A century ago Nathan Stubblefield invented the precursor to the cell phone. It brought him nothing but grief

"Kentucky farmer invents wireless telephone" blared the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on January 12, 1902. The full-page feature article described the remarkable natural-conduction device invented by Nathan Stubblefield, a 42-year-old melon farmer who'd devoted every spare hour and penny he had to establishing telephone service in his hometown, Murray, Ky. This time--his third attempt at connecting the widely separated households in the area--Stubblefield was sure he had Ma Bell by the horns.

Stubblefield's primitive cell phone had been a long time in coming. His first foray into phoning had occurred about 17 years earlier, when the self-educated electrician circumvented the behemoth Bell System, which had a lock on patents for electric phones, by inventing a mechanical phone. Called the "sound phone," Stubblefield's contraption was a dead ringer for the tin-cans-and-string devices kids are still building. It was reasonably inexpensive to install, and by the late 1880s Stubblefield had set up franchises for it in Murray and a few other towns nearby. Soon, however, a group of local investors brought in the Bell telephone, and Stubblefield was put out of business.

Having briefly tasted success, the fledgling entrepreneur sought new ways to challenge his nemesis. With a wireless system, he figured, he could not only link up the folks of rural western Kentucky without the expense of putting up poles and stringing cable but also create his own market. He turned to electromagnetic induction, a phenomenon he'd probably stumbled across in Scientific American, for his initial design.

Electromagnetic induction works this way: Current passing through a primary coil of wire establishes a magnetic field of about 15 square feet. When a secondary coil is placed within the magnetic field, the primary coil induces current into the secondary one, even though the two aren't touching. From his reading Stubblefield knew that the current could easily carry sound. He proved it one afternoon in 1892 to a teenager who lived next door.

Stubblefield handed Rainey Wells a telephone receiver attached by a stretch of telephone wire to a small coil of telephone wire (the secondary coil) that he'd mounted in the bottom of a nail keg. The coil was a foot in diameter and had 1,000 turns of wire. He told the boy to go into the orchard and listen. When Wells had moved out of earshot, Stubblefield leaned forward and spoke into a telephone receiver he'd hooked up to a box outfitted with three 6-volt dry-cell batteries for power and attached by a length of wire to a large coil (the primary coil). He'd wrapped the large coil, which had a diameter of 10 feet and 156 turns of wire, around nearby trees to keep it out of sight. With the receiver pressed to his ear, an amazed Wells heard Stubblefield saying, "Hello, Rainey. Can you hear me?"

Stubblefield experimented with his induction phone for several years but never got it to work over distances greater than half a mile. Frustrated, he turned to a new product: a wireless phone based on natural conduction. In place of the wires in an electrical circuit, the system used the earth or a body of water. Everyone knew, for instance, that water conducted electricity (that's why swimmers dash from lakes during lightning storms), but no one had developed a phone that used the medium to transmit voice. Stubblefield took the same battery-powered transmitter he'd used in the induction phone but knocked off the large coil. In its place he ran 50 feet of telephone wire to each of two iron rods sunk into a river or the ground about 100 yards apart. He hooked up the receiver to a second pair of rods sunk about a mile from the first pair. When he turned on the juice, he could send a signal from one set of rods to the other through the water or the earth. Moreover, multiple receivers could pick up the signal.

Stubblefield demonstrated his natural-conduction system in Murray's public square on New Year's Day 1902, broadcasting music (harmonica) and voice (counting to 10) to five receivers simultaneously, one of them five blocks away. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch learned of the proceedings and sent a reporter to interview the inventor. In the article Stubblefield confidently predicted that his natural-conduction device would eventually be used to transmit news all over the world.

A group of entrepreneurs from New York City read the story and offered Stubblefield half a million shares of stock in the newly formed Wireless Telephone Company of America in exchange for the remarkable talking machine. Stubblefield accepted the offer. That spring he and his oldest son, Bernard, conducted public demonstrations, widely covered by both the popular and the scientific press, in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Then came a fateful exhibition at Battery Park, in New York City: the invention didn't work. One theory blamed the rocky soil, but the cause was more likely the background noise generated by the large number of electrical circuits already grounded in the heavily populated area. After the secretary of Wireless Telephone ordered him to perpetrate a sham by burying wires connecting the transmitter and the receiver, Stubblefield realized that the entire venture was a stock-fraud scheme. The corporation had duped him out of his invention and in the process had swindled many investors from Murray. Despite six months of national acclaim, Stubblefield severed his ties with the company.

Back in Murray, Stubblefield resumed work on his wireless induction phone. In 1908 he patented a new version designed to communicate with moving vehicles--a car phone, as it were, for stagecoaches (a peculiar choice, given that the stagecoach was obsolete by the early 1900s). The design called for the primary coil to be suspended above but near the right-of-way and for the secondary coil to be mounted on top of the vehicle. Given that the two coils had to be within 50 feet of each other, the system worked only if a string of primary coils ran all the way down the street. Not surprisingly, Stubblefield never sold a single unit. Nor did he ever recover financially from the events of 1902.

Meanwhile his personal life deteriorated. Stubblefield had always been obsessively secretive, even paranoid. He never allowed his family to leave the farm without him, and he never permitted visitors on his property because he feared they might steal his inventions. His family (he had six children) lived in abject poverty: any spare money was funneled into his electrical experiments. His three oldest children controlled the deed to the farm (his stepmother had bought it for Stubblefield at the bequest of his father but had kept it in her name and then willed it to the children) and sold it as soon as they were of age. Soon after, his wife left him. Stubblefield lived the last decade of his life as a crazy itinerant hermit. He died of starvation in 1928 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

After he died, Stubblefield's story became fodder for folklore. Although none of his wireless inventions generated radio waves, an early biographer of the inventor christened Murray the "birthplace of radio." Like a game of telephone, word spread. The owners of the town's first radio station named it WNBS for Nathan B. Stubblefield. And in a well-orchestrated publicity campaign, they persuaded both the Kentucky General Assembly and the Kentucky Broadcasters Association to proclaim the eccentric genius the "father of radio."

Today Stubblefield's contributions to wireless telephony have been largely overshadowed by the radio legend, and the distinction between fact and fiction is blurred, but it's fun to speculate. The melon farmer from Kentucky had envisioned education in telecommunications technology (after the natural-conduction fiasco, he'd briefly run a school called Telephondelgreen), broadcasting, and cellular telephony. What if he had studied under Tufts' Amos Dolbear, who in 1886 patented the induction wireless telephone, or Harvard's John Trowbridge, who directed experiments in induction and natural conduction? What if he had had access to adequate capital? What if he had offered 100 free minutes?

Bob Lochte teaches in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Murray State University, in Kentucky. He and a colleague have built working replicas of Stubblefield's wireless systems.