The Canadian Father of Radio Broadcasting

·6 min read

Editor's note: This article was first published on Dec 23, 2020. This version states that there is some dispute about the date of the Dec. 24, 1906 broadcast. The date of this event may have become conflated over time with demonstrations 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 modulation (AM) radio wave on December 23, 1900. In fact, Fessenden himself developed the principle behind this form of communication. Six years later, he is said to have broadcast the first-ever radio program on Christmas Eve in 1906, although some broadcast scholars ascertain that this date may have been conflated in some sources with demonstrations that occurred at different points in time.

Reginald Fessenden was born on October 6, 1866, in East Bolton, Quebec. After attending Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, he studied at Bishop's College in Lennoxville, where he taught mathematics to younger students while pursuing his own studies. In 1884, at the age of 18, he left Bishop's College before completing his degree to accept a job as the principal and only teacher at the Whitney Institute in Bermuda. While in Bermuda, Fessenden met his wife-to-be, Helen Trott. After developing an interest in science, he resigned from his teaching post to move to New York City in 1886.

In New York, Fessenden started working as an assistant tester at the Edison Machine Works. With the opportunity to prove his worth, he received a rapid 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, by the end of the year. Fessenden rose to the rank of chief chemist at the Edison Electrical Company in 1890. Soon after this achievement, George Westinghouse lured him away with a senior position at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

Fessenden accepted a position as a professor of electrical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, in 1892, where he studied and experimented with the development of sound vibration and the transmission of sound without wires. At the end of the school year, he left Purdue to turn his time and energy to creating his own inventions.

Fessenden and his family settled in Pittsburgh at the invitation of George Westinghouse. Fessenden became the electrical engineering department chair at the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). He received funding from the Westinghouse Corporation while in this position and was able to put more time and focus into the problem of wireless communication. Fessenden also developed and patented several inventions during this time.

Fessenden left the university in 1900 to work at the United States Weather Bureau, conducting experiments aimed at adapting radiotelegraphy (the transmission of telegraph signals by radio waves) to weather forecasting. Impatient with the on-off transmission of Morse Code signals, he became interested in the transmission of continuous sound, especially the human voice. During his time with the Weather bureau, he made significant progress in this venture, modifying and inventing essential equipment while developing crucial radio transmission principles (such as amplitude modulation). Situated 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 1.6 km. The historic voice message was directed to his assistant "One, two, three, four. Is It snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If so, telegraph back and let me know." Mr. Thiessen responded in Morse Code by telegraph that it was indeed snowing.

In 1902 two millionaires from Pittsburgh, Hay Walker, Jr., and Thomas H. Given, financed 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 at Brant Rock, Massachusetts. These initial stations' successful performance led to three more stations being built in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. These were the first such installations to send wireless telegraph messages over both land and sea, and would set a record of 8,500 km to Alexandria, Egypt.

1906 was a year of momentous accomplishments for Fessenden. Having installed a wireless station at Machrihanish, Scotland, Fessenden achieved the first transatlantic two-way wireless telegraphic transmission between this location and his installation at Brant Rock. Guglielmo Marconi had accomplished the first transatlantic telegraphic transmission in December of 1901, but his apparatus was only capable of one-way communication between a transmitter and a receiver. Unfortunately, Fessenden's connection was of variable quality. It was not reliable, being heavily influenced by weather patterns and the time of day. Cold weather and long nights proved to be ideal conditions, whereas warm weather and daylight hours produced inferior to negligible results.

Later in November, Fessenden received word from the staff in Machrihanish 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 lined up with events at the time. Before he could really dig in to experiment with 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 sent word out to NESC's American customers to tune their wireless systems to the company's frequency on Christmas Eve, although some modern media historians dispute this date; this event may have become conflated over time with demonstrations on different dates. At precisely 9:00 PM, wireless operators from as far away as Norfolk, Virginia, were astonished 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 show was broadcast on New Year's Eve that 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 struggling for recognition and compensation for these accomplishments. He retired to Bermuda with his wife, where he passed away on July 22, 1932. Fessenden was buried in the cemetery of St. Mark's Church on the island. At his grave is a stone lintel supported by two fluted columns with these words inscribed upon it:

"By his genius, distant lands converse

and men sail unafraid upon the deep."

Dean LaBerge, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grizzly Gazette