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How One Schenectady Engineer Brought Radio and Television to the World

During the first half of the 20th century, General Electric brought all manner of brilliant minds to Schenectady—Thomas Edison and Charles Proteus Steinmetz (and many Kingsway Community residents!) included. One such genius was Swedish-born engineer Ernst Fredrick Werner Alexanderson, whose name you may not know but whose contributions to the world of technology won’t soon be forgotten.

 

In 1902, Alexanderson emigrated to the US. He first worked at C&C Electric Company in New Jersey before landing a job at GE in Schenectady, fulfilling his dream of working under Steinmetz. At GE, Alexanderson was tasked with transforming the already-existing 60-Hertz spark transmitter, which transferred morse code, into a 100,000-Hertz machine that could transmit a continuous wave suitable for carrying the human voice. The Swede teamed up with Canadian radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden to do just that. In 1906, the pair unveiled their invention, which transmitted the human voice over telegraph wires for the first time. A later iteration of the machine, which would come to be known as the Alexanderson Alternator, was considered the world’s first radio broadcast.

 

But Alexanderson’s career of connecting the world was far from over. Using Schenectady station WGY (now the CBS affiliate WRGB), the inventor tested technologies that could send not just the human voice but also pictures across great distances. In 1926, he sent a picture from the US to Europe in just two minutes, and a few years later, demonstrated the first public demonstrations of television, once transmitting the moving image of a conductor from the GE Realty Plot to an orchestra waiting for his cue onstage at Proctors.

 

As Schenectady really was the center of all things early television, it makes sense that the first TV newscasts were broadcast from the city. The first television drama, “The Queen’s Messenger,” was also broadcast from local station WGN to a couple hundred TV sets. Alexanderson continued his power application and electronic science research for more than a decade after that, working on everything from the transmission of color television to a telephone system for connecting trains. Later in life he was the recipient of many medals and honors, and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 1983. Alexanderson is buried in Vale Cemetery,  the once rural Schenectady landmark cemetery, whick as of today, holds the remains of some of the most notable persons in Upstate New York history.