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.

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.

Recommended

Key dates for 2023: here are the dates you need to know when it comes to your money in 2023
Personal finance

Key dates for 2023: here are the dates you need to know when it comes to your money in 2023

There is no shortage of important dates to be aware of next year – which are likely to affect your financial health. We run through the key dates in 2…
6 Dec 2022
What is a recession and how will it affect you?
UK Economy

What is a recession and how will it affect you?

The UK economy is heading towards a recession, according to economists. But what is a recession, and what does it mean for your money?
6 Dec 2022
Investment scams are infiltrating Facebook and Instagram
Investment strategy

Investment scams are infiltrating Facebook and Instagram

Research from Which? found hundreds of investment ads on Facebook and Instagram that could be misleading investors into potential investment scams.
6 Dec 2022
Is it a good time to buy an annuity as rates hit a 14-year high?
Pensions

Is it a good time to buy an annuity as rates hit a 14-year high?

Average annual annuity income has risen by nearly £1,000 since the start of the year. We look at whether now is a good time to buy an annuity.
6 Dec 2022

Most Popular

Is it cheaper to leave the heating on low all day?
Personal finance

Is it cheaper to leave the heating on low all day?

The weather is getting colder and energy bills are rising, but is it really cheaper to leave the heating on low all day or should you only turn it on …
1 Dec 2022
Radiator vs electric heater – which is cheaper?
Personal finance

Radiator vs electric heater – which is cheaper?

We compare the costs, pros and cons of radiators and electric heaters and see which one will help keep your energy bill as low as possible.
28 Nov 2022
State pension errors – why tens of thousands of mothers could be missing out on millions in state pension payments
State pensions

State pension errors – why tens of thousands of mothers could be missing out on millions in state pension payments

LCP launches Mothers Missing Millions campaign amid DWP state pension errors.
3 Dec 2022