Sir Henry Thornton (1871-1933)

Henry Thornton

Year Born: 1871

Year Died: 1933


Thornton, Sir Henry (1871-1933)

A railway engineer was responsible for Canada’s first coast-to-coast radio network – in fact the first such radio network in North America. The visionary was Sir Henry Thornton, second president of Canadian National Railways.

Some later broadcast empires developed from a desire to sell radios or groceries. Sir Henry was a marketing and organizational genius who wanted to sell train seats and turn the reputation of the CNR from white elephant to profitable innovator. Radio at the time was as novel and exciting as the Internet 70 years later. Sir Henry exploited that fact.

Henry Thornton was an American, born in Logansport, Indiana. He joined the Pennsylvania Railway in 1894 as an engineering draftsman, joined the Long Island Railroad seven years later as assistant to the president, and in 1914 was lured to England to become general manager of a passenger rail system, the Great Eastern Railway north-east of London.

King George V knighted him in 1919 for his work with the transportation division of the British Expeditionary Forces in France.

Sir Henry moved to Canada in 1922 after accepting the job of president of CNR. It was a new amalgam of rail companies which had been started for political reasons to provide competition against Canadian Pacific Railway. The rail companies failed, threatening economic and political harm to Canada, so the government pulled them together then went looking for someone to clean up the mess. Sir Henry accepted the job which many others were reported to have turned down.

CNR was mainly a freight carrier. Sir Henry offered passenger service and luxury hotels in competition with CP Railway. CNR Radio was a marketing idea to promote CNR and attract passengers, who could listen to the exciting new medium as they travelled in special cars – even if they had to wear heavy headsets to do so.

Radio stations were burgeoning. Much of their programming was what you’d expect from pioneers driven more by enthusiasm than money. Before Sir Henry’s arrival, CNR had worked with the Canadian Marconi Company to broadcast experimentally, including to trains running between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. On June 1, 1923 Sir Henry established a radio department and began planning a network to carry co-ordinated, quality programming and CNR’s promotional message to Canadians and to CNR’s passengers, using the circuits built for its telegraph service.

In 1924, CNR Radio broadcast the first network hockey game to be carried on the network. In 1925 it made the first broadcast from a moving train and then the first Canadian radio broadcast to the United Kingdom. Two years later CNR provided the first nation-wide broadcast to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Canadian confederation. CNR demonstrated that radio was a powerful and effective medium that, like the railways, could help pull Canada together.

The CNR network consisted of three CNR stations combined with time leased from private stations. CNR provided the private stations with leasing revenue and quality programming. Sir Henry’s employees loved him, the private stations were generally happy, and the promotional value was inestimable. But the success of this and other innovations, which turned CNR from a loser into a high-profile company, produced powerful enemies.

CNR was succeeding until the Depression hit in 1929 and potential profits suffered along with everything else. Then Sir Henry’s enemies, especially at the CPR which he had outgunned, were able to portray him as irresponsible, extravagant and even a threat to Canada. A faction within a new government drove him out in 1932 without even a pension, in addition pressuring a bank to drop him from its board and ruining a future career opportunity. He died a ruined man, of cancer, in 1933.

A royal commission report released soon after Sir Henry’s departure criticized CPR as much as CNR for aggressive expansion but failed to criticize CNR Radio, which had been so reviled by the CPR.

The CNR sold its radio network to the government and it became the forerunner to the CBC.

Written by Jerry Fairbridge – January, 2003