Rosendo Rubi, Nicaragua, and the Invention of Voice Radio (Wireless Telephony)

Plaque in honor of Rosendo Rubis radio experiments in 1902, at his house in Leon, Nicaragua

Plaque in honor of Rosendo Rubi's radio experiments in 1902, at his house in León, Nicaragua

I grew up listening to stories from my family, especially my maternal grandmother, Alicia Rubí, about my great-grandfather and his scientific genius. These stories about Rosendo Rubí were filled with a strong sense of pride about his accomplishments, and tragedy and loss over the lack of international recognition of his merit and the destruction of all his documents at his death in 1940. Pride and a sense of grievance fit within historical national sentiments in our small country, Nicaragua, grasping for wider recognition; and of León, our home town, proud of its past and fading intellectual pre-eminence.

We hold on to a few key highlights of his life: he attended the 1904 St. Louis World’ Fair. A doctor, he was the first in Central America to bring X-ray equipment. But most importantly and most cherished, he invented and successfully demonstrated a radio device for transmitting voice (in Spanish, “telefonía inalámbrica”) around 1900, presumably before similar inventions were created and acknowledged in industrialized nations, in Europe and North America; he may have obtained a patent in the U.S. for this invention.

Rosendo Rubi’s life and accomplishments are surrounded in a fog of memories and stories that is thickening with time and as people who knew him have died. The fog goes all the way to his childhood and closes in again at his death. His mother may have died soon after his birth, and his father disappeared; their identity isn’t clear. He was raised by family friends in Leon. When he died on January 6, 1940, a son burned all his archives on the family’s yard, destroying all direct evidence of his work. The documentation of his life and work that has been found is in very small fragments, often simply repeating earlier fragments. I have yet to see a document from Europe or North America that talks about his work in a context larger than Nicaragua; for the most part, he doesn’t appear at all.

What exactly did he invent, and when did he perform the first successful test? How does that compare to official chronologies of voice radio inventions? Did he precede Reginald Fessenden’s 1900 demonstration of speech transmission? What mechanism was his device based on? Did he obtain a patent? What other achievements can be clearly attributed to him? What documentation can we unearth to describe convincingly what he did, once and for all? More personally, what was he like, who influenced him, what are his origins?

Portrait of Rosendo Rubi at the St. Louis Worlds Fair, 1904

Portrait of Rosendo Rubi at the St. Louis World's Fair, 1904

I intend to research Rosendo Rubi’s life and work for the next several years, or maybe all my life. I will use this blog to sporadically publish what I find, in English and Spanish. I first started this search 20 years ago when I started college at MIT in Massachusetts, U.S. (I went on to become an Oceanographer and “biogeochemist”).  While visiting Nicaragua a few weeks ago, an uncle (Rosendo’s grandson) showed me a photo of him — the first time I see his face (I have collected a handful of photos related to him and his work). Another uncle (also a doctor, like Rosendo) had clearer memories of my grandmother’s stories. During this visit, I located the passage in the 1909 book by Rosendo’s contemporary and fellow León native, the great Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío (in Spanish): “Y hasta algo como un Charles Cros nicaragüense ha habido que haya experimentado allá un sistema de teléfono sin hilos mucho antes de las hoy triunfantes tentativas de electricistas europeos. Me refiero al Doctor Rosendo Rubí, que obtuvo en Washington una patente el año de 1900.” (El Viaje a Nicaragua e Intermezzo Tropical, Chapter 3).

I will pursue this search both in Nicaragua and the US, wherever the bread crumbs of documentation lead. If possible, this will take me to St. Louis, Missouri, to search for information about his visit during the 1904 World’s Fair; to the US Library of Congress; and to Nicaraguan archives (as limited as they are). I’m not doing this alone, though; the Rubí family and some friends are helping. If we collect enough information, I would consider publishing a small book, or a long article, eventually. Meanwhile, I hope this series of articles will become the best and most accessible documentation on the life and work of Rosendo Rubí.

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4 Responses to Rosendo Rubi, Nicaragua, and the Invention of Voice Radio (Wireless Telephony)

  1. Byron says:

    No sabía. Que bueno que te dediqués a investigar esto, de verdad, es necesario que se de a conocer…

  2. Ken Kaffke says:

    Amazed to finally see a photo of my great-grandfather Rosendo Rubi. Thank you for posting all your research and stories of our great-grandfather!

  3. Melissa Rubi says:

    I am going to share this with Nicho and the girls. Thank you for posting!

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