us and the bouncing off the walls around us in the form of electromagnetic radiation every second that we stand here.”

The mailman gives a shudder. “I do not like to think of that, sir. It does not seem right.”

Her husband roars with laughter and claps him on the shoulder in that bluff, gruff way he adopts with working men. The mailman puts down his glass and says he must be going.

“Shall I leave the rest of this food?” she asks, after the man has plodded back up the well-trodden path. Reginald has already returned to his instruments.

“Yes, yes, my dear. Prepare supper for the usual time – Arthur, you’ll join us for a bite?”

She assures the assistant it will be no trouble. She took her holiday delivery from Hobson’s the previous afternoon, and she has plenty laid in.

It has started to snow again as she walks back from the laboratory, and the tall antenna is singing in a sharp north wind that has blown up from Duxbury Bay. She cannot shake a feeling of anxiety that clings to her like sea-mist. These are great forces that her husband is attempting to bend to his will. And for all his bombast, he does not fully understand them. Nobody can. And she cannot help but think that perhaps – though she knows how hard he would laugh at the idea – we are not meant to be their masters.

She fills her afternoon with baking, hauling tin after tin of shortbreads and butter tarts from the oven even as she chops and boils the cranberries and grinds the herbs ready to dress tomorrow’s goose. As the sun sinks behind Green Harbor she is whipping eggs and cream and sprinkling them with nutmeg and cinnamon ready for Reginald to add the brandy when he returns, and all around her the house creaks and sighs and whispers to her as she does her rounds lighting the lamps. She does not want to be making her Christmas preparations in this unfamiliar house, with its bagged chandeliers and shuttered verandah, leased to them cheaply because it is meant for summer lets. Her life seems to have become a series of short-term leases, following her husband’s enthusiasms and the money he needs to indulge them. She thinks back to the campus at Allegheny, midnight mass and drinks with the Dean, and the provost reading out the grace at high table. Or their home at Pittsburgh, with her mother’s pianola tinkling away in the drawing room, a roaring fire in the grate and every room blazing courtesy of Mr Westinghouse’s Patent Alternating Current Electric Lighting System. And she thinks of Kenny far away in Texas, his first Christmas in uniform, and she sends out a mother’s silent prayer in the hope that maybe it will transform itself into electromagnetic radiation and float out there across the dark land to find him.

The men come in just after eight, blustering and stamping and complaining of a blizzard that has blown up “out of nowhere” – and, indeed, the world that is framed in the doorway behind them is a maelstrom of black and white. They are carrying one of the receivers from the laboratory between them, which Reginald insists on setting up on the sideboard on the parlour, topping up the barretter with one of the bottles of sulphuric acid he keeps in the basement before he will even think about finishing off the nog. When both are ready – and he has joked about not getting the two bottles muddled, and she and Staines have dutifully laughed – she leads them through to the dining room where she has a tourtière waiting fresh from the stove and enough mashed potatoes and corn to see them through till 1907, as Reginald observes with a fondness she had almost forgotten.

But all too soon it is time for them to depart again, and that familiar feeling of unease descends on her shoulders once again. “Could you not wait until morning?” she pleads as they pull on their coats and mufflers.

“Not if we wish to be heard.” Her husband shakes his head. “Mr Armor has yet to receive a single one of our daylight transmissions at Machrihanish. He recorded the strongest signals close to midnight. The darkness is our friend.”

“I worry about you, out there alone.” She wrings a napkin round her hand.

“But Helen, my dear, I will not be alone.” He takes her in his arms. “You will be with me.” He nods towards the receiver on the sideboard. Keep your finger on that switch and you will hear every word I utter, as clear as if I were in the next room. And so shall the rest of the world.”

His beard scratches against her cheek as he kisses her. And then he is gone, into the whirling night.

She sits in the cold parlour, listening to the ticking of the clock as it makes its way slowly towards the appointed hour. Out there in the darkness, other families sit round the table, exchange their gifts. Other mothers tuck excited children into bed with promises of magic in the morning, or huddle by the hearth and relish the tingling thrill of a fireside tale. She remembers her own grandmother, back in Quebec, pulling her close to tell her of how at Christmas Eve, at the strike of midnight, when all good children are fast asleep, the beasts of the fields acquire the power of speech and talk amongst themselves, exchanging their masters’ secrets, and in the graveyards the dead themselves rise up and kneel at the foot of the cemetery cross to take communion from a golden-surpliced priest - the very same priest that used to minister to them before he too passed away, and when the mass has finished they all turn and give one last longing look towards the village before returning silently to their graves. And anyone who slips out of their house to try to spy upon these strange events will be instantly struck dumb, or blind, or drop dead from fright where she stands, as God is her witness.

The clock strikes, starting her from her reverie. The wind is rattling the shutters on the verandah. She pulls her chair up to the sideboard, jams the headset to her ears, presses her finger to the receiver, and listens.

At first, all she hears is the sound of the storm, redoubled in ferocity and now inside her head, blowing and whining and shrieking. She closes her eyes, straining to make out any trace of her husband. And just as she thinks he has failed – that this is it, that dots and dashes will be the end of man’s efforts to control the air around him – the chaos condenses into the heterodyne’s whine and she hears a voice, so faintly.

…ssenden, speaking to you from Brant…. Ssachusetts. Do not be alarm…

And although she knows he is but a few hundred yards away from her, she also knows that if she can hear him, his voice can also be heard out there on Nantucket, and Novia Scotia, and Newfoundland, and beyond, out in the measureless expanse of black ocean, in places unimaginably far away, mysterious names like Bailey, Rockall, Malin, Fastnett, Sole and Finisterre. And she has the sudden sense that right now, at this precise moment in time, the whole world is shrinking in upon itself and contracting. And it is all because of her husband.

She can hear his violin sawing away now, marking out O Holy Night through the storm of white noise that fills the earphones. Softly, she begins to sing along:

… A thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was Born…

And it was tonight, nineteen hundred and six years ago, that something else changed, something new came into the world and made everything different. And she knows, now, with a certainty far stronger than the wavering signal from the aerial on the point, which fizzles in and out of existence with every second, that her husband has succeeded. With this, now, he has changed the world.

His voice is coming clearer now.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host… praising God, and saying… to God in the highest, and on earth …. will toward men.

It ebbs and surges with the waves that roll relentlessly in from the Atlantic to spend themselves on the black rocks below.

And when they had seen… made known abroad the saying which was told them... And all they that heard it wondered at those things… told them by the shepherds. 

And she feels a great surge of pride in her breast for this man, this scruffy daydreamer she married sixteen long years ago when she was already carrying his child and has followed ever since from place to place, always on the move, one cart for their possessions and three for his equipment, never once staying long enough to put down roots and make a place their son could call home.

… but Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And now, after an aching pause that lasts long enough for her to think the transmission is over, or that through her own stupidity she has allowed the own electrodes on her own receiver to slip out of sync or the barretter to run dry just as, in her carelessness, she has allowed the gas lamps to run down and dim, he speaks in his own voice. The man she loves.

… name is Reginald Aubrey Fessenden. I speak to you tonight from… boratory of the United States Weather Bureau in Brant Rock, Massachusets… urge you, where’er you be, to write me on your return to shore… know that you are listening. For now, farew… Merry Christmas, one and all. I shall speak to you again by means… same apparatus on New Year’s Eve… arewell. Farewell.

And as he bids the unseen listeners goodbye, the lamp on the table sputters and plunges the room into blackness. And another voice speaks out of the receiver. A cold, high, cruel voice.

Never see New Year

She starts back in the sudden darkness, but her finger does not leave the cold metal of the machine.

Never see morning

And it is gone, lost in the rush of noise that fills her headset as the transmitter runs down and returns the world to chaos. But she is not there to hear it. Tearing the phones from her ear she is gone, clattering through the unfamiliar rooms in the darkness with no time to put on snowshoes, hat or even a coat as she throws open the door and plunges out into the whirling cold outside.

The houses of Ocean Street are all but invisible. She keeps her head down, following the grey gash that has been cut through the snow down the middle of the highway, but it is more than twelve hours since the men attended to it with shovels and rock salt and it has frozen again, a thin sheet of treacherous ice beneath her indoor shoes. She slips and stumbles her way through the darkness, sobbing, tears of fear and frustration streaming down her cheeks and hitting the ground as ice. She cannot even see the great aerial ahead of her. There is no moon tonight.

As she passes the chapel at the end of the village she is aware of figures in the graveyard, movement among the headstones, a crowd that seems to mill toward the great stone cross capped with white, but all her fear is focused on the path ahead of her. The snow has obliterated the fences, and out on the headland she is running through a world of white, a great field of lethal beauty. Her ankle twists beneath her and she falls, her arms breaking the faultless crust and plunging into sharp and painful coldness. And she is screaming now, but there is no one to hear.

Just as she thinks she is sinking into coldness forever, ice filling her lungs and eyes and ears and the snow sucking her down to wrap her in a wet and welcoming shroud, her numb hands close around something beneath the snow. A cable, wrapped in gutta-percha. She seizes it gratefully before she realises what it is. And then, with the new strength it gives her, she looks up and around her, and she sees the black bulk of the laboratory building to her right, behind her, and she realises how far she has strayed from the path. She can hear the pounding of the Atlantic somewhere below, dangerously close, and she sends up a silent prayer of thanks that she was stopped before she stumbled blindly over the cliffs and was dashed to pieces on the beach below.

Forcing herself to be calm, she elbows herself up onto all fours, not daring to let go of the cable which is her only guide in this new world of whiteness. She hauls it up through the crust of the snow with the last reserves of strength she can find within herself. Its quivering bulk snakes off into darkness in both directions. One way, she knows, leads to the laboratory, and warmth, and safety. But her husband is at the other end. Sobbing, she pulls herself to her feet, and begins to force her way through deep, unbroken snow, following the cable, this gutta-percha lifeline, hand over hand, towards whatever awaits her.


The cork erupts from the bottle with a satisfying pop, and Staines brings it to the grubby glasses before it can bubble up, lest a drop be wasted.

“It’s a bottle of Heidsieck I’ve had put aside since ‘99” enthuses Fessenden. “One of the finest from Allegheny’s cellars. I feel we have earned it tonight.”

“Indeed, sir.” Staines passes him a glass and holds up his own. It is a shame the glasses were not a little less grubby, to be sure, but the pump has been frozen solid since mid-December, and he feels he has displayed inventiveness worthy of his title by plunging the tumblers into the snow that has drifted outside the laboratory door to rinse them. God, it was bitter out there tonight. The wind from hell was blowing in off Duxbury Bay, and as it roared across the headland it made noises strange enough to strike fear into the heart of a more superstitious man than him. As he had paused outside the doorway it had sounded just like a woman screaming.

Fessenden clinks his glass against his own. “Well, Arthur, remember this moment.”

“I shall, sir.” He drinks. He is an ale man himself, but he will admit that this is rather fine.

“It very nearly didn’t happen.”

“Indeed. I think we were right to abandon the old lookout station.”

Fessenden rolls the liquid round his mouth, smacks his lips. “Indubitably. We could never have got a sufficient signal in this storm.”

“And your office worked very well in the event.”

“Yes.” The inventor smacks his hand upon the wooden partition above his desk. “A little strengthening of this to make it soundproof before our next experiment, and we will have an ideal studio.”

They both drink deeply, pondering the future.

“Besides, the path was treacherous enough this afternoon when we laid the cable!” remarks Fessenden after a while. “And in this blizzard? Imagine it. Impossible.”

“Indeed. I thought you were about to pitch over the precipice yourself for a moment when we reached that turn.”

“And so I would, had I not abandoned the cable to save myself.”

“Do you think we will be able to retrieve it? It seems a shame to leave it dangling over the cliff like that.”

Fessenden shakes his head dismissively. “We’ve plenty of cables. One will not be missed. Perhaps when the storm dies down.” He stretches and yawns. “Let us wait and see what morning brings.”