One Against the World

Reginald Fessenden insisted voices and sounds could ride radio waves. Other inventors scoffed, but he proved them wrong, even if it never made him rich

by Charles Enman The Ottawa Citizen Monday 13 September 1999

Fessenden's Brant Rock Lab .
Fessenden in his laboratory in Brant Rock (The Radioscientist)

Canadian Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was radio's first voice. And his historic first message could hardly have been more Canadian. "One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If it is, telegraph back and let me know." Indeed, it was snowing on that morning of Dec. 23, 1900 -- and Mr. Thiessen duly telegraphed back an affirmation.

That snowy setting was a little further south than one might have imagined, on Cobb Island, in Washington, D.C., where Mr. Fessenden was doing work for the U.S. Weather Bureau. Guglielmo Marconi had invented radio transmission five years earlier, but only for Morse code. The miracle of a human voice wafting up from a receiver was still to charm the first human ear. All that changed the instant Mr. Thiessen heard his employer's scratchy, faint voice back in 1900. That first transmission was between two 20-metre towers that stood a kilometre-and-a-half apart, more like a wireless telephone than a true radio broadcast. In fact, the first true broadcast to numerous receivers would not take place for another six years. This time, Mr. Fessenden brought not only his voice but his violin. At 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 1906, he beamed a "Christmas Concert" to ships of the United Fruit Company, broadcasting from 125-metre towers at Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Astonished crews heard Mr. Fessenden give a speech about the concert, followed by a phonograph recording of Handel's Largo, making Mr. Fessenden, in another first, the earliest of all disc jockeys. Amateur violinist Fessenden then scratched his way through the carol, O Holy Night, with his own vocal obbligato, which won him double bragging rights to radio's first live vocal and first live instrumental performances. The United Fruit Company ships heard the concert, but so did sister vessels all along the Atlantic coast. The program was repeated on New Year's Eve.

Radio as we know it today was finding its feet. The world has sadly failed to acknowledge Mr. Fessenden's contribution to radio -- and for the 500 other inventions he gave to the world. Mr. Fessenden refined Thomas Edison's light bulb. The Edison bulb used platinum for its incandescent wire, then as now an expensive metal. Mr. Fessenden's improvement was to find inexpensive metals that did the same job, so well that his design remains the most common one in use today. Inspired by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, Mr. Fessenden developed an early form of sonar to help ships detect icebergs. This invention was put to military use during the First World War, when it helped Allied ships detect enemy submarines. An inveterate amateur photographer, Mr. Fessenden also invented microphotography, a precursor of microfilm.

But his greatest creation was surely radio transmission of the human voice. Reginald Fessenden was born in 1866 in East Bolton, Que., not far from Sherbrooke. The eldest son of an Anglican minister, he grew up in the Ontario towns of Fergus and Niagara Falls. When he was only 10, the future inventor saw a demonstration of the telephone in the labs of Alexander Graham Bell. For young Fessenden, the moment was memorable, but his private dream was to go Mr. Bell one better by transmitting words without resort to wires. Mr. Fessenden showed great aptitude for invention right up to his graduation from university. Always in search of ideal training grounds, he found a junior position in Thomas Edison's lab in New York, soon proving himself so well that Mr. Edison took him on as a personal assistant. The great American inventor, more frank than prescient, did not think much of the whole notion of wireless voice transmission. "Fezzie, what do you say are man's chances of jumping over the moon? I think one is as likely as the other," Mr. Edison told his young protege.

Mr. Fessenden went on to work for other outstanding innovators, including George Westinghouse, the inventor of air brakes for trains. As we now know, Mr. Fessenden's work on voice transmission bore fruit while he was employed by the U.S. Weather Bureau. His breakthrough was the discovery of the principle of the "continuous wave," which is still fundamental to radio and television broadcasting. Basically, he superimposed sound onto a radio wave and transmitted the resulting signal to a receiver, which removed the radio wave, leaving only the original sound.

Unfortunately, Mr. Fessenden was far more gifted as an inventor than as a businessman. He never grew rich, nor particularly famous, from his many discoveries. The long shadow of Marconi, in particular, left him in obscurity. He died in Bermuda in 1932. At least one great paper, the New York Herald Tribune, paid tribute to the little known giant. "It sometimes happens, even in Science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man. He fought bitterly and alone to prove his theories. "It was he who insisted, against the stormy protests of every recognized authority, that what we now call radio was worked by continuous waves sent through the ether. "All too little credit was given to the man who had been right." That seems to have been the story of Mr. Fessenden's life. He deserves several chapters in any account of the great inventors of the century, but has been given only a footnote.

Reprinted courtesy of the Ottawa Citizen