Reginald Fessenden: The Father of Radiotelephony

Reginald Fessenden was a Canadian inventor and engineer who pioneered radio broadcasting across the Atlantic in 1906.
Christopher McFadden
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (October 6, 1866 – July 22, 1932) Wdwd/Wikimedia Commons

Reginald Fessenden was born on the 6th of October 1866 in Milton, Quebec, Canada. Reginald was a Canadian radio pioneer who made some significant leaps and bounds in radio technology. He would later claim U.S. citizenship via his father's American born status and would conduct the majority of his work in his newly adopted nation. During his career, Fessenden would receive hundreds of patents in many fields but most notably for technology related to radio and sonar.

Reginald Fessenden: The Father of Radiotelephony
Source: Fessenden

Reginald Fessenden is best known for his groundbreaking work on developing radio technology. This included his foundational work on amplitude modulation (AM) radio. His greatest achievements included the first transmission of speech by radio in 1900 and the first two-way radiotelegraphic communication across the Atlantic in 1906. Reginald also claimed in 1932 that he was able to make the first long-distance radio broadcast of music and entertainment in the world in 1906. Sadly there was no existing evidence to support his claim.

Reginald would go on to file and receive over 500 patents in technology ranging from wireless radio to tracer bullets. Reginald Fessenden would also make many great leaps in our understanding of sonar and submarine communications throughout his career. He would die on 22nd July 1932 at his estate on the Island of Bermuda. Today he is remembered as one of the world's most influential electrical engineers of all time.

Reginald Fessenden's early years

Reginald Fessenden was born on the 6th of October, 1866 in East-Bolton in what is now called Quebec. He was the eldest of his father Reverend Elisha Joseph Fessenden and his mother Clementina Trenholme's four children. His father was, at that time, a Church of England in Canada Minister which was a job that required the family to move regularly throughout the province of Ontario.

During his childhood, Fessenden attended a large number of schools and other educational institutions. At the tender age of 9, Reginald enrolled at the DeVeaux Military school for a single year. Between 1877 and 1879 he attended Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario. After completing his studies at Trinity Fessenden spent a year working for the Imperial Bank at Woodstock. At 14 years of age, Reginald enrolled at Bishop's College School in Lennoxville, Quebec. This was the feeder school for Bishop's College and both shared the same campus and some buildings. Here he was granted a mathematics mastership.

Reginald Fessenden, still a teenager, was required to teach mathematics to other students whilst simultaneously studying with older students at the College. Once he had reached the age of 18, Reginald left Bishops without completing his degree despite having done a substantial amount of the required work. He did this to accept a two-year position working as the principal and sole teacher at the Whitney Institute in Bermuda. Whilst in Bermuda, Reginald met and quickly became engaged to Helen Trot. The young couple would marry in 1890 and would later have a son, Reginald Kennelley Fessenden. He would also develop an interest in science whilst in Bermuda. This would lead him to resign his post and move to New York City.

Early career

Reginald Fessenden's classical education provided him with only a limited amount of scientific and technical knowledge and training. With his interest piqued in Bermuda, he decided to increase his skills, starting with the electrical industry. To this end, he moved to New York City in 1886 with high hopes of getting a position working with the famous inventor and industrialist Thomas Edison. His initial inquiries with Edison were quickly rejected, for good reason. In his first application, Fessenden wrote, "[I] Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick,". Edison replied, "[I] Have enough men now who do not know about electricity." 

Fessenden persevered and by the end of the year was offered a semi-skilled position as an assistant tester for the Edison Machine Works. This was the laying of underground electrical mains cables in New York City. Reginald would rapidly prove his abilities as a fast learner and was quickly promoted with increasing levels of responsibility for the project. Fessenden's ambition and hard work would pay off when in 1886 he began working directly for Edison at his new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey as a junior technician.

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In this role, Reginald Fessenden participated in a wide swathe of projects including solving chemistry, metallurgy and electrical problems on a regular basis. In 1890, he faced some serious personal financial problems. Edison was required to lay off most of his laboratory workforce. This included Reginald. Despite this, Reginald held Edison in high esteem for the rest of his life. In 1925 Fessenden remarked that "there is only one figure in history which stands in the same rank as him as an inventor, i. e. Archimedes".

His introduction to Radio

In 1890 Reginald went to work for the Westinghouse Electric Company in Newark, New Jersey. He transferred to a small electric company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1891. That company folded in 1892 and Fessenden decided to turn to an academic career in electrical engineering at Purdue University, East Lafayette, Indiana. In 1893 he also helped the Westinghouse Corporation install lighting at the Chicago World Columbian Exposition.  Because of his assistance, he later transferred to the Western University of Pennsylvania, where he received funding from the Westinghouse company and studied wireless communication.

In the latter part of 1890's news started to circulate about the recent successes of Guglielmo Marconi and his development of a practical system of transmitting and receiving radio signals. At the time, this was commonly known as "wireless telegraphy". Being inspired by Marconi, Fessenden himself began some limited experimentation with radio. He soon came to the conclusion that he should be able to develop a more efficient system than the spark-gap transmitter and coherer-receiver combination that had been created by Oliver Lodge and Marconi. His experiments would eventually pay off as in 1899 he would send radiotelegraph messages between Pittsburgh and Allegheny City using a receiver of his own design.

Reginald Fessenden left Pittsburgh in 1900 to start working for the United States Weather Bureau. In this role, he was to assist with the object of proving the practicality of using a network of coastal radio stations. These stations were to be used to transmit weather information wirelessly and this saved the expense of installing and maintaining existing telegraph lines. His contract awarded him a pay close to $3,000 per year as well as to provide him enough space, assistance, and housing to complete the task. This agreement provided the Bureau with access to any devices that Fessenden developed, but he would keep ownership of anything he invented.

Reginald Fessenden: The Father of Radiotelephony
500 CPS Synchronous Rotary Gap transmitter at Brant Rock, circa 1906. Source: Alchaemist/Wikimedia Commons

Fessenden's time at the Weather Bureau

Fessenden had become frustrated with the on-off transmission of Morse code signals and so began to become increasingly interested in trying to transmit continuous sound. In particular, he had ambitions of being able to transmit a human voice over the radio. 

He rapidly made some major advances in the technology, especially the receiver, as he worked on developing audio reception of signals. His initial successes led to the invention of a barretter detector followed by an electrolytic detector. The latter consisted of a thin wire dipped in nitric acid and it would, for the next few years, set the standard for radio reception sensitivity. As he continued his studies he would also develop the heterodyne principle, using two closely spaced radio signals to produce an audible tone that made Morse code transmissions considerably easier to hear. As great an achievement as this was it could not be capitalized upon for another decade. This was because it required a way of producing a stable local signal. This would not be possible until the oscillating vacuum-tube was developed.

Reginald Fessenden's initial work with the Weather Bureau took place at Cobb Island, Maryland located in the Potomac Island downstream from Washington. It was here on Cobb Island that on the 23rd December 1900 Fessenden succeeded in transmitting a brief, intelligible voice message between two stations located about 1.6 km apart. As the experiments and the technology expanded, more and more stations were built across the Atlantic Coastline of North Caroline and Virginia. Sadly as the project developed he became embroiled in disputes with his sponsor. Bureau Chief Willis Moore had attempted to gain a half-share of the patents, Fessenden promptly refused to sign over the rights, and his work for the Weather Bureau ended in August 1902.

Reginald Fessenden: The Father of Radiotelephony
An aerial view of Cobb Island, Maryland Source: Rpike20625`/Wikimedia Commons

Fessenden's time at National Electric Signaling Company

1902 saw Fessenden team up with two Pittsburgh financiers to organize the National Electric Signalling Company (NESCO). The company was formed to manufacture his inventions and sell them to customers, including the U.S. Navy or shipping companies with far-flung operations that would benefit from wireless telegraph communications. NESCO also had interests in competing directly with Marconi for transmitting across the Atlantic. To support it, Fessenden decided to build a state at Brant Rock, Massachusetts with one more some 5,000 km away in Machrihanish in Scotland.

Reginald directed Ernst Alexanderson of the General Electric Company in building a 50,000-hertz alternator that could be used as a long-distance high-frequency radio transmitter. In January of 1906, Fessenden and his team successfully established transatlantic wireless telegraphic communication between the two stations but the service was variable and unreliable. Later that year Reginald received news that the Scottish station had actually managed to receive voices that had been transmitted between Brant Rock and another station in nearby Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Unfortunately for Fessenden, the Scottish station was destroyed by a storm before he could further explore direct transatlantic voice communication. This setback only strengthened his resolve to demonstrate the system's capabilities, however. He sent a notice to NESCO wireless telegraph customers in the United States asking them to tune in to the company's frequency on Christmas Eve of that year. 

Reginald Fessenden: The Father of Radiotelephony
Brant rock radio tower 1910. Source: Thomas H. White/Wikimedia Commons

Christmas Eve Broadcast

From 9 pm on the evening of the 24th of December, 1906 wireless operators as far away as Norfolk in Virginia were astonished by what they heard. Speech and music were being broadcast from Brant Rock to their receivers, something thought impossible only a few years before. Fessenden himself read verses from the Gospel according to Luke, played an Edison phonograph recording of Handel's aria "Largo", gave a violin solo and ended the now famous broadcast by wishing listeners a Merry Christmas.

A similar broadcast was made on New Year's Eve. This one was even received by banana boats of the United Fruit Company in the West Indies. In 1911, Reginald Fessenden would leave Brant Rock due to differences between how the company was managed. He even began legal proceedings against his former company. Fessenden would now abandon radio and work on marine power and signaling instead. He has been credited with inventing the sonic depth finder, submarine signaling devices and turboelectric drive for battleships.

Fessenden takes NESCO to court

Fessenden's partners Walker and Given at NESCO had hoped to sell it to the larger company American Telephone and Telegraph Company, AT & T. AT & T, after seeing the 1906 demonstrations from NESCO were said to have planned to buyout NESCO but financial setbacks caused them to reconsider. Walker and Given were then unable to find another interested party. This event coincided with a period of growing strains between Fessenden and NESCO company owners at this time. Reginald had also set up the Fessenden Wireless Company of Canada in Montreal in 1906. This in all likelihood led to the growing suspicion between Walker, Given and Fessenden, thinking he might be planning to freeze them out of the potentially highly lucrative transatlantic communications service.

Reginald Fessenden was formally dismissed from NESCO in 1911. Fessenden filed a lawsuit against NESCO for breach of contract. Fessenden won the initial court trial and was awarded damages; however, NESCO prevailed on appeal. NESCO went into receivership in 1912 in an attempt to conserve assets with Samual Kinter appointed as general manager of the company. This led to a further legal stalemate that would continue for 15 years

In 1917 NESCO finally emerged from receivership to be rebranded as the International Radio Company. The newly named company would limp along for a few years only to be sold to the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company in 1920. The following year it was sold again, along with some of Fessenden's patents to Radio Corporation of America. This sale also inherited the long-standing legal proceedings filed by Fessenden. These were finally settled in March of 1928 and he was awarded a significant cash settlement.

Reginald Fessenden: The Father of Radiotelephony
A commemorative plaque honoring Reginald Aubrey Fessenden in Austin, Quebec, Canada. Source: Jean-Philippe Boulet/Wikimedia Commons

Later Years

Reginald Fessenden had all but ceased radio research after his dismissal from NESCO in 1911. He did, however, continue his work in other fields. In 1904 he had helped with the work on the Niagara Falls power plant for the then newly formed Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario. His most extensive work in other fields was in marine communication in conjunction with the Submarine Signal Company. His work with this company led to the development of a type of sonar, the Fessenden oscillator. This allowed submarines to signal each other as well as provide a means of locating icebergs. A particularly poignant technology in the wake of the Titanic disaster.

When the first world war broke out in 1914, Fessenden decided to volunteer his services to the Canadian Government. He was sent to London to help develop devices to detect enemy artillery and locate enemy submarines. He also helped develop a version of microfilm that would help him, amongst other things, keep a compact record of his inventions, project, and patents. Reginald was also, at this time, able to patent the basic ideas that would lead to reflection seismology. This technique would prove incredibly important to the petroleum industry later in the century. He also received patents for many other inventions including tracer bullets, paging, television apparatus, and a turbo-electric drive for ships.

His labors would eventually lead to him being awarded more than 500 patentsFessenden also had a reputation for being temperamental, although in his defense his wife later stated that "Fessenden was never a difficult man to work with but he was an intensely difficult man to play politics with". His former assistant, Charles J. Pannill would, however, later recall that "He was a great character, of splendid physique, but what a temper!", while a second, Roy Weagant, ruefully noted that "He could be very nice at times, but only at times."

Reginald Fessenden: The Father of Radiotelephony
Remains of Fessenden's transmitter in Scotland. Source: J M Briscoe/Wikimedia Commons

Death and legacy

Reginald Fessenden was saluted in the 1925 copy of Radio News being called "one of the greatest American radio inventors".


This would begin a monthly autobiographical series titled "The Inventions of Reginald A. Fessenden", with the intention of publishing the completed installments as a book. Reginald would, however, go off on such tangents that at the close of the eleventh installment the series had only covered his life up to 1893. None of his work on the radio had even been touched on. The series was quietly terminated.

After his legal settlement with RCA in 1928, Reginald Fessenden used the proceeds to purchase a small estate called "Wistowe" in Bermuda. He would die there on the 22nd of July, 1932 and be interred in the cemetery of St Mark's Church on the island. His death led to a New York Herald Tribune editorial being printed called "Fessenden Against the World". 

Reginald Fessenden: The Father of Radiotelephony
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden's gravesite in the St. Mark's church cemetery, Smith's ParishBermuda. Source: Jean-Philippe Boulet/Wikimedia Commons

"It sometimes happens, even in science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man. It is ironic that among the hundreds of thousands of young radio engineers whose commonplaces of theory rest on what Professor Fessenden fought for bitterly and alone only a handful realize that the battle ever happened... It was he who insisted, against the stormy protests of every recognized authority, that what we now call radio was worked by "continuous waves" of the kind discovered by Hertz, sent through the ether by the transmitting station as light waves are sent out by a flame. Marconi and others insisted, instead, that what was happening was the so-called "whiplash effect"... It is probably not too much to say that the progress of radio was retarded a decade by this error... The whiplash theory faded gradually out of men's minds and was replaced by the continuous wave one with all too little credit to the man who had been right...".

History will remember him

The Fessenden-Trott Scholarship was also established at Purdue University's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in his and his wife's memory in 1980. Despite this great man's contribution to science and technology, his later years were a constant struggle for recognition. He would spend years attempting to get compensation for his inventions. Fessenden returned to Canada from time to time but he never settled here again and died finally, relatively unknown, in Bermuda. 

Via: BritannicaIEEE

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