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Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932): Radio's First Voice

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medium_fessenden.jpgThe first man in history to send wireless broadcasts of voice and music, and the inventor of the sonic depth finder, submarine signaling devices, and over 500 patents, was Reginald Fessenden, a native of the Eastern Townships. Born in Brome County in 1866, the son of an Anglican minister, Fessenden spent much of his youth in Ontario. As a child, he excelled in mathematics, and loved to tinker and conduct experiments. At the age of 10, he watched Alexander Graham Bell demonstrate the telephone in Brantford, Ontario. Fessenden studied Bell's work and dreamed of transmitting the human voice without wires.

Fessenden had a brilliant academic career at Trinity College School in Ontario, and Bishop's College in the Eastern Townships. At 20, he was hired by the Thomas Edison Machine Works. He later taught electrical engineering at two universities, and furthered his research in wireless communication. Yet few of his colleagues (Edison included) shared his view that broadcasting voices was possible. Radio at that time was limited to Morse code.

While working for the U.S. Weather Bureau, Fessenden transmitted radio's first voice message from an island in the Potomac River. It went like this: "one, two, three, four, is it snowing where you are Mr. Thiesen? If it is, would you telegraph back to me?" Thiesen, a kilometre away, responded, and radio broadcasting was born. Fessenden's breakthrough was marred by a legal dispute over patent rights - a problem that would dog his career.

Despite his successes, Fessenden's colleagues still disputed his theories. Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless telegraph, believed that sound waves were created by a spark that caused a whiplash effect. Fessenden argued rightly that sound waves continuously rippled outward, like water when a stone has been dropped into it. Experimentation led him to suggest that if waves could be sent at a high frequency, it would be possible to hear only the "variations due to the human voice." In 1906, after years of refining his work, he was finally able to demonstrate radio's real potential. On Christmas Eve, he broadcast the first program from Boston. Wireless operators on ships in the Atlantic heard him play "O Holy Night" on the violin, read from the Bible, and wish them a Merry Christmas.

medium_fessenden.monument.jpgIn the years that followed, Fessenden invented a wireless system for submarine communication, devices to detect enemy artillery and locate enemy submarines, and an ocean depth device, called the "fathometer." With growing interest in radio in the 1920s, governments began issuing broadcast licenses. The Institute of Radio Engineers awarded Fessenden a Medal of Honour. Philadelphia presented him a prize for "one whose labors have been of great benefit to mankind." In 1928, he was awarded $500,000 in his long-standing patent dispute.

At 62 and in failing health, Fessenden moved to Bermuda. There, the man once called "the greatest wireless inventor of the age, greater than Marconi," died in 1932. He had indeed proven many of his contemporaries' theories wrong. Marconi, for his part, was still sending Morse code when Fessenden was making his first voice broadcasts. Yet Fessenden was all but forgotten after his death and denied his rightful place as a pioneer of radio. It is only fairly recently that he has gained the posthumous recognition that he deserves. In 1983, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada erected a plaque in his honour in Austin (right). In 1986, he was inducted into the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Broadcasting Hall of Fame.