Canada’s Father of Broadcasting
Editor’s note: This article was first published on December 23, 2020. This version indicates that there is a dispute regarding the issue date of December 24, 1906. The date of this event may have been confused over time with manifestations that occurred on different dates.
Canadian physicist and inventor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was responsible for laying the groundwork to usher in the age of radio. His voice was the first to be broadcast by amplitude modulated (AM) radio wave on December 23, 1900. In fact, Fessenden himself developed the principle of this form of communication. Six years later, he is said to have aired the very first radio broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1906, although some broadcast scholars claim that date may have been confused in some sources with protests that occurred at different times.
Reginald Fessenden was born on October 6, 1866 in East Bolton, Quebec. After attending Trinity College in Port Hope, Ontario, he studied at Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, where he taught mathematics to young students while pursuing his own studies. In 1884, at the age of 18, he left Bishop’s College before graduating to accept a position as principal and only teacher at the Whitney Institute in Bermuda. While in Bermuda, Fessenden met his future wife, Helen Trott. After developing an interest in science, he resigned his teaching position and moved to New York in 1886.
In New York, Fessenden began working as an assistant tester at the Edison Machine Works. With the opportunity to prove his worth, he received a quick series of promotions and worked directly for Thomas Edison as a junior technician at the famous inventor’s new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, at the end of the year. Fessenden attained the rank of chief chemist at the Edison Electrical Company in 1890. Shortly after this achievement, George Westinghouse enticed him with a managerial position at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.
Fessenden accepted a professorship of electrical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, in 1892, where he studied and experimented with the development of sound vibrations and wireless sound transmission. At the end of the school year, he left Purdue to devote his time and energy to creating his own inventions.
Fessenden and his family moved to Pittsburgh at the invitation of George Westinghouse. Fessenden became the chair of the electrical engineering department at Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). He received funding from the Westinghouse Corporation while in this position and was able to devote more time and focus to the problem of wireless communication. Fessenden also developed and patented several inventions during this time.
Fessenden left college in 1900 to work for the United States Weather Bureau, conducting experiments to adapt radiotelegraphy (the transmission of telegraph signals by radio waves) to weather forecasting. Looking forward to the on-off transmission of Morse code signals, he became interested in the transmission of continuous sound, in particular the human voice. While at the weather bureau, he made significant progress in this endeavor, modifying and inventing essential equipment while developing crucial radio transmission principles (such as amplitude modulation). Located on Cobb Island in the Potomac River in Maryland, Fessenden successfully transmitted a short, intelligible voice message on December 23, 1900, over a distance of one mile. The historic voicemail was addressed to his assistant “One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If so, reply by telegraph and let me know. Mr. Thiessen replied in Morse code by telegraph that it was indeed snowing.
In 1902, two Pittsburgh millionaires, Hay Walker, Jr. and Thomas H. Given, funded and formed the National Electric Signaling Company (NESC) with Fessenden on the condition that he place his inventions in the company’s name. The newly formed company built two wireless stations with 400 foot antenna towers and the most modern equipment in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. The successful performance of these initial stations led to the construction of three more stations in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. It was the first such facility to send wireless telegraph messages over land and sea, and would set a record of 8,500 km to Alexandria, Egypt.
1906 was a year of major achievements for Fessenden. After setting up a wireless station at Machrihanish, Scotland, Fessenden achieved the first transatlantic two-way wireless telegraph transmission between that location and his facility at Brant Rock. Guglielmo Marconi had made the first transatlantic telegraph transmission in December 1901, but his device was only capable of one-way communication between a transmitter and a receiver. Unfortunately, Fessenden’s connection was of variable quality. It was unreliable, being heavily influenced by weather conditions and time of day. Cold weather and long nights proved to be ideal conditions, while warm weather and daylight hours produced below negligible results.
Later in November, Fessenden learned from Machrihanish staff that the station had picked up voices instead of “dots and dashes” (Morse code) from transmissions between the Brant Rock station and a station in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fessenden checked the logs in which the various tests and experiments were recorded and verified that the reported voice transmissions matched events at the time. Before he could really dig in to experiment and explore this new discovery, disaster struck on December 6 when the Machrihanish station’s radio tower collapsed during a storm.
Fessenden was still determined to prove his system’s capabilities and let American NESC customers know that they had to tune their wireless systems to the company’s frequency on Christmas Eve, although some modern media historians dispute this. dated; this event may have been confused over time with demonstrations on different dates. At 9:00 p.m. sharp, wireless carriers as far away as Norfolk, Va., were amazed to hear the first-ever radio program, broadcast by Fessenden from the Brant Rock station. The program consisted of a phonograph recording of Hendel’s “Largo” aria, Fessenden playing O’ Holy Night on his violin, and verses read from the Bible, ending with Fessenden wishing his listeners a Merry Christmas. A second broadcast was broadcast on New Year’s Eve which was picked up as far away as the West Indies.
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was a prolific inventor and had amassed over 500 patents during his career, but tragically he spent much of his life fighting for recognition and compensation for these accomplishments. He retired to Bermuda with his wife, where he died on July 22, 1932. Fessenden was buried in the cemetery of St. Mark’s Church on the island. Over his tomb is a stone lintel supported by two fluted columns with these words inscribed on it:
“By his genius, distant lands converse
and men navigate the depths fearlessly.“
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