Mak­ing waves

The Cana­dian in­ven­tor who re­ally in­vented ra­dio.

Canada's History - - CURRENTS - By Su­san Gold­en­berg

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.

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