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HalifaxYesterday: Alexander Johnston, the Man Who Brought Wireless Communication to Canada (8 photos)

R. Fraser Alexander Johnston (1867-1951) was a native of Red Islands, Richmond County in Cape Breton

R. Fraser Alexander Johnston (1867-1951) was a native of Red Islands, Richmond County in Cape Breton. As a boy, he was educated through the common school system before attending St. Francis Xavier College in Antigonish where he received a Doctor of Laws degree. Upon completing his studies, he obtained a job at the Sydney Daily Record as a reporter. Years later, he became the newspaper’s owner and publisher. (see Image 1 above)

Johnston married Margaret McPherson, the daughter of a Collector of Customs at North Sydney in 1896. The following year, he decided to go into politics and won a seat in the local legislature. He resigned in 1900 to contest the riding of Cape Breton and went on to become a member of the House of Commons. He defeated a formidable antagonist in the person of Sir Charles Tupper and served until 1904. He was then re-elected to represent Cape Breton South for another term but was defeated in 1908. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier regarded the young Liberal from Cape Breton as one of his staunchest supporters. In 1910, Johnston became the deputy minister of Marine and Fisheries (later, the Department of Transport), a position he held for twenty-one years. (see Images 2 and 3 above)

Between 1902 and 1903, inventor Guglielmo Marconi registered his company, the Marconi Wireless Company of Canada, in Ontario and then with the federal government. He had previously been prevented from continuing his experiments with trans-Atlantic wireless from Newfoundland because of a patent dispute with the Anglo-American Cable Company. His immediate goal was to set up a permanent North American receiving station in Canada. In order to accomplish this, Marconi met with Alex Johnston. Using his connections, Johnston managed to secure $80,000 from the Laurier government to finance the building of the first wireless station in the country at Glace Bay. Marconi’s firm owned and operated the station which was fully operational by 1908. (see Images 4 and 5)

The government’s next step was to contract Marconi to build fifteen coastal ship to shore telegraph stations. Although the Canadian government would own the stations, it was agreed that Marconi’s company would lease and operate them. Marconi then went on to open a wireless apparatus manufacturing plant in Montreal in 1909 and continued to experiment with sound and radio technology in the ensuing decade. During this time, he created a test room, XWA, that developed into station CFCF. Successful experiments at the Glace Bay Station led Marconi’s company to erect a tower in Montreal in 1919 to demonstrate their findings to other major Canadian cities. Their equipment was displayed the following year at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. (see Image 6 above)

In his capacity as deputy minister of Marine and Fisheries, Alex Johnston led a Canadian delegation in 1913 to the International Conference for Safety of Life at Sea in London, England following the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Titanic. One year later, Johnson as well as Naval Department, Marine and Fisheries, and other high ranking British officials accompanied Lord Mersey to Quebec City to participate in an inquiry into another tragedy - this time, the sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, with a loss of over a thousand lives.

When the Halifax Explosion occurred on 6 December 1917, Marine and Fisheries Minister Charles C. Ballantyne tasked Johnston with finding an attorney in Halifax willing to not only accept the position of government counsel at the inquiry into the cause of the collision of two vessels in the harbour, but also to assume the gargantuan task of organizing the entire endeavour within one week. He chose William A. Henry Jr., a well-known and respected lawyer and a partner in one of the city’s top law firms. Unfortunately, due to Henry’s position representing the government, his practice was unable to benefit from any of the litigation, civil or criminal, which invariably resulted from the numerous legal proceedings. (see Images 7 and 8 above)

In 1927, Johnston acted as a Canadian representative at the International Radiotelegraph Conference in Washington and also represented the country two years later at the London Conference, where further measures to preserve safety at sea were discussed. He retired from the Department of Transport at the end of 1931. A 1 January 1932 article in the Montreal Gazette praised the former deputy minister:

“That Mr. Johnston was able to maintain his official relations in an atmosphere of unbroken harmony over so long a period is evidence of something more than administrative diplomacy. Back of it are the personal qualities which Mr. Johnston possesses and in which the public service has had an asset of no mean value. This, perhaps, best explained in the fact that the retiring Deputy Minister has always been so tolerant, always patient and always ready to explain the ground for his decisions.

He has been neither hasty nor arbitrary in his official actions, and his unfailing disposition to deal fairly with all interests for which his department is responsible has won for him a universal regard in which the element of personal friendship predominates… He leaves the service now with the good will of all his associates and of the public, who will wish him a long enjoyment of a leisure which has been fully earned.”

In 1935, Johnston was made Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. He served under five prime ministers during his long career. He died on 30 November 1951 at age 84. His widow continued to reside at their home in Ottawa that Johnston built in 1913. The papers of The Honourable Alexander Johnston are housed at the Saint Francis Xavier University Archives.

Sources: The Canadian Parliament: biographical sketches...1904; “CFCF : The Early Years of Radio” by Melanie Fishbane; Montreal Gazette; Sydney Post Record; The New York Times

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