Drawing the Battle Lines

Seemingly, everyone was enchanted with Thornton’s radio efforts – all but one powerful party. Much of what the CNR was accomplishing was at the expense of the rival CPR. The CPR’s conservative, cautious and equally-determined president, Sir Edward Beatty, dismissed Thornton’s radio efforts as “flashy stunts” at the expense of the taxpayers. Beatty unrelentingly portrayed his company as Canada’s largest taxpayer and, therefore, the one which should have the largest say in the policies of the CNR.

Thornton became the first Canadian to publicly reject the CPR’s assertions of its real or imagined rights. He used his radio soapbox to defend his company, telling Canadians, “Certain interests are determined to prevent the ultimate success of the People’s Railway. By constantly stirring up turmoil and bringing malicious charges, they hope to discourage the administration, the officers and the employees.”

The boldness of the CNR led to major gains at the expense of the CPR. The CPR passenger trains were not equipped with radio gear – and high-paying parlour and sleeping car passengers were soon selecting the CNR trains in preference to those of the CPR. This only fuelled the CPR’s objection to the mere presence of the CNR, which it wanted leased or transferred to CPR management. Historians have also suggested that Beatty’s dislike for Thornton stemmed from the fact that he had briefly considered hiring him but moved too slowly and lost him to the CNR. One can only imagine Beatty’s rising anger as he watched Thornton steal the CPR’s limelight.

The CPR also fumbled on one of the key elements in Thornton’s network radio plan. In order to transform it into a true transcontinental network and improve his company’s telegraph system, Thornton had pushed the installation of the “carrier-current” system, which made it possible to carry 24 signals at varying frequencies simultaneously over a pair of copper wires. (the Toronto – Ottawa – Montreal link started first gradually extending east and west.) This not only improved telegraph transmission capacity, but brought with it an expanded frequency range, improving the quality of radio voice and music transmission. The CPR had moved slowly on this development and was once again eclipsed.