Born in Australia of American parents, Elwell worked his way over on a ship in 1902 and studied at Manzanita Hall in Palo Alto to prepare for engineering studies at Stanford University.
Following the 1906 earthquake, he tested a radio theory by stringing an antenna from the dome of the heavily damaged library--an act that got him ordered off the campus by Trustee Timothy Hopkins.
Nevertheless, Elwell managed to complete his engineering degree at Stanford and get in on the early development of long-distance radio.
Elwell had taken a high-paying job developing electric smelting, but his former professor, Harris J. "Paddy" Ryan, persuaded him to quit and investigate a wireless telephone system whose developer had died young. He bought a house at 1451 Cowper St., on the Embarcadero Road corner, built two 75-foot wooden masts, and broadcast to a station in Los Altos five miles away.
Elwell realized that only continuous-wave transmission would allow good quality telephony and, with backing from top Stanford faculty members, went to Denmark to bring back a Poulsen arc generator. With later enhancements, this device laid the basis for the Federal Telegraph Company.
Elwell also organized a radio research team, which included Lee de Forest, that developed the amplifying and feedback functions of the audion, a key step opening the way for long-line telephones, radio and later television. Although Elwell didn't stay in Palo Alto long, he established the community's identity as a cradle of radio engineering. In later life he retired to Los Altos.
--Peter Gauvin This is the 47th in a series of profiles on the "Creators of the Legacy," 56 people who were honored last year by the Palo Alto Centennial Committee for their roles in creating Palo Alto in all its aspects.
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