The Canadian inventor who really invented radio.
So you think it was inventor Guglielmo Marconi who invented radio? Wrong! The man who actually made it work was Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, a six foot two, bearded, bespectacled, brilliant Canadian who loved cats, wore voluminous Inverness capes, smoked cigars, was multilingual, played the violin, carried screwdrivers and wrenches in his pockets, and did much of his thinking while lying on the floor.
Most people give the credit for radio to Marconi, who made history by transmitting the letter “s” in Morse code from England to Newfoundland in December 1901. But it was the Quebec-born Fessenden (1866–1932) who, a year earlier, had transmitted history’s first wireless voice message.
Inspired by the ripple of water when he tossed a stone in a lake, he came up with the theory that sound transmits in continuous waves; Marconi believed to the contrary that it was a whiplash process. On December 23, 1900, Fessenden transmitted his voice between two fifteen-metre-tall towers, located sixteen hundred metres apart, asking his assistant, “Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If it is, telegraph and let me know.” To his joy, Thiessen answered, “yes.”
Just over five years later, in January 1906, Fessenden made the first successful two-way transatlantic transmission. His rival Marconi had only achieved one-way transmission by that time.
In an equally historic event, on December 24, 1906, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Fessenden made the first radio voice broadcast to crews of ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean, performing Christmas carols, reading the Bible, and playing the violin. The significance of this event cannot be overstated. He had successfully invented radio as we know it. Technically, he had invented radio telephony — the wireless telephone, as he called it — or what radio listeners would call “real radio,” in contrast to Marconi’s Morse code broadcasting.
Fessenden had a fertile mind. He proceeded to develop many more important innovations in a wide variety of fields, eventually becoming the holder of more than five hundred patents. He developed a sonar system for submarines to signal one another as well as a method of locating icebergs to help to avoid another disaster like the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. He also invented a version of microfilm, a technique for petroleum exploration, tracer bullets used in battle, and a turbo-electric drive for ships. During the First World War, he gave the Allied governments the right to use any of his inventions without compensation to him.
All of this should have brought Fessenden fame and fortune. Instead, he was scoffed at and never received due recognition — unlike Marconi, who received a Nobel Prize. Moreover, Fessenden was embroiled for fifteen years in costly lawsuits over infringement of his patents. He sued for a total of $60 million but received only $2.5 million. The Canadian government granted Marconi $80,000 for his studies, a generous sum then, but gave nothing to Fessenden. McGill University refused him a chairmanship because he lacked a degree; the position went to an American. On his death, the New York Herald Tribune said: “It sometimes happens, even in science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man.”
Still, Fessenden’s accomplishments live on, and in 1987 a Canadian stamp was issued in his honour.
Reginald Fessenden demonstrated that sound —- not simply Morse code —could be transmitted over radio, leading the way for radio broadcasting.