The Canadian Father of Broadcasting


Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on December 23, 2020. This version indicates that there is a dispute over the broadcast date of December 24, 1906. The date of this event may have been confused over time with demonstrations that took place on different dates.

Canadian physicist and inventor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden laid the groundwork to usher in the radio era. 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, it would have aired the very first radio show on Christmas Eve in 1906, although some broadcast specialists claim that this date may have been mistaken in some sources for protests that occurred at different times.

Reginald Fessenden was born on October 6, 1866 in Bolton-Est, Quebec. After attending Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., He attended Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, where he taught math to younger students while continuing his own education. In 1884, at the age of 18, he left Bishop’s College before graduating to accept a post as principal and sole teacher at the Whitney Institute in Bermuda. In Bermuda, Fessenden met his future wife, Helen Trott. After developing an interest in science, he resigned his teaching post and moved to New York in 1886.

In New York, Fessenden started working as an assistant tester at 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 in the famous inventor’s new lab in West Orange, New Jersey, at the end of the year. . Fessenden reached the rank of chief chemist at the Edison Electrical Company in 1890. Shortly after this achievement George Westinghouse attracted him to a managerial position at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

Fessenden accepted a position as professor 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 transmission of sound. 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 chairman of the electrical engineering department at the University of Western Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). While in this position, he received funding from the Westinghouse Corporation and was able to devote more time and focus to the problem of wireless communication. Fessenden also developed and patented several inventions during this period.

Fessenden left university in 1900 to work in the United States Meteorological Bureau, conducting experiments to adapt radiotelegraphy (the transmission of telegraph signals by radio waves) to weather forecasts. 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 meteorological office, he made significant strides 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, a distance of 1.6 km. The historic voicemail message went to his assistant “One, two, three, four. Is it snowing at your place, Mr. Thiessen? If so, respond 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 condition that he place his inventions in the name of the company. The newly formed company built two wireless stations with 400 foot antenna towers and the most modern equipment in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. The successful performances of these early stations led to the construction of three more stations in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. These were the first such facilities to send wireless telegraph messages on 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 installing a wireless station in Machrihanish, Scotland, Fessenden achieved the first transatlantic two-way wireless telegraph transmission between that location and its facility in 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 varying quality. It was unreliable, being heavily influenced by weather conditions and time of day. Cold weather and long nights turned out to be ideal conditions, while hot weather and daylight hours produced less than negligible results.

Later in November, Fessenden was informed by staff at 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 corresponded to the events of the time. Before he could really dig to experience and explore this new discovery, disaster struck on December 6 when the Machrihanish station radio tower collapsed in a storm.

Fessenden was still determined to prove the capabilities of his system and sent a message to US customers of NESC to tune their wireless systems to the company frequency on Christmas Eve, although some modern media historians dispute this date; this event could 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 Fessenden’s very first radio program broadcast from Brant Rock station. The program consisted of a phonograph recording of Hendel’s aria “Largo”, 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 program was broadcast on New Year’s Eve and was picked up as far as the West Indies.

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was a prolific inventor and had accumulated over 500 patents during his career, but tragically he spent much of his life fighting for recognition and compensation for these achievements. 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. On his tomb is a stone lintel supported by two fluted columns on which are inscribed these words:

“By his genius, distant lands talk

and men navigate the abyss fearlessly.


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