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Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (1866-1932)
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By Doctor John Belrose

"By his genius, people in distant lands converse and men sail unafraid upon the deep."

In 1906, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden performed the first wireless broadcast of voice and music on Christmas Eve, and again on New Year’s Eve. Shipboard wireless operators, using Fessenden receivers, picked up the broadcast as far away as the West Indies and in the North Atlantic.

The experimental transmitting station designed and operated by Fessenden in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, utilized a radio frequency alternator constructed by the General Electric Company. Fessenden rebuilt the alternator to operate on unprecedented high frequencies, about 80,000 cycles per second or 80 kHz.

Fessenden advocated continuous waves (CW) for wireless transmission as superior to the spark-generated damped wave method of signaling followed by Marconi and his associates. And Fessenden opposed excessive government regulation of the emerging industry. He was a prolific inventor in many fields, including the chemical, radio, metallurgical and mechanical, but principally in two fields: (1) the early development of wireless communications (telegraphy and telephony); and (2) SONAR (Sound Navigation And Ranging) to measure the depth of oceans, and for iceberg detection. He was awarded the Medal of Honour of the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1924 for his inventions concerned with safety at sea. His son’s eulogy praised Fessenden’s greatest achievements in one sentence: “By his genius, distant lands converse and men sail unafraid upon the deep.” Yet, only a few professionals in the field of wireless communication, and current radio historians, know that Fessenden, and not Marconi, is the principal inventor of radio as we know it today, and the father of AM radio.

Early Days

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was born in his grandmother’s home on October 6, 1866, in Knowlton, Brome County, Canada East (now Quebec). Fessenden’s mother Clemintina (Tina) Trenholme and his father, the Anglican Minister Reverend Elisha Joseph Fessenden lived in East Bolton (now Austin). Joseph’s father, the entrepreneur John Fessenden, immigrated to America, settling near Boston to manufacture gloves. Tina’s father, the inventor Edward Trenholme, built a grain elevator and a railway snowplow ahead of his time without financial gain from his creations.

Elisha’s brother, Cortez Fessenden (1853-1923) a successful physics teacher and inventor, cultivated young Reginald’s heritage of invention. During the summer of 1871, Reverend Fessenden moved his family to the Anglican parish in Fergus, Ontario. Reginald was initially home-schooled, but reverted to public schooling to prevent continuous reading and avoid irritation of his eyes. Uncle Cortez encouraged both experimentation and reading to gain new knowledge. The work of Alexander Graham Bell in nearby Brantford claimed special attention.

Reggie was 10 years old when his Uncle Cortez was invited to view a demonstration of the telephone at the Bell homestead on August 4, 1876. Bell’s first long-distance call, between Brantford and Paris, via Toronto (a distance of 113 kilometres) was made a few days later on August 10. Ormond Raby has written a popular account of Reggie’s conversation with Cortez on August 11, during a thunderstorm. Reggie had enquired about the transmission of sound over wires (the telephone):

Uncle, how far do you think the roar of thunder can be heard? And have you noticed it comes booming down without a single wire to help it?

The thunder doesn’t need a wire because it travels to us on a sound wave; with lightning it is an electric wave.

Then why doesn’t Bell shout on an (electric) wave?

He does. Bell gets his electric waves from a storage battery and those waves shuttle back and forth on the wire thus carrying his voice.

But why is the wave on the wire? It strikes me that those wires are a crazy nuisance, the thunder doesn’t need a wire, so why does Bell need one?

Heaven knows what direction his words would take without something to guide them. Is it not plain to you lad, that the thunder is only a sound wave? Why it wouldn’t travel any distance at all unless you loaded the whack on a wave of electricity.

Cortez was not entirely satisfied with his answers to “why a wire?” Being a good physics teacher, he was up on mathematics, and it appeared to him that there should be some way of using mathematics to explain the working of electricity and words and wires, but he had to admit to himself that it was simply beyond his ken. Words without wires, Uncle Cortez mused to himself. I have never heard of such a nonsensical thing. They would return to their discussion of “words without wires” 21 years later, in 1897.

Meanwhile, in 1876, Elisha wrote to the de Veaux Military Academy, Niagara Falls, New York, to enroll Reginald after their move to Suspension Bridge near Niagara Falls that August. He proved a successful student at de Veaux. Military discipline dampened neither his curiosity nor experiments in swimming in the Niagara River Whirlpool. 1877 found Reginald at Trinity College School (TCS), Port Hope, with the sincere friendship of Archie Lampman (1861-1899), Canada’s celebrated 19th-century poet. Academic success at TCS was delayed due to corrective eye surgery; still, he completed his studies at TCS by 1884 with prizes and praise by the headmaster, who identified him as one of the best students he had ever had.

During 1884, at the age of 18, Fessenden moved to Bishop’s College, Lenoxville, Quebec, to teach mathematics and begin studying towards a degree. His formal learning was accompanied by reading the periodicals
Nature and Scientific American to enhance his knowledge of electricity, science and the contemporary work of Thomas Edison.

While at Bishop’s, Elisha’s ministry failed, and to replace financial support from home, Uncle Cortez offered Reginald a loan to continue at Bishop’s. Reginald refused the offer and left Bishop’s in favour of a salaried position as principal of the single-teacher Whitney Institute, Bermuda. That job meant extra money to support his brother’s education at home, funds for his personal needs, and time and opportunity to learn about electricity in preparation for work with Thomas Edison. In 1886, on his way to Bermuda, he left Canada East and a university education, not knowing that he would never return to either. In Bermuda, he would meet his future wife, Helen May Trott.

In Bermuda, Reginald gained new knowledge of mathematics, but without insight into relationships between mathematics and electricity. His future father-in-law, Thaddeus Trott, was skeptical of Reginald’s dream of “words without wires,” and did not encourage Helen to accompany Reginald to New York, where, from 1887 to 1890, Reginald worked for Thomas Edison while his wife-to-be waited in Bermuda. Initially, he tested field installations of electric cables, but advanced quickly to experimental work on high-frequency electric generators in Edison’s laboratory in East Orange, New Jersey. There, he discovered and developed the principle of the powered gyroscope, the heart of present-day inertial guidance systems for navigation in space and accurate aiming of military ordinance.

On his own time, Reginald stayed abreast of Heinrich Hertz’s work in Germany on electromagnetic (EM) wave theory, which strengthened his own conviction that EM waves could be made to carry voice. In 1890, with knowledge of Reginald’s progress, Helen’s father permitted her to join Reginald for marriage in New York.

Working for Edison, he invented a non-flammable insulation for electrical wires. Skeptical about the then-current theory holding that elasticity and cohesion were due to a gravitational attraction between atoms, he developed a better explanation. His “electrostatic doublet” theory was published in 1892 as The Law and Nature of Cohesion, which Sir J.J. Thompson (Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge) deemed to be preposterous. Reginald had applied his theory to mathematically calculate the physical and electrical properties of metals. He tested his results against known empirical values for cohesion, rigidity and Young’s modulus of metals. Ironically, in 1897 Thompson would independently demonstrate the correctness of Fessenden’s theories.

In 1890, having married Helen and finding himself out of work due to Edison’s financial problems, he moved to work on electric lighting with George Westinghouse in Newark, New Jersey. He developed the means to improve electric light bulbs by replacing expensive platinum filaments with less costly iron or nickel alloy filaments. This innovation was based upon his previous discovery of ways to fuse the less costly filaments to glass, greatly reducing cost and speeding the transition of electric light from a novelty to an everyday necessity.

Also, his insight to electrical properties of metals provided him with an explanation for inefficiency of iron cores in transformers and iron pole pieces in electric motors. He reasoned that replacement of the large carbon atoms in the iron by smaller silicon atoms would increase the electrical efficiency of the electrical components. A century later, a better method than his silicon steel has yet to be found.

Westinghouse remained disinterested in wireless transmission of voice. As Westinghouse’s operations in Newark wound down, Reginald’s uncle Ed Trenholme encouraged him to apply for the chair of electrical engineering at McGill University in Montreal. Instead, in 1892, he accepted the same position at Purdue University in Indiana. During his one-year stay at Purdue, he gained new insights into relationships between mathematics and electricity in the theory of electrical resonance and signal amplification. As chair of electrical engineering, he established the Electrical Engineering Department with guidance and benefit from his original and durable knowledge.

His position and success at Purdue were repeated in 1893 at the University of Pittsburgh with financial support from Westinghouse, who was anxious to have Fessenden nearby. One of his inventions in Pittsburgh was microphotography, an early form of microfilm technology. Still, his progress with a methodology of voice transmission lagged behind Marconi’s mechanical success in England in transmitting Morse code signals.

In 1895, Reginald suffered personal tragedy with the suicide of his father and youngest brother. He retreated to Peterborough, Ontario, to be with his Uncle Cortez. There, in 1897, they resumed their 1876 discussion of “words without wires”:

“Look,” he [Reginald] said. He threw a rock into Chemung Lake, near Peterborough, Ontario. “See how the waves circle out where the rock hit? If they are going to carry the whole range of voice sounds, the Hertzian waves must radiate like that from the antenna at the transmitting end and they must keep going in a steady stream until they encircle the antenna at the receiving station. They must never let up even for a split second.”

“I see,” said his Uncle. “In Marconi’s scheme they stop and go, stop and go.”

Suddenly, after minutes of silence, Reg said, “Continuous. That’s the word that describes them, Continuous Waves.”

At that moment, Fessenden recognized and named the concept of continuous waves. His concept contradicted Marconi’s non-continuous “whip-lash interrupted dot-dash” wave theory: also, it provided Reginald with a fresh insight to a mechanism for voice transmission. And so our present continuous wave (CW) concept of radio transmission was born. But generating CW, modulating the waves, and receiving them was yet to be accomplished.

Back in Pittsburgh in 1897, he enhanced wireless telegraphy transmission by the method of spark, and discovered that the spark rate that modulated the electro-magnetic (EM) wave for successful voice transmission must exceed the human audible range. That year he tried to return to Canada, but his application for chair of electrical engineering at McGill was turned down in favour of a “professor” from Nebraska. Although Fessenden never graduated from a university, he was addressed as “professor” due to his success at Purdue and at the University of Pittsburg, but that was not good enough for McGill. One can only speculate what might have happened if he had worked in Canada at McGill with contemporaries Rutherford and Soddy.

Work with the US Weather Bureau

In January 1900, he moved to the US Weather Bureau to enhance wireless transmission of interrupted Morse code signals. In his private time on December 23, 1900, unknown to his immediate superior Willis Moore, Reginald achieved the first transmission of intelligible speech by EM waves. His contract with the bureau permitted him to retain ownership of his inventions that would be used by the bureau.

Headquartered on Roanoke Island near Manteo, he began work on a high frequency alternator to enhance transmission of EM carrier waves for transmission of interrupted dot-dash (Morse code) signals. He also developed improved means for separating the signals from their carrier waves. His experiments took place in a system of three signal towers separated by approximately fifty miles, one tower at Cobb Island, the other two at Arlington, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

In August 1902, Willis Moore, compelled by greed, threatened to fire Reginald if he would not surrender part ownership of his patents to Moore personally. Reginald was described by his contemporaries as choleric, demanding, vain, pompous, egotistic, arrogant, bombastic, irascible, combative, domineering, and so on; coupled with a notorious lack of patience, he could not help making waves continuously in every direction. These characteristics were combined with a striking appearance that included a beard, ginger-colored hair, a height of well over six feet, large girth, a flowing cape on his shoulders and a seafarer’s cap on his head–he must have commanded attention in any crowd. Moore’s attempted blackmail backfired as Fessenden abandoned the bureau and moved back to Pittsburgh.

Formation of NESCO

In Pittsburgh, during September 1902, he secured the financial support of millionaires T.H. Given and Hay Walker, and together they formed the National Electric Signalling Company (NESCO), where Reginald was required to place his inventions in the name of the company. He had no alternative: his personal funds were limited and he was unable to continue without Given and Walker’s money.

He set up field headquarters for NESCO on Chesapeak Bay, where, spurred by Marconi’s claimed successes at sending signal across the Atlantic, and with financial support from Given and Walker, he began work on the erection of a signal tower at Brant Rock, south of Boston, and another (in 1905) at Machrihanish on the west coast of Scotland.

In 1903, while working for NESCO, Fessenden was selected by the Ontario Power Commission to be a commissioner and to provide consulting engineering input. A Quebec firm (Ross and Holgate) was retained to study the potential hydroelectric power generation on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Its report was accompanied by Fessenden’s Final Report. Ross and Holgate selected four possible sites above the falls. It rejected a power site in the gorge below the falls, saying it made for difficult hydro construction. Fessenden, who was always willing to attack the difficult, certainly saw the potential of the height of the falls as essential to producing the largest hydroelectric facility in the world, but his recommendations were rejected. Construction on the project started in 1908 at sites above the falls. Power was turned on as far west as Kitchener on October 11, 1911. It was not until 1917 that construction began in the gorge below the falls as recommended originally by Fessenden.

The partnership with Given and Walker failed in 1912, but Fessenden’s greatest achievements in the field of wireless occurred there. To improve his wireless telephony apparatus, Fessenden sought a replacement for the coherer, a part of early wireless systems. It was a tube of metal and carbon filings in the receiver circuitry. Without a wireless wave, and if the tube had been “tapped,” the filings were randomly oriented, and the resistance of the coherer was high. On reception of a high amplitude EM wave, characteristic of a spark-generated signal, the induced current flowing in the coherer lined up (cohered) the filings, and the series resistance of the tube decreased. But the coherer had to be “tapped” again by a vibrator, so that it was in a position to receive the next high amplitude electric wave. Clearly, such a device was very insensitive, essentially useless in discriminating between signal and impulses of atmospheric noise, since the device responded only to the presence of a burst of radio frequency (RF), sounding only like a click in an ear piece or actuating a Morse printer, and being absolutely useless for reception of CW telephony signaling.

During the period between 1897 and 1902, Fessenden experimented with dozens of methods for detecting wireless signals, but with small success. His “best” device was a type of thermal detector, which he named a hot-wire barreter. This device, in series with a resistor, a battery and an ear piece, was connected between the aerial and earth. The minute amount of extra “heating” due to induced current generated by the reception of a wireless signal was heard in the ear phone.

More or less by accident, while preparing one such device, dipping the fine wire in sulphuric acid, Fessenden discovered that the device gave indications, on a meter attached to the circuit, that corresponded to signals from an automatic sender of Morse code “D’s.” And so by accident, the barretter, a type of electrolytic detector, was invented, a platinum-coated Wolaston wire making point contact with, lightly touching, the acid solution. The name barretter was coined by Fessenden from his classical language background, derived from the French word exchanger, implying the change from radio frequency (RF) to direct current (DC) (US patent dated 5 May 1903).

This detector was a standard for many years, but it was absolutely useless for detection of on-off-keyed (by a Morse key) CW. The RF carrier frequency was not modulated by the spark rate, and so no sound would be heard except key clicks associated with make-and-break of the key contact. Again, Fessenden’s fertile mind worked around the problem. He devised a method of combining two frequencies to derive their sum and difference frequency, and coined the word heterodyne, derived from joining two Greek words hetero, meaning difference, with dyne, meaning force.

Today, heterodyning is fundamental to the technology of radio communications. All radio receivers employ the heterodyne principle to convert the received RF signal to a lower (intermediate) frequency for subsequent amplification. For the detection of Morse keyed CW transmissions, two closely spaced RF signals (say, 1000 Hz different in frequency) could be used, so that the difference frequency 1000 Hz could be heard by an ear phone as a clear musical tone. Fessenden’s initial heterodyne principle patent was dated August 12, 1902, but it was not before about 1913 that, with other requisite improvements, it could be used. With vacuum tubes, heterodyning was practical.

Finally, “Words Without Wires”

On December 23, 1900, the first voice over radio was that of Fessenden, sent between two 15-metre masts located on Cobb Island, MD. The transmission was sent by a spark transmitter operating at about 10,000 sparks per second and modulated by a carbon microphone in series with the aerial lead. The receiver, a tuned circuit, comprised a detector of uncertain type and performance, and a pair of ear phones.

On January 10, 1906, Fessenden achieved two-way transatlantic telegraphic communications between Brant Rock, MA, and Machrihanish, Scotland. The quality and reliability of the communications was indisputably years ahead of Marconi. Marconi had not yet achieved simplex back-and-forth communications, so that the operators at each end could ask for repeats, or carry out an intelligent discussion. Marconi was sending “blind” with no immediate acknowledgement that his messages were being received.

Later, in June 1906, while still employed by Given and Walker, Reginald covertly travelled to Montreal to form the Fessenden Wireless Telegraph Company of Canada. This would prove to be his “ace in the hole” during subsequent conflicts with his unscrupulous partners.

By the fall of 1906, Fessenden developed a high frequency (HF) alternator that gave him frequencies as high as 75-80 kHz to invent the means for pure CW transmission. By November 1906, Given and Walker maintained their disinterest in transmission of voice when Fessenden achieved two-way voice transmission (telephony) between Brant Rock and commercial fishermen at sea. On a night when transatlantic propagation was very good, Fessenden and his colleagues were conducting experimental wireless telephony transmissions between Brant Rock, MA, and Plymouth, a distance of 17 kilometres. The voice of Mr. Stein at Brand Rock was heard with such clarity by the operator, Mr. Armour in Machrihanish, that there was no doubt who the speaker was, and the station log confirmed the report: one-way transatlantic voice communications had been achieved.

The same year, Fessenden discovered evidence of a reflecting layer, the ionosphere, proposed earlier by Kennelly and Heaviside in 1902. On certain nights he observed a double set of impulses received at Brant Rock from Machrihanish: one about a fifth of a second later than the second. He correctly interpreted that the delayed signal had travelled the other way around the great circle path. His conclusion was severely criticized at the time, as was almost every communication achievement reported by him. His achievement of transatlantic communications by HF alternator with one output terminal connected to ground, and the other to his tuned antenna, was denied by incorrect conventional wisdom that a “spark was necessary to generate EM waves.”

His successes were followed by disaster on December 6, 1906 when the signal Tower at Machrihanish was destroyed in a storm. Never to be beaten, that same month, Fessenden used another of his inventions, the electronic “beeper,” today’s pager, to assemble his workers at Brant Rock in preparation for a Christmas surprise for the world. He organized the world’s first wireless broadcast, of voice and music, to ships of the United Fruit Company on their voyages from Central America to the United States, and to ships of the US Navy.

After his spectacular wireless broadcast, Given and Walker considered providing funds to rebuild the Machrihanish tower, but it was not to happen. Fessenden’s achievements failed to arouse general public interest in his inventions. He continued to improve his radio system, but diverted his efforts to the invention of the steam turbine-electric generator system to drive ships at sea. In 1910, with funding by his partners, he travelled to England and secured a 20-year permit from the English government for two-way wireless transmission between United States and England. By agreement, the permit belonged to NESCO, but Reginald retained the rights to wireless transmission from Canada, should the permit be so extended.

Later, in 1910, Given and Walker demanded that Fessenden give them his agreed-upon right to wireless transmission from Canada. He refused, and by court order he was barred from future access to his laboratories on Brant Rock. Ironically, Given and Walker would not acquire the right to wireless transmission from Canada. By 1912, Marconi alone would be licensed to erect towers and install radio equipment in Canada, a senseless government regulation that held back the competitive development of radio in Canada for more than two decades.

Acoustic Waves in Water

In 1912, unemployed in Boston, Fessenden was invited by colleagues at the Submarine Signal to join them in mutual concern over the recent sinking of the Titanic. Within three months, he had developed the means for wireless communication between submerged submarines, 15 miles apart, while successfully testing his inventions for locating icebergs and measuring the depth of the ocean below a moving ship.

As the First World War began in 1914, he granted Canada and its allies free use of all of his inventions for the duration of the war. These inventions included an innovative aircraft engine, a directional wireless antenna to locate enemy aircraft, an echo sounder, later known as SONAR (Sound Navigation And Ranging) to detect the location of enemy submarines, an identification friend or foe (IFF) system to distinguish friendly submarines from enemy subs, and carbon tetrachloride and tracer bullets, among a host of other technical creations.

After the war, financially secure by payment for pre-war work with Submarine Signal, he renewed his legal battles over the treachery of NESCO, and Given and Walker. His rightful claims to his intellectual property and related financial income were finally recognized. His lawyers were the best that money could buy, and when it was a question of technical matters, the trust had no one able to tangle with him. Early in 1928, his opponents realized that they were beaten, and on March 31, a settlement was made in Boston. It called for payments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to Reg, perhaps more money than any inventor anywhere had received up to that time.

His work on safety at sea won him the Scientific American Gold Medal in 1929. Other awards included the Medal of Honour of The Institute of Radio Engineers for his efforts in that field, and The John Scott Medal of the City of Philadelphia for his invention of continuous wave reception.

Return to Bermuda

In failing health but independently wealthy, Reginald moved back to live in Bermuda with his wife Helen. Just four years after their move, he died on July 22, 1932. Helen must certainly have provided support for her husband in his work, and she must have had a considerable knowledge about his accomplishments. To summarize, he was the first to:

  • use the word and method of continuous waves (circa 1897);
  • transmit voice over radio (December 1900);
  • devise a detector for continuous waves (circa 1902);
  • use the word and method heterodyne (circa 1902);
  • send two-way transatlantic wireless telegraphy messages (circa January 1906), and the first to record the night-to-night variability of wireless transmission (propagation studies);
  • send wireless telephony (voice) across the Atlantic (November 1906);
  • discover evidence for long-path as well as short-path signals (fall 1906); and
  • make a wireless broadcast, voice and music, on 24 December 1906.

Helen wrote the book Fessenden. Builder of Tomorrows, and she must clearly have been responsible for seeing to the granting of seven patents after his death, including patents for a primitive form of television. In 1925, Fessenden said that this invention was “capable of putting wireless vision into every home in the United States.”

Helen Fessenden died in 1980. By her will, she established a Fessenden-Trott Trust, administered by the Bank of Bermuda Limited, Hamilton, Bermuda. This trust in the name of Professor Fessenden provides funds for scholarships awarded annually to Canadian students (including students at the University of Guelph), US students from Purdue and Pittsburgh Universities, and Bermudian students and family members studying at Canadian, UK or US universities. This is truly a remarkable outcome for Professor Fessenden, who refused to fall prey to the greed of his American employers, Willis Moore, and Given and Walker.

Like many of his era, Fessenden held a deep and abiding faith in the power of technology to improve the lot of humanity. “All our civilization is based on invention,” he once said. Most telling perhaps was his definition of an inventor as “one who can see the applicability of means to supply demand five years before it is obvious to those ‘skilled in the art.’” While his business partners may have wished he spend more time on the present day, few inventors of any era have been as farsighted as Fessenden, who clearly is the principal inventor of wireless technology as it is today, and is the father of AM radio broadcasting.

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