Archie Frederick Collins

Archie Frederick Collins (1910)

Archie Frederick Collins (January 8, 1869 January 3, 1952), who generally went by A. Frederick Collins, was a prominent early American experimenter in wireless telephony and prolific author of books and articles covering a wide range of scientific and technical subjects.[1][2] His reputation was tarnished in 1913 when he was convicted of mail fraud related to stock promotion. However, after serving a year in prison, he returned to writing, including, beginning in 1922, The Radio Amateur's Handbook, which continued to be updated and published until the mid-1980s.

Early life

Collins was born in South Bend, Indiana to Captain Thomas Jefferson and Margaret Ann (Roller) Collins. He attended public schools and graduated from the Old University of Chicago, a Baptist school which preceded the present University of Chicago.[1] His brother was author Dr. Thomas Byard Collins.[3][4] After graduating, he began working for the Thomson-Houston Electric Company in Chicago in 1888.[5] He married Evelyn Bandy on June 28, 1897, and they had a son, Virgil Dewey Collins, who also became an author, sharing writing credits on some of his father's books. Collins resided at a summer home called "The Antlers" in Rockland County, New York in the hamlet of Congers, and had a second residence in Florida.[1] His winter residence was New York City, and he died in Nyack, New York.

Wireless telephone

A. Frederick Collins demonstrating an induction wireless telephone (circa 1903)

Beginning in 1896, Guglielmo Marconi produced a radiotelegraph system that used spark transmitters, which could only be used by trained operators, and was limited to Morse code transmissions. In contrast, Collins sought to develop a wireless telephone that could be used by the general public for point-to-point communication.

Collins began researching the topic on his own in 1898. In November, 1899, the American Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company, headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was founded by stock promoter Dr. Gustav P. Gehring as the first American radio communications firm. Initially Collins acted as that company's primary technical advisor, however, he soon had a falling-out and left the firm, even demanding that his photograph in a company prospectus be altered to make him unrecognizable.[6]

Collins returned to doing his own research, investigating, in turn, wireless telephone systems that employed conduction, induction, and finally radio waves. He established a small laboratory at No. 132 South Sixth street in Philadelphia, forming a developmental company that initially was privately financed and did not sell stock to the public.[7] After doing initial tests within a bowl of water,[8] he reported that he then made steady, although somewhat limited, progress with the conduction and induction approaches, achieving transmission distances of 60 meters (200 feet) in 1899, 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) across the Delaware River in 1900, and 5 kilometers (3 miles) in 1902. That same year he constructed two experimental stations at Rockland Lake, New York, separated by 1.5 kilometers (1 mile), that successfully established two-way communication. In 1903, he made short-distance tests in the Hudson River in New York City, aboard the ferryboats John G. McCullough and Ridgewood,[1][9] and in July of that year predicted that "in a comparatively short space of time I am confident I shall telephone across the ocean".[8]

In May, 1903, he formed the Collins Marine Wireless Telephone Company, which was later renamed the Collins Wireless Telephone Company,[10] and served as technical director until 1910.[1]

Collins' conduction and induction wireless telephone apparatus was similar to that employed by Alexander Graham Bell, Amos Dolbear and Nathan Stubblefield. (Bell's work never went beyond the demonstration stage, and Dolbear's patent, controlled by the American Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company, was ruled by the US courts be largely impractical. In 1902, Stubblefield sold the rights to his system to the newly formed Wireless Telephone Company of America, and in August, 1902 a Wireless Telephone advertisement stated that "Nathan Stubblefield and Prof. A. Frederick Collins are now working together for the sole benefit of that company".[11] However, Stubblefield had actually withdrawn from the firm in June, due to his concerns that it was primarily a fraudulent stock promotion scheme).[12]

Despite Collins' initial optimism, he had no more success than the others in developing a commercial system using conduction or induction transmissions, due to the inherent limitations of these technologies. He next began developing a radiotelephone that employed continuous-wave radio signals. In 1904, Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen had introduced the arc-transmitter, which, unlike the intermittent pulses produced by spark transmitters, created steady signals that could be used for amplitude modulated (AM) audio transmissions. Poulsen had sold the US rights to his patents to the Federal Telegraph Company, but Collins claimed that he had independently begun research on the same idea in 1902.

Collins was granted US patent 814,942 on March 13, 1906 for an arc-transmitter improvement which separated the telephone microphone circuit from the arc circuit, to avoid the problem of the arc current burning out the microphone.[13][14] Although this was merely an incremental improvement on existing arc-transmitter technology, the company's stock promotion advertisements claimed this patent was "a broad one, covering the fundamental principles for transmitting and receiving articulate speech without connecting wires" that was supposedly "considered by the highest authorities on patent law to be one of the strongest to be issued since the one granted to Bell in 1876".[15] (Early purchasers of Bell telephone stock had reaped fortunes, so it was a common tactic for early radio company stock promotions, aimed at impressionable "get-rich-quick" buyers, to suggest that similar increases would occur).[16]

The electromagnetic radiation (radio waves) produced by arc-transmitters was created by an electric arc burning between two electrodes. In Collins' case the electrodes rotated in opposite directions, to provide even wear of their surfaces, thus was called a "revolving oscillating arc".[17] Collins also developed multiple unit water-cooled microphones which could carry heavier currents of 8 to 10 amperes.[18] For a receiver, he used a thermo-electric detector of his own design.

Collins began making demonstration radiotelephone transmissions from his lab at 51 Clinton Street in Newark, New Jersey that were sent to increasingly distant locations.[19] On July 9, 1908 a test was heard at the Singer Building in New York City, 19 kilometers (12 miles) away. Transmissions over the next two days were reportedly received in Congers, New York, 56 kilometers (35 miles) distant, and Philadelphia, a distance of 130 kilometers (81 miles).[5][20] After witnessing an October, 1908 demonstration at the New York Electrical Show, Guglielmo Marconi was quoted as saying: "Wireless telephony is an accomplished fact, and to Mr. Collins is due the credit of its invention... The clarity of the transmitted voice is marvelous."[21] In 1909, Collins claimed that his company had established four radiotelephone links operating simultaneously between Portland, Maine and a nearby island, although there is little evidence that this was true.[22] That same year he exhibited his wireless telephone at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and was awarded a gold medal.[5]

Despite Collins' reported successes, his efforts actually fell short of creating a commercially viable radiotelephone. This was also true for other experimenters doing arc-transmitter radiotelephone research during this period, including Lee DeForest and Charles Herrold. Despite their best efforts, arc-transmitters would prove to be too unrefined to be usable for audio transmissions, and a successful radiotelephone would not be realized until vacuum-tube transmitters were developed in the mid-1910s.

In December, 1909, the Collins Wireless Telephone Company was merged with three others—the Pacific Wireless Telegraph Company, the Clark Wireless Telegraph Company, and the Massie Wireless Telegraph Company—to form the Continental Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company, with Collins the new company's Technical Director. Advertisements claimed that Continental was in the process of creating a nationwide service. However, in view of the increasingly shady reputation of its officers, both Walter Massie and Thomas Clark soon withdrew from participation.

Mail fraud prosecution

Collins participated in demonstrations promoting stock sales, which over time included extravagant and misleading claims. A common company tactic was to set up a demonstration at a hotel in a targeted town, and, after successfully talking between two rooms using the short-range induction system, claim that a community-wide radiotelephone exchange had also been perfected, and would be installed pending financing by local stock sales. These tests were widely publicized, featuring promotional photographs of prominent persons, including William Jennings Bryan and US President William Howard Taft, using the company's devices. The company also claimed that soon "every auto will be provided with a portable wireless telephone".[23] However, the radiotelephone systems were never actually constructed.

Concerned by excesses in the radio communications industry, the US federal government instituted a series of prosecutions, and in June, 1910 inspectors from the United States Postal Department began making arrests, beginning with officials of the notorious United Wireless Telegraph Company. In December, 1911 Collins and three of his associates were arrested, and charged with mail fraud in connection with the promotion of both Collins Wireless and its Continental Wireless successor.[24] The indictment charges included overstating the scope of the company's patents, and also fraudulently claiming that its radiotelephone equipment had been perfected to the point that it was ready for widespread commercial deployment. In a trial that ended in early 1913, Collins was one of the three defendants found guilty, and was sentenced to three-years imprisonment, although he would be released after serving one year.[25][26]


Collins began his writing career in 1901, and his articles about wireless telephony appeared in Electrical World, Scientific American, Encyclopedia Americana, and other encyclopedias.[5] He also wrote numerous technical articles and books on wireless telegraphy and telephony in the first decade of the 20th century.[27] His 1913 Manual of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony provided a detailed and illustrated explanation of his electric arc wireless telephone transmitter and receiver, along with a general coverage of the state of the art.[28]

Following his release from prison in 1914, Collins did no further work as an electrical engineer. Embittered by his treatment, in 1917 his wife, Evelyn, filed for a separation, stating that Collins "had come back to freedom... with his disposition ruined", "soured against the world, soured against even his benefactors, and soured against her", and engaging in "long harangues and tirades of invectives against the world in general and the United States government in particular".[29] However, he eventually re-established himself, and, appearing as himself in one of his juvenile novels, proclaimed that although he had suffered "hard falls" and was "stoop-shouldered" from "the weight of his own tragedies", he was persevering because he was "a bit battle scarred but my skin is as thick as that of a rhinoceros".[30] He continued authoring an impressive number of books covering a variety of topics, many intended for younger readers. In particular, he was an enthusiastic proponent of amateur radio, writing in the 1915 The Book of Wireless that "All you need to become a member of the great and growing army of wireless boys is the desire to own a station, and the rest is easy", while offering to personally answer any letters requesting assistance with technical problems.[31] In 1922 his The Radio Amateur's Hand Book was introduced, which was reprinted in at least 15 revised editions over the next 61 years.

In the fiction arena, his three-part "Jack Heaton" adventure series reviewed its title character's exploits as a Wireless Operator (1919), Oil Prospector (1920) and Gold Seeker (1921).[32] However, most of his works were non-fiction. By 1919 his books included Inventing for Boys, Handicraft for Boys, and The Boys' Book of Submarines. The 1922 edition of The Book of Wireless Telegraph and Telephone lists 22 additional titles, ranging from Boys' and Girls' Book of Outdoor Games to numerous scientific and technical subjects, including The Amateur Chemist and Gas, Gasoline and Oil Engines. Many of his books, such as The Boy Scientist, (1925) had comprehensive illustrations and few equations, with an emphasis on "hands-on" experimentation, at a level intended for high school students. After discussing the "Einstein Theory," Collins tells his readers how to build a spectroscope, a radio receiver, and an x-ray machine for home experimentation.[33] In 1941, a book review reported that "A. Frederick Collins has to his credit some 37 'self-help' and practical books ranking from chemistry and electricity and the stars to household mechanics, your car, and gardening."[34] He eventually wrote about 100 books on scientific and technical subjects, hobbies, and sports, plus over 500 articles in technical and scientific magazines and journals.[1]


Collins' writings played an important role in disseminating information about early radio advances (then known as "wireless telegraphy and telephony"), and, in the foreword to 1922 edition of The Radio Amateur's Hand Book, he included "Historian of Wireless 1901–1910" among his accomplishments. (He also claimed the title of "Inventor of the Wireless Telephone 1899"). Donald McNicol, who would later serve as president of the Institute of Radio Engineers, stated that Collins' "How to Construct An Efficient Wireless Telegraph Apparatus at Small Cost", which appeared in a 1902 issue of the Scientific American Supplement, "did more to introduce the art of amateur radio than anything else that had appeared".[35] McNicols later expanded his remarks, writing: "amateur experimenters in wireless were at that early date provided with descriptive text enabling them to set up equipment for the duplication of experiments performed by the foremost workers. Undoubtedly Collins's articles on wireless started many of the amateurs and engineers on the road to whatever success they achieved".[36]

Alan MacDiarmid, the 2000 Nobel Prize Laureate in chemistry, said that Collins' 1924 book The Boy Chemist so inspired him as a boy in New Zealand that he kept renewing it from the public library for almost a full year in order to complete all the experiments.[37][38]

Affiliations and memberships

In 1907, Collins political affiliation was reported to be Republican, and he also presented lectures for the New York Board of Education. In the United States he was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, while in the United Kingdom was a member of the Royal Aero Club and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.[1][39]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Who was who in America, Volume 5, 1968–1973. Chicago: Marquis' Who's Who. 1973. p. 144. ISBN 0-8379-0205-3.
  2. Jenkins, John (2009). Where Discovery Sparks Imagination – A Pictorial History of Radio and Electricity. Bellingham, WA: The American Museum of Radio and Electricity. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-9794569-0-9.
  3. Collins, T(homas) Byard (1906). The New Agriculture: A Popular Outline of the Changes which are Revolutionizing the Methods of Farming and the Habits of Farm Life. Munn & Company.
  4. Collins, A. Frederick (1905). Wireless Telegraphy- Its History, Theory and Practice. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. pp. iii.
  5. 1 2 3 4 "A. Frederick Collins: A biographical sketch". Cassier's Magazine, an engineering monthly. New York: The Cassier Magazine Company. XXXVIII (2): 191–192. June 1910.
  6. "Wireless Telegraphy that Sends No Messages Except By Wire", New York Herald, October 28, 1901, p. 4.
  7. "Telephoning", Honolulu Independent, September 4, 1900, p. 4.
  8. 1 2 "Wireless 'Phones First Real Test", New York World, July 21, 1903, p. 12.
  9. Collins, A. Frederick (1905). Wireless Telegraphy: Its History, Theory and Practice. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. pp. 292–297.
  10. Wireless Communication in the United States by Thorn L. Mayes, 1989, p. 95.
  11. "Personal", Western Electrician, August 30, 1902, p. 143.
  12. Kentucky Farmer Invents Wireless Telephone by Bob Lochte, 2001, p. 74.
  13. U.S. Patent 814,942, "Wireless Telephony." Filing date: August 21, 1905. Issue date: March 13, 1906. Retrieved November 1, 2008.
  14. Mears, William A. (April 1908). "The wireless telephone: its commercial position and possibilities". Sunset Magazine. San Francisco, California: Southern Pacific Company Passenger Department, Southern Pacific Company. 20. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
  15. "The Collins Wireless Telephone" (advertisement), Los Angeles Herald, February 23, 1908, p. 7.
  16. "Fools and Their Money" (Fourth article) by Frank Fayant, Success, January, 1907, p. 11.
  17. Wireless Telegraphy and High Frequency Electricity by H. LaV. Twining (Wireless Telephony chapter by William Dubilier), 1909, pp. 188–193.
  18. Fleming, J. Ambrose (1919). The Principles of Electric Wave Telegraphy and Telephony. Longmans, Green. pp. 685–687.
  19. Jaker, Bill; Sulek, Frank; Kanze, Peter (1998). The Airwaves of New York: Illustrated Histories of 156 AM Stations in the Metropolitan Area, 1921–1996. McFarland. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-7864-0343-1.
  20. "The Collins system of long-distance wireless telephony," Scientific American, September 19, 1908, pp. 186–186. Retrieved November 15, 2008
  21. The Edison Monthly, The New York Edison Company, "The Collins wireless telephone at the Electrical Show," October 1908, Volume 1, no. 6, pp. 151–152. Retrieved August 25, 2009
  22. Reich, Leonard S. (2002). The Making of American Industrial Research. Cambridge University Press. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-521-52237-3.
  23. "The Collins Wireless Telephone" by William Dubilier, Modern Electrics, August, 1908, p. 151.
  24. "Postal raids show vast stock frauds." The New York Times, November 22, 1910, p. 1. Retrieved November 1, 2008.
  25. "The Collins Wireless Telephone: A. Frederick Collins... Tragic Genius?". Sparkmuseum. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  26. White, Thomas. "United States Early Radio History, Section 6: Continental Wireless prosecution.". Retrieved June 5, 2015.
  27. Vries, Imar de. "Mobile Telephony: Realising the Dream of Ideal Communication?" in Hamill, L. & Lasen, A. (eds) Mobile World: Past, Present, Future. London: Springer, 2005. ISBN 978-1-85233-825-1 (print) ISBN 978-1-84628-204-1 (online)
  28. Collins, A. Frederick (1913) [1906, 1909]. Manual of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony (3rd ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
  29. "His Prison Grouch Wrecks Own Home: Wife Says Jail Made Collins, Wireless Inventor, a Misanthrope", New York Sun, August 5, 1917, Section 2, p. 1.
  30. Jack Heaton: Wireless Operator by A. Frederick Collins, 1919, pp. 231–232.
  31. The Book of Wireless by A. Frederick Collins, 1915, p. viii.
  32. The Jack Heaton Series
  33. Lienhard, John H. "Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins." Oxford University Press US, 2003. pp. 198–199. ISBN 978-0-19-518951-3.
  34. "Home Repair Manual", The (Madison) Wisconsin State Journal, November 2, 1941, p. 11.
  35. "The Early Days of Radio in America" by Donald McNicol, The Electrical Experimenter, April, 1917, pp. 893, 911.
  36. Radio's Conquest of Space by Donald McNicol, 1946, pp. 228–229.
  37. Campbell, John "Alan MacDiarmid, Plastic fantastic." Retrieved September 25, 2008
  38. "The Boy Chemist – Download a Classic Chemistry Book (with discussion of the author & his works)". February 21, 2010. Retrieved October 4, 2011.
  39. Hamersly, Lewis Randolph (1907) [1907]. Who's who in New York City and State. Who's Who Publications. p. 311. Retrieved November 15, 2008.

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