Frank Butler, one of 11 children, was born in Monroeville on Nov. 2, 1877. He and his family lived on Jackson St. next to the railroad tracks across from the stockyards. This vicinity was known as “The Ridge”. He attended a two-room school for three years, graduating from the first room, which taught the “three R’s” to the second room designated for more senior studies.
In 1890, at age 13 he left school and began working for the Edna Piano & Organ Co. as a wood carver. Shortly thereafter he took a position with the Western Union and Lake Shore Railroad as a telegraph messenger for much less pay because he felt there was a better future in the railroad business. By 1900 his job had elevated to Dispatcher and in 1904 he was offered the position of Private Operator and Secretary to the General Manager for the New York Central Railroad.
On June 5th 1904, prior to accepting the new position, Frank took a weekend trip to the St. Louis World’s Fair. Although he had worked out a careful, time efficient itinerary, when he arrived at the DeForest Wireless Telegraphy exhibit, he did not leave. He was completely fascinated by the concept of wireless telegraphy, which at the time was not much more than a fledgling experiment in the early stages of unproven development. At the time most people did not believe wireless signaling was possible. Taking a huge leap of faith, Frank, with little education and leaving a lucrative railroad career, against the advice of all his friends, except his Father, decided to take a low paying job with DeForest and his crew at the fair. Recognizing that he was in the presence of a genius, Lee Deforest, he totally dedicated himself to learning all he could and becoming the best technician possible.
By the end of the fair the Deforest Wireless Co. through successful demonstrations of this new technology obtained a contract with the U.S. Navy to install wireless stations in Pensacola, Fla, Key West, Fla, Guantanamo, Cuba, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Colon, Panama. Frank was put in charge of the construction and equipment set up at Pensacola, Key West, and Guantanamo. The Navy required these stations transmit and receive at a 1000-mile minimum distance. This was untested technology never attempted in tropical conditions and only briefly achieved during ideal weather in the north. By the end of 1905, all three installations were successfully completed and fully operational. In Guantanamo Secretary of State Wm. Howard Taft personally congratulated him on the achievement. Previously he and his crews among the many challenges overcame undiscovered technical problems, severe weather, difficult living conditions and certain resistance from a Guantanamo Naval Commander.
In early 1906 with the completion of the Naval contract he was offered the position of Technical Director to Lee DeForest at The Deforest Wireless Co. in N.Y.C. On March 31, 1906 he telegraphed, from a newly built wireless station at Manhattan Beach, a historic wireless message of 1000 words to Glengarrif, Ireland. There DeForest and Alexander Graham Bell received 572 words from their receiver connected to an antenna wire held aloft by one of Bell’s experimental tetrahedral kites. This signaling across the Atlantic Ocean was a significant achievement for the DeForest equipment and proved superiority over Marconi’s claim of a few years earlier when he reportedly sent the letter “S” (three dots) across the Atlantic. Troubles, however, were stirring at DeForest Wireless and in the summer of 1906 DeForest was frozen out of his company. As a result Frank was offered DeForest’s position but he resigned from the firm out of loyalty to DeForest.
Both Lee DeForest and Frank had very little funds. Frank joined DeForest later in 1906 and worked together with he and his brother Charles in their dusty attic laboratory in the Parker Building in NYC. Frank, as DeForest’s assistant, helped DeForest perform experiments in an effort to find a better “wireless detector”. During this time he was witness to and participated in the discovery of the “Audion” tube. This, also known as the first radio tube was the genesis of wireless voice and music transmission. This was the birth of RADIO and Frank was the first to hear it. DeForest patented the Audion on January 29,1907.
During the following months further experimentation and refinement to the fledgling invention or “Wireless Telephone” ensued. In June they decided to try a musical broadcast with the new device and learned that it was indeed heard by Navy wireless operators in the Brooklyn Yard who thought the song “Il Trovatore” must have been “the angel’s singing”. They then seized an opportunity to demonstrate the new invention by successfully broadcasting the results of the Put-In-Bay, Ohio Yacht Regatta held during the week of July 15th through July 20th. With Lee DeForest broadcasting from the yacht, Thelma, to Frank Butler receiving on land they made the first ship to shore voice broadcast as well as the first sports broadcast in history. In 1999 the Ohio Historical Society erected a marker on this site to commemorate this historic event. After the Regatta, Frank set up the world’s first broadcasting station in downtown Toledo between the Ohio Building and the Nicholas Building to demonstrate the new technology as well as support the sale of stock in DeForest’s newly formed “Radio Telephone Company”.
Throughout the remainder of 1907 and 1908 he and DeForest showed the world its first demonstrations of the new wireless telephone at the annual Electrical Show in Chicago as well as securing and fulfilling a contract to supply Admiral Evans fleet, 26 ships, with the newly developed equipment on a very tight schedule before the fleet took off on their world tour. While in Chicago both Lee and Frank learned of the total destruction of the Parker Building in New York which decimated DeForest’s laboratory housing all the original notes and experiments leading to the Audion tube.
During this time wireless operators and engineers were in high demand and short supply. In early 1909 Frank started the American Wireless Institute with offices in Detroit and New York. This school later morphed in to the RCA institute.
Deforest’s Radio Telephone Company, through malfeasance of the officers, went bankrupt just as the federal government (U.S. Post Office) was widely and aggressively pursuing unscrupulous usage of the U.S. mail to sell fraudulent wireless stock. In 1913 Lee DeForest was indicted and Frank Butler was subpoenaed to testify against him. Frank’s testimony proved instrumental in acquitting DeForest.
The early years of wireless left a deep impression on the balance of Frank’s career. He later became involved in sales and marketing in the radio industry. He also wrote dozens of magazine and technical publication articles on early wireless as well as newer radio technology. In the early 1930’s he patented a revolutionary loud speaker system that utilized sound percussion to amplify sound acoustically and spent several years through the support of investors building, experimenting, and demonstrating a working prototype. He frequently spoke at the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) gatherings about his first-hand experience with DeForest. He was a zealous advocate for the accurate portrayal of early radio history and promoted Lee DeForest as the true Father of the Electronic Age from which we all benefit today. During the latter years of his life Frank, with the endorsement and verification from DeForest, created accurate replicas of the series of experiments leading to the Audion tube while also finalizing the last pages of his autobiography. He remained a tirelessly loyal and dedicated friend to Lee DeForest up to the end of his life. In December of 1906 Frank married Luella Manning and in 1914 and 1916 respectively they had a daughter Jane and a son Robert.
Frank was a self-made, self-taught individual. In addition to being dedicated to his family he was a talented author, poet, and artist; he was an inventor who held several patents; he proved to be a remarkable technician achieving many historical firsts; he was an optimist who never gave up, who developed his own philosophy of success and life based on a trilogy of “Vision, Faith, and Determination”. When he died on January 6, 1948 he was prominent enough to rate an obituary 15 1⁄2 inches long in the New York Times.
Frank’s autobiography, “The Standby” is to be published by the Antique Wireless Association. In it he writes fondly of the “mystic triangle” formed by Bellevue, Milan & Monroeville. It is here in this homeland, “The Firelands”, where historic men from this area inspired him: Edison, Flagler, Harkness, and Rockefeller, and where he often looked back at his humble happy beginnings in Monroeville for comfort and fond remembrance.