The Start of Radio Broadcasting

Canada’s Reginald Fessenden invented Radio Broadcasting.

Born in East Bolton, Quebec, Reginald Fessenden was raised and educated in Fergus, Niagara Falls and Port Hope, Ontario. Always top in his class, in 1881, he was offered a teaching assistant position at Bishop’s College in Quebec, near his birthplace.

During his school years, his enquiring mind was always searching school libraries, analyzing scientific journals, often writing to the editor or author of articles offering his opinion, and while at Bishop’s succeeded in having some of his papers published.

At the close of Bishop’s school year, in 1881 he was offered the “Principalship” of a school in Bermuda, which he felt would give him time to test his theories. Upon arriving in Bermuda, he found it was a small school and he would be Principal and teacher – the only one on staff.

During his two years in Bermuda, he met, and would later marry. Helen Trott. In 1883, after turning down a chance to go to Oxford in England, arranged by his father, he decided instead to go to New York and try to work with Thomas Edison.

This was not easy, he applied weekly, but was continually turned down.

Edison’s company was laying cables on Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue. Reg passed the site daily. One day, there was a problem at the site, and Edison’s assistant was there. One of their “Testers” had quit. Reg had met the Assistant many times while applying for a job. He was hired on the spot. “Testers” test the cables before they were hooked up, and while it wasn’t the job he wanted – it was a start. He soon became Chief Tester and helped the Company beat the deadline for completion of the contract. He was offered a job at the Company plant in Schenectady but also by Edison to work in his lab in New Jersey – he naturally went to Edison’s lab.

Fessenden worked for Edison for 7 years, eagerly learning from doing many experiments and reading from Edison’s vast technical library.

In 1890, the Edison companies sere in financial trouble and the lab in New Jersey was closed, In September, Helen Trott joined him in New York, and were quietly married, spending two weeks at the Rectory in Niagara Falls.

In October, Reg was offered a job with the United States Company, a division o the Westinghouse Company.

In 1891, he was offered a job at the Stanley Company, at their Pittfield, Mass. plant where work was starting on AC generators. With each move Reg was picking up valuable experience.

One year later, Perdue Univerisity in Layfayette, Indiana asked Reg to set-up an Electrical Engineering Lab where he could teach students through practical experiments.

In May, a son Kenneth was born to the Fessendens.

In 1893, the University of Pittsburgh (then Western University) influenced by a $ 1,000. grant from Mr. Westinghouse to set up a similar Electrical Engineering Lab. provided that Reg would agree to set-up the new section.

During the seven years that Reg worked for the University he developed his long held theory that speech could be transmitted by wireless waves. He found a Pittsburgh lawyer Darwin Wolcott, familiar with patent applications to register his theories.

In November, 1899, Reg presented a paper to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers which resulted in the U.S. Weather bureau making Reg an offer he couldn’t refuse.

In January, 1900, a contract from the Weather Bureau offered Reg a contract at a salary of $ 3,000. for one year to test his theory of wireless speech so that the weather bureau could receive reports from outlying points to give better weather forecasts. A lab would be available to him in Washington, with a test tower which gave a wireless telegraphy connection to his testing equipment on Cobb Island in the Potomac River where two 50′ towers one mile apart were to be erected. He would have two assistants, one at the lab in Washington and another on Cobb Island (Mr. Alfred Thiessen).

The Weather Bureau would allow Reg to own the patents of any inventions but reserved the right for the Bureau to make use of any inventions conceived during the contract.

This was ideal for Reg and he accepted. After seven years in Pittsburgh they packed up and headed for Washington and on to Cobb Island.

The two 50′ towers were erected and work began on assembling equipment as soon as the transmitting and receiving shacks were completed.

It took all summer and fall to test theories and eliminate those ideas that proved impracticable.

Radio’s First Voice

On December 23rd, 1900, Reginald Fessenden spoke the first words ever heard over the air – “One, Two, Three, Four, – is it snowing where you are Mr. Thiessen, if it is telegraph back to me! It had just started to snow outside the transmitter shack.

Mr. Thiessen telegraphed back that it had just started to snow and that Reg’s message had come through.

With great pride, Reg reported to the Weather Bureau that he had succeeded. The reply came back to keep it quiet – they wanted further testing before making it public. Representatives of the Bureau would meet with him later that day.

The signal had been noisy and the Weather Bureau wanted more testing. They wanted to set-up a new test from stations on Roanoke Island, at Hattteras and a third at Cape Henry.

In 1902 – Testing at the new sites had continued for almost a year when the Weather Bureau started cutting back and finally Reg severed connections with the Bureau in August.

Through his lawyer, Darwin Wolcott, he found new financial backers in Mr. Given, President of the Farmers’ Deposit National Bank and Mr. Walker, a manufacturer of soaps, perfumes and food stuffs.

They proposed to form a company, the National Electric Signaling Company. Reg would contribute his patents, and he and Wolcott would own 45% of the shares while Given & Walker would own 55%, and beside paying Reg a salary, would also finance further testing an perfecting Reg’s invention – Radio Broadcasting.

During construction and testing of equipment, Reg spent much of his time defending his patents. This was costly and the N. E. S. C. deal was on rocky ground. Reg was heavily in debt, for the meager salary the company paid him was hardly enough for the family of three to live on, let alone the cost of the defense of his patents.

By 1905, plans had called for Trans-Atlantic testing with a tower at Brant Rock, outside Boston, and a receiving station on the Isle of Mull, off Scotland.

The transmitting tower at Brant Rock was a cylindrical tube, 400 feet high, guyed at every 100 foot level with an umbrella capacity at the top.

On January 2nd, 1906 two-way wireless telegraphy messages across the Atlantic were sent and received.

On December 6th, word came that the tower in Scotland had crashed in a storm. It was a riddle as it was a duplicate of the Brant Rock tower that had withstood many severe storms. Faulty joining of the guy wires turned out to be the problem.

Undaunted, the word from the company was – “carry on”!

Christmas Eve, 1906 The first program broadcast on RADIO.

Three days prior to this broadcast, Fessenden had alerted ships of the U. S. Navy in the harbour at Boston and ships of the United Fruit Company that trade between Boston and the West Indies that there would be a special transmission over the wireless apparatus on Christmas Eve.

Described afterwards, in Reg’s own words, the following was broadcast:

The program on Christmas Eve was as follows: first a short speech by me saying what we were going to do, then some phonograph music – the music on the phonograph being Handel’s “Largo”. Then came a violin solo by me, being a composition of Gounod called “O, Holy Night”, and ending up with the words “Adore and be still” of which I sang one verse, in addition to playing on 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 Christmas and then by saying that we proposed to broadcast again New Year’s Eve.

The broadcast New Year’s Eve was the same as before except that the music was changed and I got someone else to sing. I had not picked myself to do the singing on Christmas Eve. I could not get any of the others to either talk, sing or play and consequently had to do it myself.

On New Year’s Eve one man, I think it was Mr. Stein, agreed to sing and did sing, but none of the others either sang or talked.

They got word of reception of the Christmas Eve program as far down as Norfolk, Virginia, and on the New Year’s Eve program word came from some places in the West Indies. All were from boats of the United Fruit Company.

In 1908. the National Electric Signaling Company was reorganized – with a better deal for Reg – but with Given and Walker still very much in control.

Reg wanted to manufacture and sell transmitting and receiving units, but Given & Walker decided it best to build up an exclusive company which they could take public and make a great deal of money.

At this time, Reg had prospective buyers in the U. S. Navy and the United Fruit Company that would have taken the company out of debt. Given and Walker said NO!

In 1909, Reg and Helen went to England to lobby the British Government against an English monopoly and after eight months of talking to various politicians and bureaucrats, he came back to Boston with a licence from the British government.

However, things were not well at Brant Rock. Endless challenges to Reg’s patents were time consuming and took almost all of Reg’s time.

At the same time, Given & Walker were complaining about the lack of progress.

This situation continued until 1912 when matters came to a head, Given & Walker sued Reg for his interest in the company. However, Reg won. G & W. appealed and the two judge panel ended in a tie. Things were at a standstill.

In October, 1914, the Marconi Company facing the necessity of working with Fessendens patents (the original Marconi system was not suitable for voice transmission) made an offer to NESC.

The offer included rights to ALL of Fessendens patents to do with wireless telegraphy and voice transmission. Some of these patents had not been transferred to NESC and Reg stipulated that those patents be excluded. NESC finally agreed that he should have use of those patents.

Reg agreed to accept $250,000. for his interests in the company. This would give Helen and himself enough to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.

The Marconi deal was signed in 1916 without Reg receiving any assurance on those excluded patents. Reg finally gave up the fight and moved on to other inventions.

With the advent of World War 1, Fessenden, always a Canadian, returned to Canada to offer his services to the government. He then went to England to work with the Royal Navy and later, the Royal Air Force. One of his greatest inventions during the war was the “Fathometer” which aided submarines to detect their depth and just how much further down the bottom was.

After the war, Reg and Helen moved to Bermuda, where he died in 1932.

Start of Radio Broadcasting
Ross McCreath at Fessenden’s Gravesite in Bermuda

During his life, he invented and patented more that 500 inventions outside the wireless-telegraphy-radio field.

Above his vault in St. Marks Church cemetery was erected, in time, a snow white stone inscribed with these words:

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

And below:

“I am yesterday and I know tomorrow”


“Radio’s First Voice” The story of Reginald Fessenden by Ormond Raby
“Fessenden – Builder of Tomorrow” – by Helen Fessenden

Summary by Ross McCreath – January, 2003