Ernst Alexanderson: "Father
of Radio and Television" - Guillermo Marconi.
Ernst Fredrik Werner Alexanderson was born
January 25, 1878 in Uppsala, Sweden. His father, Professor A.M. Alexanderson
was a teacher at the University of Uppsala. Because of an aptitude
for mechanics, he entered the Royal Technical University in Stockholm
and was graduated as an electrical and mechanical engineer. For a
year of post graduate study in electrical engineering, he attended
the Technical University in Berlin, Germany.
As the son of a professor of languages, Alexanderson
as a boy learned English, German, French and Latin in addition to
his native Swedish. When an English copy of Alternating Current Phenomena
by Charles P. Steinmetz fell into Alexanderson's hands in Berlin he
was able to read the volume. It made such an impression on him that
he decided to move to America and seek work with Steinmetz.
In 1901 Alexanderson arrived in the United
States and visited Dr. Steinmetz in Schenectady. After five months
which he spent as a draftsman for the C and C Electrical Company in
New Jersey, General Electric in Schenectady in February 1902 gave
Alexanderson a drafting job on the recommendation of Steinmetz. The
next year he took the General Electric Test Engineering Course and
in 1904 he became a member of the engineering staff designing generators
under the direction of Steinmetz.
First Long Distance
Ernst Alexanderson made
the power breakthrough that allowed Reginald
Fessenden to transmit the human voice across a long distance
Fessenden needed a continuous wave
transmitter, a pure sine wave on a single frequency to make
voice, he turned to GE:
An assignment to build a high-frequency
alternator for Professor Reginald A. Fessenden, one of the
pioneer radio experimenters, gave Alexanderson his opportunity.
with General Electric to help design and produce a series
of high-frequency alternator-transmitters. In 1903, Charles
Proteus Steinmetz of GE delivered a 10 kHz version which proved
of limited use and could not be directly used as a radio transmitter.
Fessenden's request for a faster, more powerful unit was assigned
to Ernst F. W. Alexanderson
After two years of work, during which
several models were constructed, Alexanderson delivered a
practical alternator and it was installed in the Fessenden
station at Brant Rock, Massachusetts. On Christmas Eve of
1906, it enabled this station to transmit the first broadcast
in history. Alexanderson improved this machine by substituting
iron for wood in the armature. With more improvements in 1908
and 1911 this became the famous Alexanderson alternator. It
assured reliable trans-Atlantic radio communication.
The end of World War I found the British-controlled
Marconi Company renewing negotiations, first instituted in 1915, for
exclusive use of the Alexanderson Alternator. To prevent its falling
into foreign hands government officials encouraged formation of the
Radio Corporation of America to use it. General Electric refused the
Marconi offer and backed the new corporation of which Dr. Alexanderson
became chief engineer in 1919.
Meanwhile, he had developed a host of other
radio improvements, some of which became increasingly important as
vacuum tubes replaced the alternators. One of these, a tuned radio-frequency
receiver system providing selective tuning, patented in 1916, was
found to dominate the radio industry. Other notable Alexanderson radio
developments include the magnetic amplifier, the electronic amplifier,
the multiple tuned antenna, the antistatic receiving antenna and the
directional transmitting antenna. He has also devised radio altimeters.
His studies in the polarization of radio waves made possible effective
radio direction finders.
The two Alexanderson alternators
at Grimeton, Sweden
From 1919 to 1924 Dr. Alexanderson divided
his time between General Electric and the Radio Corporation, maintaining
his residence and laboratory in Schenectady but personally superintending
construction of powerful radio stations in Sweden, Poland, England,
Hawaii, California and on Long Island. At the opening of a trans-Atlantic
station at Grimeton, in his native Sweden, Dr. Alexanderson received
the Order of the North Star from the hands of King Gustav V.
Dr. Alexanderson and his TV projector which
was used a Proctors Theater for the first public demonstration of
In the next few years, Dr. Alexanderson did
notable pioneer work in television and the transmission of pictures
by radio. Using a perforated scanning disk and high-frequency neon
lamps, he staged in Schenectady the first home and theater television
demonstrations. The first home reception of television took place
in 1927 at Dr. Alexanderson's home (see photo below).
The first home television
reception in the world 1927
With the separation of the General Electric
Company and the Radio Corporation of America in 1932, Dr. Alexanderson
devoted himself to power application of the electronic science such
as power transmission with direct current. However he continued his
interest in short-wave phenomena and in television.
In addition to his radio achievements, Dr.
Alexanderson has produced an ever lengthening list of inventions in
the power and control fields. These account for many of his patents
obtained over a period of thirty-five years on an average of roughly
a new patent every seven weeks.
In 1934 Dr. Alexanderson was elected to the
Royal Academy of Science of Sweden, the body which bestows the Nobel
prizes in science. Besides the Swedish Order of the North Star, Dr.
Alexanderson has received the Medal of Honor of the Institute of Radio
Engineers (1919), knighthood of the Polish Order of Polonia Restituta
(1924), and the John Ericsson medal for outstanding contributions
to the field of radio engineering (1928). He is a member and past
president of the Institute of Radio Engineers and a fellow of the
American Institute of Electrical Engineers. He has honorary degrees
of Doctor of Science from Union College, Schenectady (1926), and Doctor
of Philosophy from the Royal University of Uppsala, Sweden (1938).
In 1940 his name was listed on a "Wall of Fame" honoring
foreign born citizens who have made notable contributions to American
democracy. This was unveiled at the New York World's Fair.
Alexanderson: still experimenting
into his 90's
From 1952 onwards, he worked for the
Radio Corporation of America (RCA) as a consultant. His 321st
patent granted in 1955 was for a color television receiver
that he developed for RCA. Dr. Alexanderson died May 14, 1975
and is buried in Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, NY.
See also the FCC radio history project for more on the contributions
of Ernst Alexanderson.
Hear the voice
of Dr. Alexanderson in this video (he is featured in the middle) (YouTube