Christopher Columbus Wilson: the spiv who cashed in on new-fangled radios

Christopher Columbus Wilson gave radios away to drum up business in his United Wireless Telegraph Company. The company went bankrupt and Wilson was convicted of fraud.

The United Wireless Telegraph Company was originally formed in 1906 by stock promoter Abraham White from the remnants of the Amalgamated Wireless Securities Company. It then took over for $1 the assets of American DeForest Wireless Telegraph Company, a bankrupt communications firm that had been set up by another promoter, Christopher Columbus Wilson. The takeover enabled Wilson to keep the firm’s assets out of the hands of DeForest’s many creditors. But by early 1907 the two promoters had a falling out. Wilson organised a boardroom coup that led to him taking over as president of United Wireless.

What was the scam?

Wilson initially boasted to investors that he had secured an agreement to merge with rival Marconi to create an international monopoly in the emerging field of radio communications. After that attempt fell through, he resorted essentially to giving away radiotelegraph equipment to give the impression that the firm was winning business. He combined this with extravagant (and false) promises that the firm had developed technology for wireless phone calls. He also refused to register changes in share ownership, which meant that United Wireless’s shares couldn’t be resold on the open market, making it easy for Wilson to keep manipulating the price upwards.

What happened next?

Wilson’s decision, effectively, to give equipment away led to the United Wireless Telegraph Company becoming one of the largest firms in America. However, complaints about the way it was run and promoted led to an investigation by the US Postal Service in 1910. This resulted in Wilson and four other executives being convicted of fraud. Wilson died in prison. Mounting losses from the aggressive pricing strategy forced the firm into bankruptcy in July 1911. It later lost a patent infringement lawsuit.

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Lessons for investors

A result of the lawsuit was that Marconi bought United Wireless Telegraph Company in exchange for Marconi shares worth just $1.1m. This meant that shareholders received only $2 a share – 96% less than the $50 a share that some of them had paid at the peak of the bubble. United Wireless Telegraph Company was not the only radio company to be exposed as a fraud at around this time: the founder of rival Continental Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company also ended up in prison. A general rule is that whenever a new technology or industrial sector appears, fraudsters will attempt to cash in. Buyers beware.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri