You’ve heard about Marconi. You know about Bell. But who was Reginald Aubrey Fessenden?

ALAN EDMONDS September 1 1969


You’ve heard about Marconi. You know about Bell. But who was Reginald Aubrey Fessenden?

ALAN EDMONDS September 1 1969


You’ve heard about Marconi. You know about Bell. But who was Reginald Aubrey Fessenden?


WHEN ONTARIO’S $28-million Centennial Centre of Science and Technology opens in Toronto this month, part of the inaugural display will be about Communications. Alexander Graham Bell will be there, of course, along with Marconi and Edison and other pioneers whose inventions at the turn of the century changed the world. Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, however, will not be mentioned. And the tragedy is that no one but Ormond Raby and one or two others will miss him.

History texts notwithstanding, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden is the father of modern radio. He was the man who invented radio as we know it now and. indirectly, pointed the way to television. He was the big, bearded, bad-tempered genius given to wearing voluminous Inverness capes and smoking evil-smelling cigars, who rashly announced that Marconi was a fool at a time when the Italian was a world hero for transmitting Morse code without wires; the practical visionary who proved he was right by broadcasting voices and music while Marconi and everyone else was fooling around with equipment that could only transmit the dah-dit-dah of Morse.

He was also a Canadian, which is why Ormond Raby is rather upset that there’s no mention of him at the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology. Raby is also angry because there is no monument to Fessenden anywhere in Canada, even though he was the son of an Ontario Anglican clergyman, grew up a Canadian, worked in World War I as a Canadian and died a Canadian.

Raby is the Toronto real-estate developer who “discovered” Fessenden in 1966 and has ever since been campaigning to have him officially recognized as a Great Canadian “with at least the stature of Bell, who was after all a Scottish American we’ve been trying to make into a Canadian all these years.” Raby’s campaign has gone largely unrecognized, but he did gain the support of Electron magazine, persuade TV producers to make an educational film about the man, and write a biography of Fessenden, which Macmillan expects to publish later this year.

Fessenden was born on October 6, 1866, in Bolton East, Quebec. His mother was a fanatic Foyalist who led the campaign to have Empire Day declared a national holiday. The family lived in Fergus, Niagara Falls and Chippawa, all in Ontario. Reginald, who was a child with weak eyes and pale face and a passion for animals and long lonely walks in the woods, went to school at Trinity College in Port Hope, Ont., and Bishop’s University at Fennoxville, Que., but left before getting his degree.

He went to Bermuda to teach, and then

— in his 20s and without any qualification beyond an interest in mathematics

— he moved to New York to try to work with Thomas Edison, the reigning monarch of what many believe to have been the most inventive period of America’s technological society. The men were close associates when, in 1890, Edison faced bankruptcy and Fessenden left him. By then, he had already done pioneer work

in the atomic structure of electricity, devised a means of driving the gyroscope electrically, which made the electromagnetic compass possible, and confounded experts by proving that the elasticity of rubber was due to its nuclear structure, not to gravity as was then believed.

By now Fessenden was married, and to eat he taught at Pittsburgh University, where he pioneered a method of photostating documents similar to the one in current use. Then, in Europe, Marconi sent a Morse-code message several miles without wires.

Fessenden quit teaching, and set up his own experimental wireless telegraphy station for the U.S. weather service, ultimately transmitting Morse-code weather reports from Cobb Island in the Potomac River to Washington, 60 miles away. There was one major difference between what he was doing and what Marconi had already done: an idea.

Marconi and his contemporaries believed, in the words of the New York Herald-Tribune, that radio transmission “was a whiplash effect, a sudden impulse created by the violence of the electric spark and shot out like the sound of a whip cracked in the air.” Fessenden believed that the radio signal could be more than a “whiplash”; that instead of a gross single sound with little variation, it could be sent out by a transmitter in a continuous wave, like the light from a flame. Such a wave, he believed, could carry speech or music or, for that matter, any other sound. It was an idea, he later wrote, that came to him on a train ride between Toronto and Peterborough, where he was holidaying with an uncle.

His equipment was scarcely more sophisticated than that which Marconi, working under the sponsorship of the British government, was using in England. Even so, Fessenden devised a way of interrupting the radio signal many thousands of times in a second, and this theoretically made primitive voice broadcast possible.

By Christmas 1900 Fessenden was ready with two 50-foot towers one mile apart on Cobb Island. On December 23 he sent an assistant, Alfred Thiessen, to one tower and himself worked from the transmitting shack at the other. As Ormond Raby describes it in his forthcoming book: “When he talks into the transmitter, Thiessen telegraphs back: ‘Your voice comes through sounding like the flapping wings of a flock of birds; I can make no sense from it.’ Fessenden, disgusted, returns to his notebooks. An hour passes, then two, and the first shades of dusk darken the corners of the shack. Shaking his head, he pulls himself up from the table and in an angry instant

hurls the pen down. He re-starts the steam - engine generator and his heart beats faster as he notices that it seems to run more smoothly and speedily than before. Then: ‘One, two, three, four.’ Carefully he speaks. ‘Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If it is, telegraph back and let me know.’ ” Thiessen heard.

For the first time the human voice had been transmitted from place to place without wires. Radio was born. Marconi did not succeed in transmitting across the Atlantic from Poldhu in England to Signal Hill, Newfoundland, until December 1901, and then only the Morse signal for the letter “S” got through the static.

With two Pittsburgh millionaires as backers, Fessenden set up the National Electric Signalling Company. He built a tower at Brant Rock near Boston, another on the coast of Scotland, and in January 1906 he made the first two-way Morse broadcast across the Atlantic: Marconi, who had sent a message from England to Newfoundland in 1901, had by then made only one-way broadcasts.

With the towers, Fessenden for the first time had equipment of his own design and he was hell-bent on making Marconi’s inventions instantly obsolete by broadcasting voice messages across the Atlantic. He began rehearsing by transmitting voice messages to a receiver just 11 miles down the Massachusetts coast. Soon after he began he received a message from his tower in Scotland: “We hear you.” The first voice transmission across the Atlantic had taken place — by accident. Then, before a formal public demonstration could be staged, the Scottish tower blew down in a storm.

That Christmas of 1906 Fessenden set about producing the world’s first radio show. He had earlier equipped the ships of the United Fruit Company with his wireless receivers and, although they were only being used to receive Morse code, they were also capable of picking up voice signals as well. On December 23, for an audience of ships’ radio operators and sailors, Fessenden went on the air with a program, which he described thus:

“First, there was a short speech by me saying what we were going to do. Then some phonograph music consisting of Handel’s Largo. Then came a violin solo by me, this being a composition by Gounod called O Holy Night and ending up with the words ‘adore and be still,’ of which I sang one verse while playing the violin, though the singing of course was not very good. Then came the Bible text, ‘Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace to men of good will,’ and finally we wound up by wishing them a merry Chirstmas and saying we proposed to broadcast again New Year’s Eve.”

At this distance, it seems impossible that Fessenden could have done all this and still been eclipsed by Marconi and all but forgotten by history. But he was.

He set up the Fessenden Wireless Telegraph Company of Canada so that transAtlantic communication would be in Canadian hands, and this led to a split with his Pittsburgh partners, who regarded Canada as part of their company’s domain. The British government, echoed by Ottawa, denied him permission to set up commercial stations in the Empire or Canada, largely because the U.K. had a vested interest in Marconi’s more primitive installation. Even so, Fessenden offered his services — and the use of his patents — to Canada and Britain at the outset of World War I; worked for the Canadian government and, for the British, developed the first submarine-detection equipment. It was a derivation of echo-sounding equipment he developed as a navigational aid to prevent a repetition of the Titanic disaster.

Reginald Fessenden was to register many more inventions, mostly to do with radio and electronics, before he died in Bermuda in 1932 with 500 patents to his name. He spent almost 20 years fighting to get money and recognition for his development of radio because, when he broke with his Pittsburgh backers, they claimed the patents on his inventions. The patents passed from company to company until in 1928 Fessenden wearily accepted an out-of-court settlement of almost a million dollars from the Radio Trust of America, representing the bigger manufacturers of radio transmitters and receivers.

On his death, the New York HeraldTribune said: “It sometimes happens, even in science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man.” It added that Marconi’s ideas were slowly supplanted by those of Fessenden, “with all too little credit to the man who had been right.”

A year ago Ormond Raby asked officials of the Ontario Centennial Centre of Science and Technology to include Fessenden in their communications exhibits. They were, he recalls, surprised to find that a Canadian could be fairly called the “father” of modern radio. By this summer the men planning the exhibits were saying that they found Raby’s revelations about Fessenden most interesting, but regretted they had not had time to include him along with Bell, Marconi and Edison in the Hall of Communications. At least, not in time for this month’s opening ceremony. They said they would, however, try to include Reginald Aubrey Fessenden next year, when some changes may be made in the exhibits. □