The headline of the article “The Wizard of Vandalia” in the Jan. 30, 1908, issue of The Vandalia Union caught my attention. I have mentioned before that the local newspaper is one of my favorite sources of subjects for this column.
John W. Kurtz is the man they were referring to, and he was born in Vandalia in 1863, a son of George and Louisa Buser Kurtz.
John was only 6 years old when his father died. His brother, George, who would become a well-known Vandalia businessman, was an infant when his father died.
After the death of his father, John was sent to live in St. Louis. There, he obtained an education and became an expert telephone and telegraph installer, and came to understand the basic principles of electricity.
It was while working at his desk in the Chemical Building in St. Louis that he made a discovery that would prove to confound him and most of the people he came in contact with.
The article in the newspaper explained, “Mr. Kurtz was sitting at his desk one day and on the desk was a bottle, and on top of the open bottle a piece of glazed paper was lying.
“As a fly took its course over the paper Mr. Kurtz distinctly heard it walk. The piece of paper served as a sounding board.”
With his experience in telephone and telegraphs, Kurtz knew he had made a discovery, but of what?
He began to experiment and in May 1893, made his first successful attempts at wireless transmission. This was a year before Guglielmo Marconi first began to think of electric currents penetrating the air.
It was not until 1897 that Marconi announced his first wireless transmission aboard a yacht, when he sent a few words from the Prince of Wales to Queen Victoria.
Kurtz claimed to have been able to send complete messages and that he also sent wireless telephone messages. His first principle had materialized into the present-day wireless telegraph used the world over, and a second discovery, advanced by himself and others, is now the wireless telephone.
On Jan. 27, 1903, while living in San Francisco, John W. bought the family home from his brother, George, and moved his family to Vandalia. He set up a laboratory in the back yard and erected signal towers all the while commuting to his offices in St. Louis.
Within a year or so, his Vandalia relatives, totally embarrassed at what they saw as his bizarre behavior, tried to get him committed – this man was claiming that he could talk from one place to another without the aid of wire!
Think of some modern wonder, space travel, organ transplants, even television – not too very long ago, these ideas were met with disbelief and cynicism.
Inventor Kurtz hired attorney Josiah T. Bullington of the firm Brown, Burnside and Bullington to defend him in the insanity case. What an insult it must have been for him to hear that he was considered a danger to himself and others.
In the final analysis of the case, it was determined that if Kurtz, his wife and pretty daughters would just go back to San Francisco and cause the Vandalia relatives no more embarrassment with his ideas of transmitting sound by wire, no further action would be taken.
Leaving Vandalia, John moved with his small family to Muncie, Ind., where every spare moment was spent in his workshop furthering his ideas about wireless telegraphy. At his Muncie home he erected several towers, one 205 feet in height.
By 1908, John was back in his Vandalia workshop. Approached by a newspaper reporter for information on his discoveries, he considered it no use to talk about his work, as none in Vandalia, or St. Louis, for that matter, could help him or even had an inkling of what he was talking about.
Marconi, too, was met with skepticism when he offered his invention to the Italian government. They rejected it, but didn’t try to have him committed.
Marconi then took his invention to England where he entered a patent in 1896 … and the rest is history. Had Kurtz been able to understand what he had discovered, it may have been his name on the patent.