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The Father of Voice Radio – Reginald Fessenden – Podcast #169

My dad has jokingly said over the years that there are two rules to owning a car.  The first is that you live from car payment to car payment.  When you make the last one, you die.  His second rule is that if you hear a strange noise anywhere in your car, just turn the radio up louder and the problem will be solved. 

To me, the radio is basically a mood machine.  If you hear a good song come over the airwaves, crank the volume way up.   If you’re feeling sad, find a country station.  If you’re worried about the afternoon commute home, flip over to the all-news station.  One quick flick of the wrist, and your mood will instantly change.

Guglielmo Marconi is the name that is constantly pounded into our heads as the inventor of modern radio.  But, that all depends on what you consider to be radio.  If radio is the transmission of an electromagnetic frequency from a transmitter to a receiver, then Nikola Tesla gets the credit.  If radio is defined as the transmission of Morse code, then Marconi certainly gets the nod. 

But, in my mind, radio is the transmission of sound, be it voice or music.  (Or what some people try to pass off as music…)  Going totally against everything that we were ever taught in school, it turns out that Marconi was not the first person to ever transmit the human voice.  It was actually done by a genius named Reginald Fessenden. 

Right now you are probably saying something like “Reginald… Who?!”  So let me fill you in…

Fessenden is basically an unknown character in the history of radio.  If you are lucky, you may find a brief mention of his name in an encyclopedia.  Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was born on October 6, 1866, in East Bolton, Quebec.  In 1884, he accepted a mathematics mastership at Bishops College School, but never finished his degree because of an increasing interest in the physical sciences.  He left the school and accepted a position as both the headmaster and only teacher of a small private school in Bermuda.  During his two years teaching in the tropical paradise, he fell in love with Helen Trott, whom he would later marry in 1890.

Undated portrait of Reginald Fessenden.
Undated portrait of Reginald Fessenden. State Archives of North Carolina image.

After his stint as a headmaster, he picked up and went to New York City in an effort to secure a job working for Thomas Edison.  Initially, he was unsuccessful, but in 1885 he was given the job of assistant tester for the Edison Machine Works, which was in the process of laying electrical cables under the streets of New York.  When the project was completed, he went to work in Edison’s laboratory, where his hard work and high level of intelligence did not go unnoticed.  While Fessenden would probably be considered a physicist today, Edison assigned him to the chemistry division.  Fessenden was given the task of finding a new, inexpensive, flame-proof insulating material for all of those cables that were needed to electrify the world.  The incredible world of plastic was still a few years away, so it is not clear how much success Fessenden had.  He was then promoted to head chemist, but when Edison ran into severe financial troubles in 1890, Fessenden found himself without a job.

Fessenden moved on to a Westinghouse subsidiary in Newark, New Jersey where he perfected a new method of sealing incandescent bulbs.  Then it was off to the Stanley Electric Machine Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which sent Fessenden to England to learn everything that he could about electrical generation.  Fessenden and his wife returned to the United States just as a severe depression broke out.  He once again found himself unemployed and never received any reimbursement for the expenses associated with his trip to Europe.

In 1892, Fessenden accepted a position as a professor of electrical engineering at Purdue University but didn’t stay long.  With the backing of George Westinghouse, he took a better job at Western University, which eventually became the University of Pittsburgh.  (Keep in mind that he didn’t even have a college degree!  Boy, have the times changed…)

During his time as a professor, Fessenden’s mind was in high gear as he cranked out ingenious invention after invention.  He needed a way to compactly store all of his papers, so he devised an early form of microfilm.  Fessenden also designed an early solar storage battery and continued his light bulb research for Westinghouse.

Most experts, including Marconi, subscribed to the idea that radio waves were discontinuous, an “on-off” type of transmission known as the “whiplash” effect.  While Marconi’s system was adequate for transmitting Morse code signals, it was incapable of transmitting voice or music.  Fessenden was convinced that radio technologically had taken a wrong turn and set out to devise a system that used continuous-wave transmission.

The year 1900 saw Fessenden leaving his professorship for a position with the U.S. Weather Bureau, which asked him to develop a wireless system to distribute metrological information.  Fessenden and his team were stationed on Cobb Island in Maryland, which lies in the middle of the Potomac River, approximately sixty miles southeast of Washington, DC.  Within one year, Fessenden and his team were successfully transmitting Morse code signals to an Arlington, Virginia station about fifty miles away.

“One-two-three-four.  Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen?”  On December 23, 1900, Reginald Fessenden spoke those words, the first-ever broadcast through thin air.  Mr. Thiessen, about one-mile away, acknowledged by Morse code that he had, in fact, clearly heard what Fessenden said.  As revolutionary as this may seem today, the world was basically uninterested at the time.  No one saw any commercial value in transmitting the human voice, so this was perceived as nothing more than a novelty.  Marconi achieved much greater accolades when he made his first transatlantic transmission of the letter “s” via Morse code one-year later. 

Fessenden knew that his system was very crude and constantly worked on producing stronger, clearer radio transmissions.  While public interest was minimal, word spread to various U.S. and Mexican governmental agencies about his invention, and orders began to come in.  Willis Moore, then chief of the Weather Bureau, caught wind of this increasing interest and demanded a cut of Fessenden’s earnings.  Luckily for Fessenden, his contract allowed him to retain his patents, and he left the job in 1902.

With the financial backing of two millionaires, Thomas H. Given and Hay Walker, the National Electric Signalling Company (NESCO) was founded.  Since there was so little interest in what was called “telephony” at the time, the company focused its attention on improved telegraphy.  They set up several stations along the northeastern coast of the United States.  The company’s first real success was on January 10, 1906, when Fessenden and his team made the first successful transatlantic two-way transmission between Brant Rock, Massachusetts and Scotland.  Once again, there was little interest in their product.  Customers just didn’t see the need for the best and most expensive equipment to transmit Morse code.  They opted for similar, less expensive equipment from other manufacturers.

Reginald Fessenden (seated) with his Brant Rock, Massachusetts staff.
Reginald Fessenden (seated) with his Brant Rock, Massachusetts staff. State Archives of North Carolina Raleigh photo.

Fessenden continued to work on the equipment to transmit voice.  He correctly concluded that high-frequency signals were the key to clarifying transmissions.  Fessenden put forward the revolutionary heterodyne theory.  While others later improved upon it, his theory is still fundamental to radio today.  The concept is a bit technical, but without it, you would need a separate receiver for each radio channel.

One of NESCO’s customers was the United Fruit Company, whose ships were outfitted with the company’s wireless equipment.  Fessenden told their wireless operators to listen for “something different” on Christmas Eve of 1906.  At 9 PM, strange sounds were heard coming out of their receivers.  It was the human voice!  Fessenden said a few words and then played Handel’s “Largo” on the Ediphone (making him the world’s first deejay) and then followed by playing “O, Holy Night” on his violin and singing the last verse himself.  Just imagine the thrill of hearing the first radio program of all-time.  It must have been simply amazing.

Fessenden’s broadcast was heard as far away as the West Indies and, at his request, listeners mailed in letters confirming that they had witnessed history in the making.  Sadly, this would be the highpoint of Fessenden’s radio career.

Marconi once again stole Fessenden’s thunder by establishing transatlantic wireless telegraph service on a regular basis.  Then, to top that, Marconi was granted the exclusive right to build wireless stations in Canada, effectively locking NESCO out of the market.

In 1908, NESCO attempted to oust Fessenden from the company.  Fessenden was considered nothing more than an obstacle to the company’s profitability.  They had control of his patents and no longer needed him.  As you would expect, this whole mess ended up in court, a battle that would last nearly the remainder of Fessenden’s life.

NESCO Fessenden Wireless Telegraph System ad.
NESCO Fessenden Wireless Telegraph System ad that appeared on page 54 of the July 25, 1904 of Electrical World and Engineer.

While this marked the end of Fessenden’s involvement with radio development, he continued to use his inventive mind.  Between 1911 and 1912, he developed a turboelectric drive for ships.  In 1912 he devised an array of equipment that allowed submarines to send and receive signals.  As a result of the Titanic disaster, Fessenden modified some of his equipment to detect icebergs miles away.  His creation of an early form of television known as “Pheroscope”, the designs of an electric gyroscope, and a lightweight automobile engine, and the idea to place visible phosphorus on machine-gun bullets as tracers only add to his long list of lifetime achievements. 

Financially, his 1921 creation of the fathometer, used as a depth finder for ships and submarines, may have been his most rewarding.  The sale of this invention for $50,000 to the Submarine Signalling Company finally gave him the financial security that he had long sought. 

While Fessenden created all of these fantastic inventions, he continued his legal fight against NESCO.  By this time, his patents were in the hands of RCA.  His legal troubles continued until March 31, 1928, when the case was settled out of court.  RCA was reported to have paid Fessenden half a million dollars for patent infringement.

Fessenden and his wife purchased waterfront property in Bermuda, where he remained until his death from heart failure on July 22, 1932.  With hundreds of patents to his name, the father of radio died largely forgotten.  Perhaps you can start spreading the word about what a remarkable man Reginald Fessenden was and help correct the terrible injustice with which history has rewarded his creativity.

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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