Charles Emory Apgar -- "The Wireless Wizard"

June 28, 1865 - August 17, 1950
by Lynn Conley

They say fathers have a special influence on their daughters. In the case of Dr. Virginia Apgar, one of our most notable ancestors, her father also has a very special place in the history of our country and in our genealogy. What role Charles Emory Apgar ( played in Virginia becoming a trail-blazer in the field of medicine will be left to her closest descendants. However, the role Charles played in history is now part of the record, literally. The following information on Charles Emory Apgar, found on two internet sites, provides some interesting facts on this remarkable individual.

"The earliest surviving recordings of a radio signal are segments of Morse code transmissions recorded off the air in late 1913 or 1914 by Charles Apgar, a New Jersey radio amateur who fitted the electrical element of a headphone to a home-made electrical recording head attached to an ordinary Edison cylinder phonograph. This contrivance enabled Apgar to electrically record radio signals picked up by his receiver on wax cylinders. And he made several such transcriptions during 1913-1915 ~ some of which led to the discovery of high-speed coded messages being transmitted by German spies through the Telefunken wireless station at Sayville, Long Island. Other recordings made by Apgar were more prosaic ~ including examples of Morse code news bulletins transmitted by the New York Herald's wireless station WHB in Manhattan.

Apgar's original wax cylinders are lost. But, samples of his recordings survive, courtesy of an uncoated aluminum air check of Apgar's appearance on station WJZ in New York on December 27, 1934. Apgar was interviewed by NBC announcer George Hicks, and highlighted his description of his experiments by playing two of his cylinders into the microphone — one containing a sample of a New York Herald news transmission and the other an example of one of the "spy" transmissions. Twelve- inch aluminum copy discs of this program are owned by the Antique Wireless Association, and a tape copy is owned by the Library of Congress." (McCloud, Documenting Early Radio - A Review of Pre-1932 Radio Recordings)

To understand the real Charles E. Apgar, this history paper written by Charles's great-grandson Lee Apgar in 1977 provides a more detailed account of the extraordinary life of Virginia's dad.

"Charles E. Apgar, more commonly known as the "Wireless Wizard" was one of the "Edisonians." Even though he had only three years of high school and one year of college education, he possessed a great knowledge of the math and sciences. In 1876, Apgar's family of seven moved to Bernardsville, New Jersey, which happened to be the vacationing place of George I. Seney, a prominent New York banker, Seney thought that young Charles showed some academic promise so he decided to put Charles through school. His schooling consisted of three years (1880-1883) at Centenary Collegiate Institute and then one year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.

At Centenary, he was one of the top students in the math and sciences as well as music. Consequently, when a laboratory explosion accidentally killed his chemistry professor, Charles was appointed a temporary substitute teacher. He was also the organist for the chapel services every Sunday. After a successful career at Centenary, he attended Wesleyan for one year. Unfortunately, due to the failure of Seney's bank, Charles' college education ended after his first year. [1]

In the fall of 1885 Charles took his first job with the New York Life Insurance Company in the treasurers department. For the next six years he steadily worked his way up to next in line for one of the vice-president's positions. The company was increasing its volume of business at a very rapid rate. Tragically the company did not increase employment in proportion to the rising workload. Due to the increased work and the resulting pressure, Charles had a complete nervous breakdown in the early months of 1902. His doctor told him that he would have to work out of doors at something congenial. After a brief convalescence in Europe, Charles took a job selling pianos for the Aeolian (Music) Company. Shortly afterwards he found another job selling automobiles. From 1902 to 1910 he kept both jobs. [2]

Charles' first contact with wireless came while he was looking through a magazine in a stationery store in New York City. He promptly abandoned any idea of understanding what the article or its complicated schematics were about. He laid it aside thinking, "What nonsense to print such crazy stuff which only an expert can understand." [3] About a month later he read in the New York Herald that an amateur had copied the Herald's wireless on the results of the 1910 election. The article stated that this amateur was an employee of a Wall Street bank, so Apgar located him the next time he was in New York City.

Between the cashier's (amateur) explanation and a catalogue from one of the experimental wireless supply houses, Apgar had enough information to attempt his own "try-out"~the first time you try to receive a station—about one month later. Charles noted: "In less than one minute I heard Station OHX and one other station. Contrasting this with the experiences of some amateurs (who as I have read, often spend a month or more feeling around before getting a single signal), to say I was satisfied is putting it mildly. Of course, the whole family was called in-even the cat—whose “meow” was about as near to a wireless signal as anything I had ever, heard." [4]

The wireless system which Charles had just mastered had been invented in 1903 by Guglielmo Marconi and Lee de Forest. Charles became good friends with the chief engineer, Roy A. Wigan, of the New Jersey based Marconi Company and, through this contact, was able to get a job as a researcher there. He was to work there from 1909-1921. He made many important inventions while working for Marconi. Probably his most important invention was the process for recording wireless.

It took three years of work to perfect. He also invented an ampliphone circuit, which amplified even the smallest noises so as to make them easier to record. [5] In his final years there, he put his efforts into inventing the paper cone loudspeaker, which was later used in every radio. Before he perfected the paper cone speaker, all wireless operators had had to use uncomfortable earphones. Even though he invented various useful gadgets such as an electric door lock and a continuous ringing alarm clock, the wireless was still his favorite hobby. He owned a completely homemade ham radio outfit, which at that time was the most powerful in the entire world. [6]

If Charles had obtained a patent on some of his inventions, some ensuing battles might have been averted and he might have made a fortune. The wireless business at this point was still a very unusual and risky business venture. Marconi and de Forest both had companies situated in the New York and New Jersey areas. Both companies were continually stealing each other's secrets and trying to apply patents to such inventions. This led to many patent suits originating mainly from de Forest's company. The subsequent litigation bogged down the technological advancements that both companies could have made. [7]

The ampliphone circuit invented by Charles around 1905 was the object of one of the big patent battles between the Marconi Company and the de Forest Company. Lee de Forest, the father of American radio, copied and then patented the ampliphone circuit (claimed also by Apgar) in 1907. In 1914, Marconi vs. Forest, the court rendered the de Forest patent invalid. The Marconi Company had a patent on the ampliphone circuit or Audion as they called it under the name of the Fleming valve, so de Forest's company was forbidden to manufacture anymore Audions. [8] If Charles had patented the invention in the first place, this would not have happened.

During the United State's pre World War I neutrality period, a powerful wireless station at Sayville, Long Island owned by the Germans, was suspected of sending coded messages regarding ship departures from the eastern United States. Apgar's wireless recorder which could record wireless signals onto wax cylinders, and his ampliphone circuit were the two instruments that would be used to decipher messages being transmitted by the German station owned by the Atlantic Communications Company. This was a subordinate to the Telefimken Corporation, a brokerage business firm in Germany. The station had to renew its license annually. In 1914 the U.S. only granted it a temporary license; in case the station violated the U.S.” neutrality the license could be revoked quickly. The station was still allowed to transmit, but U.S. Navy radio officials were brought in to censor out-going messages. The U.S. had become suspicious of the operation and was trying to make sure that its neutrality was not being violated. [9]

Although the government had censors listening full time, it was much too difficult to detect any deviations in the Morse Code messages seemingly being sent out and the ones that actually were. The messages being sent were too simple and innocent, not to mention that the cost of sending messages was $1.00 per word. Some of the messages seemed ridiculous, "Myra has diphtheria," or "Send always invoice before shipping knives," [10] and resulted in even tighter censorship. This, however, did not faze the Germans one bit, because the code that they used involved only one word or one space out of each message. The coded messages could be spaced out over a period of hours or even days. With no way to record and compare them, the Germans could have gone on indefinitely sending secret messages to their waiting submarines on the positions and other pertinent data on the allied ships.

The Secret Service was called in to continue the investigation as there was no FBI, and they, in turn, inducted Charles Apgar into the Secret Service. The Chief of the Secret Service, William T. Flynn, really did not know much about wireless. He contacted Lawrence R. Krumm, chief radio inspector of New York to ask his assistance in the investigation of Sayville. By coincidence, Krumm and Apgar happened to be well acquainted. On June 5, 1915, Krumm wrote the following letter to Charles: "My dear Mr. Apgar: Will you be kind enough to call me up Monday morning from your place of business. I am very desirous of getting in touch with you immediately, as I believe you can be of considerable service in a good cause." [11]

Charles wasn't quite sure what to think of this letter, but he suspected it had something to do with his invention of the recorder since he had demonstrated it to Chief Krumm only three days earlier. The following Monday he contacted Krumm and he made an appointment to meet with William J. Flynn. Flynn asked Charles if he could transcribe messages sent from the station on to wax cylinders so that they could see if the messages contained hidden meanings which could not be detected by the censors. Since Charles was the only person in the country who could operate his invention, he gladly accepted the challenge and started the recording process on the night of June 7. Charles recorded messages for four hours a night from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. On June 21st all of the recordings were sent to Flynn in Washington. He in turn gave the recordings to Secretaries Lansing, Redfield and David after they were decoded. These men eventually ordered the takeover of the Sayville Station. [12]

Next followed a cover-up, both by the government of our country and the station owners over what had actually happened. On July 1st, the three Secretaries went into conference on the Sayville matter, and on July 7th, they informed Herman Metz, President of the Atlantic Communications Company, that the Navy Department would soon take over the entire operation of the Sayville station. On July 15, 1915, this was subsequently accomplished. They were still allowed to do their business -reporting stock quotations and transactions - but the Navy did the actual sending of messages. When the press questioned Dr. Frank, secretary of the Atlantic Communications Company, about the takeover, he said: "There has been nothing unneutral at Sayville. If there had been any question of unneutral uses of the plant, the Government would not have taken it over; it would have taken it down." [13]

He also commented about the wireless recorder "that Mr. Apgar can record messages sent out by wireless on a phonograph cylinder is hardly worth discussing, that is physically impossible. I have never heard of it being done." [14]

Obviously Frank made this statement so as to avoid as much of the blame of the takeover as possible. Interestingly enough Apgar had in his possession the following letter, which showed that Frank's company, if not Frank, himself, knew of this process five months beforehand: "Dear Sir, Your letter of the 30th, addressed to Mr. A. E. Seeling, has come to hand, and we have noted its contents with interest. The answer we beg to say that we have no objection to your receiving our Sayville press in the way you have done so far. We can however not allow that you publish what you receive, neither private message nor press. It would interest us to receive one or two of the phonographic records you have taken, and we would be much obliged if you could favor us with same. Yours very truly, Atlantic Communication Company". [15]

On this letter was a memo by Apgar that he personally delivered two of the records to the Atlantic Communications Company of which Dr. Frank was at this time secretary and treasurer. Of course there is a slight possibility that Frank really didn't know about the recorder, but this is dubious since, in his position, he would have had access to any information about such inventions. Unlike Frank who was German, Herman Metz, the president of the company, was an American businessman.

Immediately after the takeover, Metz, who had appointed himself Chairman of the Board of Directors during the takeover procedure, made the following statement pertaining to the neutrality of his company: "This company has committed no improper or un-neutral act. No charge of any such act has been brought to the attention of its officers by any official of the United States government. The government censors on duty at the station have carefully supervised all messages sent, and have returned copies of the same. The company being a public service corporation had no discretion in refusing or accepting messages. Articles recently published in the newspapers of this and other cities attributing unneutral or improper actions to this company were absolutely and unqualifiedly false." [16]

Comparing that statement with the evidence against the station one would immediately say that Metz's statement was a complete lie. However, Metz later issued a statement of his intention to cooperate as fully as possible with the government operators. It appears that Metz was a patriotic American who had been deceived by some devious German spies. The government learned that Metz's interests in the Atlantic Company were strictly business and that he had had absolutely nothing to do with the technical operation of the Sayville station."

Fortunately the station was taken over just a week before the station was scheduled to expand its Sayville transmitting power to South America. If they had gone through with this, it would have aided the German submarine campaign. This service was thwarted because Colombia took over the German station, which was based in Cartagena, Colombia. The Sayville station would have been transmitting to it. [17]

The government continued to obscure the actual events that had led to the takeover of the station. For some unknown reason they tried to cover up the fact that an amateur wireless operator, Apgar, had assisted in the Sayville takeover. On July 19, Secretary Daniels at first refused to discuss the Apgar records, but then went on to say: "Apgar's phonographic records of messages sent out from the Sayville Station were NOT the chief source of the government authorities' information (or as indicated here or tonight, however,) It was learned that his records reached Washington only yesterday, whereas the Sayville station taken over by the Navy Department ten days ago." [18]

Apgar could not try to disprove Secretary Daniels' statement because under a specific statute of law all the records were impounded. Whether these records remained impounded or were destroyed is unknown, but Charles never received any of the original recordings that he had made. In the following days even more doubt was generated about who was responsible for the takeover. On July 19, in the New York Herald under Official War News, the government again insisted that the Apgar records played no part in the seizure of Sayville. Captain William H. Bullard, the Navy officer administering supervision of the Sayville station, had this to say about the Apgar recordings: "The messages have not yet been compared with the original messages or submitted for approval to the United States censor at Sayville, and therefore it was obvious that they had played no part whatever in the decision." [19]

He went on to say that when he was sent to take command of the Sayville station, after the takeover, that the records made by Apgar had not even been seen, let alone compared with the original messages. Bullard gave all the credit for the take-over to the Naval Radio Station in Arlington, Virginia. He said "Arlington and other government stations “listened in” on Sayville every night, and the records taken of the messages sent from Sayville in this way were compared with the original messages submitted to the censor. The government obtained all the information it desired in this way." [20]

The Bureau of Navigation and the Department of Commerce backed up Bullard's statement and went one step further, saying that "they regarded the records as merely incidental to the mass of detail gathered by the regular government investigators, "They also claimed that "the apparatus to record the messages is not new and is in general use throughout." [21] This last statement epitomizes the invalidity of these claims as there were only two recorders in existence at that time and they belonged to Apgar.

Whatever the reason for the smoke screens being thrown up about who was responsible for breaking the code, even Chief Flynn at that time refused to corroborate Apgar's contribution. When asked about the sequence of events leading up to the takeover, Flynn could not deny that Apgar was involved but he issued a statement saying: "I do not care to say when the records were delivered to the Navy Department, nor do I know whether comparisons have been made with the Government’s records. Since April government inspectors have made frequent trips to Sayville, and while they obtained no evidence of a damaging nature their reports offered no data to confute the persistent rumors that Sayville was successfully evading the censorship imposed by the United States." [22]

Almost ten years later, Flynn, now the head of a detective agency, wrote the following response to a letter from Apgar: "My dear Mr. Apgar, I am in receipt of yours of the 17th regarding my broadcasting last Saturday night. I certainly remember your valuable services during the period when the government was enforcing the Neutrality laws and often comment on it. If ever I have the occasion to speak from WOR on wartime secret service, I shall give you due credit. I still have the records you made but unfortunately time has made some of them use-less." [23]

The records referred to in this letter were examples of wireless recordings, not the Sayville recordings. At least this letter erased some of the doubt that had been clouding the issue of whether Apgar was instrumental in helping the government break the code and take over the Sayville station.

Even though Charles received a huge amount of press coverage, he never derived the financial rewards that should have come with such inventions. At one point during the Sayville affair, Charles said that a patent was pending on the wireless recorder. He didn't receive a patent on it and never made any other reference to it except to say that it was pending. He never patented his paper cone speaker, either. It would appear that Charles was not into wireless for money or recognition; he was in it for the pure pleasure and satisfaction that he could be helpful to his country.

In fact, it almost seems as if there was a government conspiracy to suppress information that might prove useful in the coming war effort. As long as there was no patent on his wireless invention, the Germans would have difficulty using the device for their own purposes. The fact that it was such a new invention prevented many people from accepting the facts about the Sayville incident, but in the New York World, July 8, 1915 his actions were described as "the most valuable service ever rendered by an amateur radio operator to our country." In fact it would seem that helping out his country was his highest priority.

Twenty-five years later, when Charles was 75, he sounded a "call to arms" to the 55,000 radio ham operators in this country. The Second World War had started the year before, and once again the U.S. feared its neutrality was being threatened by the German spies. Apgar described the fifth column activities "a thousand times more perilous than they were in 1915 before the term was invented" and urged all ham operators to try to help "paralyze the most insidious weapon up to now available to enemies of our democracy." [24]

Why the government tried to cover up the fact that Apgar truly did help in the Sayville takeover has to remain a matter of conjecture. Maybe he did not get his patent because the government realized that the Germans would steal it. It is ironical that he never applied for patents on his other inventions and yet, on the one he decided to patent, he never received it. The fact that sinking of allied shipping decreased rapidly after his break-through in recording messages on wax cylinders was very satisfying to him. Although a slim example in American history this shows how the dedication of a single amateur scientist with limited resources could foil a part of Germany”s espionage network. The publicity generated by this incident perhaps slightly accelerated the United States” entrance into World War I."


1. Charles E. Apgar,letter from C.E. Apgar to son Lawrence, pg. 1-3
2. Ibid
3. Charles Apgar, The Electrical Experimenter,pg. 337
4. Ibid
5. Ibid
6. Robert Hoffman, The Leader, pg. unknown
7. Lee de Forest, Father of Radio, pg.324-326
8. Ibid
9. The Wireless Age,pg. 806-808 (Aug. 1915)
10. Charles Apgar,Scrapbook, pg.39
11. Ibid, pg. 36
12. The World,Jul.18 1915, pg.1
13. " C” ,Jul.19 1915, pg. unknown
14. Ibid
15. The World, Jul.20 1915, pg. 4
16. " " , Jul. 19 1915, pg.1
17. The Wireless Age, Sept. 1915, pg. 807-808
18. The New York Sun, Jul.19 1915, pg. unknown
19. The New York Herald, Jul. 19 1915
20. Ibid
21. Ibid
22. Ibid
23. William J. Flynn, Letter to Charles Apgar,Nov.19, 1924
24. The Newark Star-Ledger,Aug.28 1940

Charles E. Apgar - "Wireless Wizard", written by Lee Apgar, May 9,1977