Biography of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden


Canadian engineer and inventor, Reginald Fessenden, is known for discovering amplitude modulation (AM) radio and explaining its scientific principles. With this heterodyne principle, he put into practice the idea of mixing two high frequency signals to carry the audible low frequency of the human voice. He broadcast the first program of music and voice ever transmitted over long distances.

The eldest son of an Anglican minister, Reginald was born October 6th, 1866 in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada, but with his parents, Elisha Joseph Fessenden and Clementina Fessenden (nee Trenholme), at the age of five moved to Fergus (north of Guelph), Ontario and later to Chippawa near Niagara Falls.

In his early days at school he showed remarkable aptitude in mastering mathematics, languages and music. It was in 1876 that his uncle Cortez Fessenden, a high school physics teacher, was invited to see Alexander Graham Bell give the first Canadian demonstration of his amazing new Telephone. When Uncle Cortez told young Reginald what he’d beheld, all the ten year-old wanted to know was, “Why do they need wires”? One day, ‘they’ wouldn’t. Right then and there, Fessenden decided he was going to broadcast voices through the air.

A brilliant student at Trinity College School, Port Hope, at 14 he was granted a mathematics mastership to Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, Quebec. This gave him a small income and a credit for a college year if he passed the exams. He did, but a growing interest in science caused him to tire of study of the classics, and thus at 18 he accepted a teaching position in Bermuda.

For many years a subscriber to and avid reader of the “Scientific American”, Reginald also kept a scrapbook crammed with news clippings relative to all the inventions of Thomas Alva Edison. His constantstudies furthered a determination to make the voyage from Bermuda to New York to seek an interview with the famous inventor and, possibly, a position.

The fact that Edison was too busy to interview him at his laboratory did not deter young Fessenden. Haunting one of the Edison installations in New York, he virtually ‘got in through the back door’. An instrument tester had just walked off the job. The foreman offered the position to Fessenden and he soon became chief tester. In this capacity he gained further knowledge and practical experience both inside and out as he was frequently called out as electrical ‘trouble shooter’.

Many wealthy men had their own private generating plants. A breakdown in the dynamo or fire in the wiring, as occurred at the mansion of financier J. Pierpont Morgan, meant a call for Fessenden to end the darkness. Mr. Morgan was so pleased to have the power restored that he gave Fessenden a liberal reward for his services and asked him to inspect the wiring.

The wires in use were bare and Fessenden suggested replacing them with wiring covered with rubber insulation and encased in galvanized tubing. He later improved on this principle in the Edison chemical laboratory. When word of the skilled work that Fessenden was performing reached him, Mr. Edison told Mr. Kreusi, the plant foreman, that he needed Fessenden as his assistant to carry out experiments on generators and to develop a rubber insulation for conducting wires at the main Edison plant in New Jersey. The New Jersey plant was at the time considered to be the finest experimental laboratory in the world.

With access to a huge library and the use of all equipment in the Weston instruments building, Fessenden developed more inventions including some of his own. In 1890, after two years, he was elevated to the post of chief chemist. During this period he met men of great renown in the scientific world: Lord Kelvin, Dr. Kennelly, George Westinghouse, the inventor of air brakes for trains.

Realizing his worth, Mr. Westinghouse offered Fessenden the position of supervisor of work on generators and the improvement of electric light bulbs in the laboratory of the Westinghouse plant at Newark, New Jersey, as well as his work at the Weston instrument plant. By designing new lead-in wires for the bulbs, Fessenden soon solved Mr. Westinghouse’s problems enabling him to fulfill his contract to light the huge Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

After solving other urgent problems Fessenden visited England where, at Newcastle-on-Tyne, he observed the operation of the newly inventedsteam turbine of Charles Parsons. Fessenden remarked on the great possibilities of applying the steam turbine-electric drive to propel ships of all sizes – another prediction which has come true.

On his return from England, Fessenden found a teaching appointment awaiting him at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. As Professor Fessenden he was given a free hand by the University principal, Dr. Smart, to purchase all necessary equipment. He was thus enable to conduct laboratory experiments furthering his cherished ambition, the development of sound vibration and transmitting sound without wires.

At the end of the school year Professor Fessenden, much to the regret of the trustees and students, decided to leave Purdue in order to devote all his time and energies to developing his own inventions. However, he received a letter from George Westinghouse with which was enclosed one thousand dollars, but with the stipulation that the Professor Fessenden come to Pittsburgh. Accordingly, Fessenden, with his wife Helen and their only son, Reginald Kennelly Fessenden, moved to a fine comfortable home on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. It was an excellent deal that gave Fessenden the chance to work on the theories of Henrich Hertz of Karlsruhe who had studied electromagnetic waves – and discovered they could travel through walls. Many young inventors of the time were also frantically studying Hertz’s theories in the hope of improving on the Morse Telegraph System by developing a wireless version. The race was on and Fessenden was in it.

While engaged in further research, Fessenden developed and patented some of his own inventions, one of which, microphotography, is of great importance today and is used by banks and business concerns as well as libraries and other professional institutions throughout the world for ‘mini-recording’ of cheques, documents, etc.

Following an impressive demonstration of his improved telegraph system to the United States Weather Bureau in Washington, Fessenden was employed at a salary of $3,000 yearly and furnished with a testing station and aerial masts at Cobb Island in the Potomac River. Bureau chief and officials were astounded when Fessenden transmitted his signals without wires from Cobb Island to Arlington, Virginia, a distance of 50 miles.

However, it was the transmission of speech, not “dots and dashes”, which spurred Fessenden to greater effort. Toiling day and night, he cut almost microscopic incisions into a phonograph cylinder in order that his interrupter would break the circuit 10,000 times each second. At the first trials voice sounds were unintelligible, but after persistent effort Fessenden was rewarded by performing the first miracle of transmitting the human voice without wires even though it was over the short distance of one mile.

Fessenden and his assistant Thiessen had perfected Morse transmissions using a new generator they had bought, and in October of his first year Fessenden experimentally hooked up a microphone to the improved system. On December 23, 1900 Fessenden said into his microphone, “One, two, three, four. Is It snowing where you are Mr. Thiessen? If so telegraph back and let me know.”

Thiessen replied by telegraph in Morse code that it was indeed snowing. In great excitement Fessenden wrote at his desk, “This afternoon here at Cobb Island, intelligible speech by electromagnetic waves has for the first time in World’s History been transmitted.” This was almost a year before Marconi’s transmission in Morse code from England to Signal Hill in Newfoundland, on December 12,1901. Thus the honour of taking the first step in the development of what is now universally termed ‘radio’ deservedly belongs to Reginald Aubrey Fessenden.

Electrolytic detector patent 727,331, 1903

In 1901, in connection with a not particularly successful demonstration of the transmission of voice via spark, Fessenden introduced a new type of detector. The device, which he called a liquid barreter, consisted of a silver-coated platinum wire immersed in a solution of nitric or sulfuric acid. The acid dissolved the silver, leaving a very fine contact between the acid and the platinum. A battery connected between the wire and the acid caused a current to flow in the detector.

This current was soon interrupted by the formation of tiny gas bubbles over the platinum wireless waves, striking the detector, ruptured the bubbles, restoring current flow. This flow was proportional to the strength of the incoming waves. The device, therefore, besides being more sensitive than the coherer, could receive continually changing wireless waves, and could be useful in telephony as well as in telegraphy.

On renewal of his contract for two years, the U.S. Weather Bureau decided to enlarge the scope of their activities by building new stations and three high aerial towers at Roanoke Island off the Carolina coast, to which Fessenden moved. Additional towers were built and with improved equipment and competent workmen, long distance code signals were transmitted. Rather than be tricked out of his inventions, Fessenden resigned.

Fessenden (siting) with his staff outside Brant Rock Station

Hearing of the inventor’s technical ability, two Pittsburgh millionaires, Walker and Given, agreed to form and finance a company, the National Electric Signaling Company, employing Fessenden on condition that he place his inventions in the name of the Company. Two wireless stations were built at Brant Rock, Massachusetts, with 400-foot antenna towers and the latest equipment installed. As a result of their excellent performance, three more stations were build in New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

Fessenden’s Brant Rock station, ca. 1906

These Fessenden installations were the first to send wireless dot and dash messages overland, establishing a record 6,000 miles, even to Alexandria, Egypt, one quarter of the way around the world. For the United Fruit Company, Fessenden had established wireless stations in New Orleans, on their ships, and at their plantations in Guatemala. Best of all, he had beaten Marconi by transmitting Morse code in both directions across the Atlantic.

In Canada, by Special Act of Parliament, the Fessenden Wireless Telegraph Company of Canada was created with such prominent men as Sir Frederick Borden serving on the Board of Directors. Fessenden was also called to a formative commission meeting relative to harnessing the enormous potential power of Niagara Falls, but his ideas proved too advanced for acceptance by Adam Beck and others.

Fessenden (right) transmitting radio messages

To carry out transatlantic transmission experiments the Company built a station at Machrihanish, Scotland, installing equipment the duplicate of that at Brant Rock. In spite of all effort at Brant Rock it became evident that no signals were coming through from Machrihanish. Fessenden sent his best engineer, Mr. Armor, to Scotland. Two weeks later, after anxious waiting, in January 1906, a cable message came through from Mr. Armor, “We are getting you Brant Rock, loud and clear.”

Spurred on by this success, Fessenden improved the efficiency of his high frequency alternator and with a new type of umbrella antenna of his own design, both stations were in regular communication. In June a small testing station had been built at Plymouth, eleven miles from Brant Rock, with Fessenden conversing regularly by voice between the two stations.

Fesseden also invented the heterodyne effect. In this, a received radio wave is combined with a wave of a frequency slightly different from the carrier wave. The intermediate frequency wave that is produced as a result is easier to amplify, and can then be demodulated to generate the original sound wave.

In November a letter was received from Mr. Armor containing the astounding news that instead of dots and dashes he had clearly heard the complete conversation of Mr. Stein at Brant Rock telling the operator at Plymouth “how to run the dynamo”. Thus the first human voice to be transmitted across the Atlantic was that of Mr. Stein. On Christmas Eve, 1906, from his workshop in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Fessenden sent the Morse message “CQ….CQ”, alerting all ships at sea to expect an important transmission.

When the telegraphers had assembled in their shipboard radio shacks, they heard the unimaginable: The sound of the human voice! Those who were listening that night were no less stunned than if a tree had talked to them. Earphones that had only ever carried Morse code were communicating the full range of sound. Fessenden, at this moment the world’s first announcer, then played an Edison wax-cylinder recording of Handel’s Largo.

Fessenden in a radio booth

Mrs. Helen Fessenden and Fessenden’s secretary Miss Bent, had promised to read seasonal passages from the Bible including, “Glory to God in the highest -and on earth peace to men of good will,” but when the time came to perform they stood speechless, paralyzed with mike fright. Fessenden took over for them and concluded the broadcast by extending Christmas greetings to his listeners – as well as asking them to write and report to him on the broadcast wherever they were.

The mail response confirmed that Fessenden had successfully invented radio as we know it. Technically, he had invented radio telephony or what radio listeners would call “real” radio as opposed to Marconi’s Morse code broadcasting. The program was successfully repeated on New Year’s Eve.

1906 was a memorable year for the inventor himself. To speed up operations in and around the station, he had invented the ‘beeper’ or signal from Fessenden, and which was fitted to his workmen’s hats. This device later proved to be of great value.

Following the sinking of the Titanic by collision with an iceberg in the Atlantic, Fessenden stated that he had “bounced signals off icebergs by radio, measuring the distance”. His invention was really the forerunner of the present-day radar. His patented invention of the Fathometer proved of great value in measuring the ocean depths. This device was of great assistance to the Allies during World War I in the detection of enemy submarines.

Fessenden was an incredible character: A holder of over five hundred patents, he also invented sonar, the depth sounder, carbon tetrachloride, the beeper/pager, the voice-scrambler, the radio compass (known today as LORAN), the tracer bullet and, yes, the automatic garage-door opener. He won Scientific American’s Gold Medal in 1929 for the fathometer, which could determine the depth of water under a ship’s keel. But we remember him here, not only as the inventor of radio, but as the world’s first broadcast producer.

The first practical man-made sonar oscillator, conceived and designed by Reginald A. Fessenden, was a 540-Hz air-backed electrodynamically driven clamped-edge circular plate. Work on the oscillator started in 1912 while Fessenden was working for the Submarine Signal Company, Boston, MA. In January 1914, in Boston Harbor, underwater communication was first shown by using a Morse code carrier to modulate the oscillator, thus demonstrating a means of ship – submarine acoustic communication. In March 1914, the oscillator was later tested aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Miami on the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland Canada, where echo ranging from a 3200-m distant iceberg and depth sounding were demonstrated. In 1915, the oscillator was even tested at 100 kHz.

The Fessenden oscillator models (ca. 500, 1000, and 3000 Hz) were so successful that they were even used until, and during, World War II for sonar and mine detection purposes. Despite these landmark achievements, at present no oscillators are known to exist, and no modern acoustic measurements have ever been made to establish the acoustical performance. To partially fill in this gap, the Fessenden oscillator, will be described and an electroacoustic model will be used to predict the acoustic performance.

Some of the Fessenden’s patents are listed below:

Silicon Alloys 452,494 (1891)
Design and Construction of X Ray Equipment 648,660 (1900)
Heterodyne Principle 706,738 (1902), 706,739 (1902), 706,740 (1902), 1,050,441 (1913), 1,050,728 (1914)
Rectification 706,736 (1902)
F. Alternator 706,737 (1902)
Arc Oscillator (Mention) 706,742 (1902)
Radio Telephone 706,747 (1902)
Multiplexing 715,203 (1902), 727,326 (1903), 981,406 (1911)
Point Contact Rectifier, 727,327 (1903)
Electrolytic Detector 727,331 (1903)
Vertical Antenna 793,651 (1905)
Anti Static Device 918,306 (1909), 918,307 (1909)
Directive Antenna Array 1,020,032 (1912)
Storage of Wheeled Vehicles 1,114,975 (1914)
Internal Combustion Engine 1,132,465 (1915)
Sound Production and Signaling 1,207,387 (1916), 1,207,388 (1916), 1,311,157 (1916), 1,108,895 (1914), 1,277,562
(1918), 1,384,855 (1920)
Submarine Signaling and Detect 1,348,556 (1920), 1,348,828 (1920), 1,348,855 (1920), 1,429,497 (1922)
Subsurface Directive Signaling 1,348,856 (1920), 1,355,598 (1920)
Ship Location 1,319,145 (1919)
Fathometer 1,217,585 (1917)
Geophysical Prospecting With Sound 1,240,328 (1917)
Water Storage and Power Generation 1,214,531 (1910), 1,247,520 (1917)
Gun Location by Sound 1,341,795 (1920)
Microphotographic Books 1,616,848 (1927), 1,732,302 (1929)

Some other milestones include the invention of turbo-electric drive for battleships, insulating electrical tape and many other underwater sound devices..

After WWI, and after some years of fighting a number of legal battles, Fessenden retired to Bermuda where his interests turned to mysticism, much as had Oliver Lodge in later years.

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, this great man who gave to the world so much yet received so little, died in his home by the sea in Bermuda on July 22nd, 1932. Burial was in St. Mark’s Church cemetery on the island of Bermuda and over the vault was erected a memorial with fluted glumns. On the stone lintel across the top were inscribed these words:

“His mind illumined the past and the future and wrought greatly for the present.”

His grave there contains the paean:

“By his genius distant lands converse and men sail unafraid upon the deep.”

Below that line, Egyptian glyphs proclaim:


Fessenden could truly lay claim to be the inventor of radio and he fully expected the world to beat a path to his door. Instead, he never received his due recognition, lost control of his patents and the ensuing revenue which made other inventors and companies immensely wealthy. Even today the Encyclopedia Canadiana does not give him a separate listing. Mention of him is only included under the listing for his mother Clementina who established Empire Day in Canada. Reginald is mentioned as one of her four sons, “inventor of the wireless telephone, the radio compass and the visible bullet for machine guns, he also invented the first television set in North America in 1919.”

The New York Herald Tribune editorial provided the epilogue in Mr. Raby’s book: “It sometimes happens, even in science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man. He fought bitterly and alone to prove his theories. It was he who insisted, against the stormy protests of every recognized authority, that what we now call radio was worked by continuous waves sent through the ether by the transmitting station as light waves are sent out by a flame. Marconi and others insisted that what was happening was a whiplash effect. The progress of radio was retarded a decade by this error. The whiplash theory passed gradually from the minds of men and was replaced by the continuous wave — one with all too little credit to the man who had been right.”

In 1986, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was inducted posthumously into the CAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame. No Canadian more deservedly could have been accorded this recognition.


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