Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (1866-1932)

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden

Year Born: 1866

Year Died: 1932

Year of Induction: 1986

Fessenden, Reginald Aubrey (1866-1932)

Physicist, Inventor
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was the Father of Radio Broadcasting.

His voice was the first-ever to be broadcast by radio waves and heard by another person. To accomplish this feat, he had to prove to his detractors by his own invention that his was the correct theory for wireless transmission.

On December 23rd, 1900, from a site on Cobb Island in the middle of the Potamac River near Washington, Fessenden spoke these words – “one – two – three – four, is it snowing where you are Mr. Thiessen? If it is, would you telegraph back to me?” Mr. Thiessen, one mile distant, confirmed. Radio broadcasting was born.

However, it was not until another six years, after much fine-tuning, that radio’s potential was demonstrated. Fessenden presented radio’s first program on Christmas Eve 1906, from Boston with the assistance of his wife Helen, her friend and his helper. Wireless operators on ships in the harbour heard the inventor play O Holy Night on his violin and Helen and her friend sing Christmas carols. Further experimentation followed, but it was not until after World War One that governments of Canada and the USA would issue broadcasting licences that would permit development of the new medium.

Meanwhile, Reginald Fessenden, inventor and physicist, put his mind to other tasks – one of the most impressive being his Fathometer – a detector to be used to combat the U-boat menace during the War. In his lifetime, he conceived over 500 inventions which benefited and enriched mankind, if not Fessenden himself. In her book, Fessenden, Builder of Tomorrow, Helen Fessenden, in referring to her husband’s accomplishments, wrote of his fertile mind that it had “failed to defend itself against commercial assault, whether financial or scientific”.

Reginald Fessenden was a Canadian, eldest son born to the Reverend Elisha Joseph Fessenden and his wife Clementina (nee Trenholme) in East Bolton, Québec, on October 6, 1866. His boyhood years were spent in Ontario – in Fergus (north of Guelph) and later, in Niagara Falls. His father’s final parish was Ancaster (now part of Hamilton). His parents are buried in the church cemetary, and there is a school there that bears the family name.

As a child, Reginald Fessenden showed an interest in mathematics far beyond his years and delighted in experiments that often both astounded and angered his parents and other adults.

On reaching adulthood, his dream was to transmit the sound of the human voice without wires. First, he perfected a new means of sending Morse code more effectively than Marconi.

Obtaining financial backing for further experiments was a struggle, and jeopardized his rights to many of his inventions. The wireless transmission of the human voice – whether on radio or television – remains his greatest legacy.

We are indebted to Ormond Raby, a Toronto free-lance writer, who ‘discovered’ Fessenden in 1966 and authored a book titled “Radio’s First Voice – The Story of Reginald Fessenden”. Published by MacMillan of Canada, it is no longer for sale. Helen M. Fessenden’s book was first published in 1940, and an edition indexed by Mr. Raby, was reprinted in 1974.

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden died in his house by the sea in Bermuda on July 22, 1932.

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 the stone of a snow-white memorial erected, in time, above his vault in St. Mark’s Church Cemetery, Bermuda (see photo), are inscribed these words:

His mind illuminated the past 
And the future 
And wrought greatly 
For the present

and beneath, in the picture writings of the ancient Egyptians:

I am yesterday and I know tomorrow

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.


“Radio’s First Voice: The Story of Reginald Fessenden”‘ Ormond Raby, 
     MacMillan of Canada, Toronto, 1970 (No ISBN)

“Fessenden, Builder of Tomorrow” Helen M. Fessenden, 
     ARNO PRESS – a New York Times Company – 1974 ISBN 0-405-06030-0

Written by J. Lyman Potts – January, 1996