The Forgotten Father Of Radio
REGINALD FESSENDEN BROUGHT VOICE TO THE AIRWAVES—ONLY TO LOSE CONTROL OF HIS INVENTION
THE INVENTOR’S WIFE STOOD WITH HER ARMS SPREAD across the filing cabinets, trying to cover the open drawers as three men struggled to remove the files they contained. She knew she couldn’t win, but she thought it might somehow help her husband legally if the men had to use force. The men pulled her away and started loading boxes. Then, with about a third of the files gone, they began to relax their guard. She seized a moment when they all were outside the office to slam the door and lock it. More time gained.
It was December 1910, and the woman who had been reduced to playing cat and mouse with the movers was the wife of the man who had discovered how to broadcast words. His name was Reginald Fessenden, and he deserves, as much as anyone else, to be called the father of radio. Yet instead of making him rich, Fessenden’s inventive genius brought him mostly frustration.
For all the tumult of his later years, Fessenden enjoyed a peaceful middle-class upbringing after his birth in East Bolton, Quebec, in 1866. The boy’s brilliance showed itself early, and in 1884 he became a master at Bishop’s College School, in Quebec, while attending Bishop’s College there. Before completing his degree, Fessenden took a job as headmaster (and only teacher) at a small private school in Bermuda. While there he fell in love with Helen Trott, the farmer’s daughter he would later marry. (At the same time, this writer’s grandfather became engaged to Helen’s elder sister Eliza, whom he later married.)
Helen Trott went everywhere with the six-foot-tall Canadian, even when he floated on his back in the sea, working out mathematical problems about electricity. Years afterward, he would write: “One could miss a great deal out of one’s life and still be happy remembering those [carriage] drives back after a dance, along the shore of Harrington Sound, and the moonlight, the semi-tropical air and the smell of the jasmine flowers.”
Fessenden’s stay in Bermuda lasted two years. His family hoped he would enter the church, like his father, an Anglican minister. Instead he decided to go to New York City, armed with a few introductions, and try to either find a job with the great Thomas Edison or make a living writing for magazines. He was not yet married; Thaddeus Trott did not want a sonin-law who admitted to holding the extraordinary notion that voices could be sent great distances without wires.
New York was a disappointment. Fessenden sold only a few magazine articles and repeatedly failed to get a job with Edison. Persistence finally paid off in 1885, when he was given the post of assistant tester for the Edison Machine Works as it lay electrical cables under New York’s streets. During his lunch hours he studied electrical theory and analytical mechanics and worked out ways to do the testing faster. Before long he rose to inspecting engineer.
The cable laying was completed late in 1886, whereupon Fessenden happily accepted a job in Edison’s laboratory. After a few weeks he asked Edison about his future. “Do you know anything about chemistry?” Edison asked.
“Then I want you to be a chemist. I have had a lot of chemists. I had one whose name was all through Watts’s Dictionary. But none of them got results. I want you to take it up.”
Fessenden was told to invent an insulating material that would be, in Edison’s words, “as good… as glass but as flexible as Indiarubber, not affected by acids or alkalis or oils, and fireproof.” To top it off, it “must not cost more than 15 cents a pound.” Chlorine came to play a large role in the experiments, as Helen Trott discovered when her fiancé’s letters arrived in Bermuda saturated with its smell. (He had been substituting chlorine for hydrogen in natural materials to reduce their flammability.) Fessenden later recalled that he had succeeded in meeting Edison’s challenge, though other researchers from the project said they never managed to fulfill all the exacting requirements with a single material.
Fessenden gave Edison much credit for his later success, saying that the great inventor had “taught me the right way to experiment.” Intense dedication was part of Edison’s way. Whenever a project reached a critical phase, Edison and his assistants worked around the clock, catnapping on laboratory tables whenever they could snatch a few minutes. Since Fessenden was too tall to be comfortable on a table, he lay on the floor, his head resting on Watts’s Dictionary of Chemistry . And while such crises were not unusual, for Fessenden even normal times were strenuous enough. A typical workday started at 9:00 A.M. , with work through the morning until the lunch hour—half of which he would spend teaching himself more about mathematics, joined by the chief electrician, Arthur Kennelly. Then he would work until five, when he joined Kennelly again, this time for a fifteen-minute workout at a nearby gymnasium before going to their boardinghouse for supper. At 8:00 P.M. they would return to the lab and work until midnight, after which Fessenden spent an hour studying theoretical physics or chemistry.
Edison appointed him head chemist, and his future seemed set, but as would happen so often throughout his life, ill fortune dogged Fessenden’s footsteps. The next year, 1890, Edison ran into deep financial trouble and laid off most of his laboratory assistants, including Fessenden, who nevertheless decided to marry. Helen Trott sailed to New York for a quiet wedding, and he gave her such an impressive ring from Tiffany’s that he had no money left for a honeymoon. She had prudently brought her own savings with her, though, so they were able to travel to Canada to visit his family.
Shortly after leaving Edison, he took a job with the United States Electric Lighting Company, a Westinghouse subsidiary in Newark, New Jersey, where he perfected a method of sealing incandescent lamps. A year later, he was hired by the Stanley Company, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and was sent to England to learn about the technology of electrical generation there. He and Helen spent all their savings on that trip, which he found greatly interesting, but when they returned, the beginning of a deep economic depression had hobbled the Stanley Company. Fessenden found himself again out of work and unreimbursed for his journey.
He was becoming known for his accomplishments, however, and in 1892 he was hired as a professor of electrical engineering at Purdue University. This, and the birth of his only child, Reginald Kennelly (“Ken”), in 1893 (his middle name honored Fessenden’s old Edison colleague Arthur Kennelly, who in 1902 would discover the ionosphere almost simultaneously with Oliver Heaviside of England), ushered in perhaps the happiest period in his life. The offer that year of an even better job at Western University (today the University of Pittsburgh) was too strong a temptation to resist, particularly since it was backed by George Westinghouse, who had a major plant nearby.
At Purdue and Western, Fessenden developed theoretical models of such physical properties as cohesion, electrical conductivity, and tensile strength. On a more practical level, he invented an early form of microfilm when his new house proved too small to contain the papers he wished to save. He also invented a solar storage battery and continued his lightbulb research as a consultant for Westinghouse.
In 1900 the United States Weather Bureau asked him to develop a wireless system to distribute forecasts and relay meteorological data. Any patents he took out would be his property, though the Weather Bureau would retain the right to use them. Tempted by the chance to become a full-time inventor, he accepted the job. The Weather Bureau stationed him at Cobb Island, Maryland, in the Potomac, 60 miles southeast of Washington, where he and his family lived in accommodations that were decidedly spartan. After a year of hard work, Fessenden and his assistants succeeded in transmitting Morse code 50 miles to Arlington, Virginia.
He also pursued the more difficult task of transmitting sound. His first efforts used the same “spark-gap” equipment that he and others were developing for wireless telegraphy. By operating at a higher frequency and improving the sensitivity of the components, Fessenden knew he could transmit continuous, or almost continuous, waves instead of dot-dash signals and reproduce them in the receiver. The result would be a rapidly varying electric current that when heard through telephonic headphones would duplicate the original sound.
On December 23, 1900, as darkness fell and a light snow dusted Cobb Island, Fessenden succeeded in making the first radio transmission of voice ever, sending a signal between two 50-foot-high wooden masts a mile apart. A quarter of a century later, he remembered the sound as “poor in quality, but quite distinct and entirely intelligible,” while conceding that the system was “still a toy” and “only capable of working over short distances.”
The Weather Bureau was pleased with his research in both telegraphy and telephony. His work included careful experiments to determine the course of the radio waves, how far they went, and what happened when a receiver was buried in the ground or put under the sea. In 1901 the bureau moved the apparatus from Cobb Island and built three stations on the hurricane-prone central Atlantic coast at Cape Hatteras and Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and Cape Henry, Virginia.
In hopes of improving his wireless telephony apparatus, Fessenden looked for something to replace the coherer, a detector of electromagnetic waves that was part of all early radio setups. The coherer amounted to a tube of metal filings inserted in a circuit. If no radio waves were present, the filings were randomly oriented and had a fairly high resistance. But when the coherer was acted upon by a wave, the filings lined up and completed the circuit. The coherer worked better than any other wave detector, but it had numerous deficiencies, not the least of which was that it had to be tapped with a vibrator to decohere the filings. The vibrator was in constant motion when signals were being received.
Fessenden replaced the coherer with what he called a barretter. In its earliest form, his barretter was a very thin piece of wire made from a metal whose resistance increased with its temperature. A radio wave induced a current in the wire, heating it and increasing its resistance. This “hot-wire” barretter, which took form during 1901, was no more sensitive than the coherer, but since it lacked the coherer’s on-or-off nature, it could reproduce speech much more efficiently.
To make wireless telephony practical over long distances, however, Fessenden needed a more sensitive detector—that is, one capable of picking up weaker signals. He found an answer by accident in 1902 when he was cleaning some barretters in nitric acid. One wire broke during this process, and he noticed that the broken wire worked much better than the whole ones. The addition of a gap in the wire filled with a conducting liquid turned out to be the improvement he had been looking for. He designed a detector incorporating this principle, with two extremely fine platinum wires whose ends were dipped into a pool of acid.
Though it required frequent maintenance, Fessenden’s “liquid barretter” proved so successful that the inventor Lee de Forest—who a few years later would take the next key step in radio by inventing the Audion vacuum tube—copied the design and sold it under the name of “spade detector.” Fessenden sued de Forest for infringing on his patent and won, though he was able to collect very little because of the chaotic state of de Forest’s finances.
With his liquid barretter in place, Fessenden was soon able to broadcast musical notes between Roanoke Island and Hatteras. As word of his accomplishments spread, various U.S. and Mexican government agencies began placing orders for his apparatus. This commercial activity provoked Willis Moore, the chief of the Weather Bureau, to demand a share in Fessenden’s patents as the price for continued employment. Fessenden refused, and in August 1902 he left the Weather Bureau.
Meanwhile, his Pittsburgh patent attorney, Darwin Wolcott, had put him in touch with Thomas H. Given and Hay Walker, two Pittsburgh millionaires who wanted to back his work. They founded the National Electric Signalling Company ( NESCO ), naming Fessenden president and agreeing to purchase his patents for $300,000 out of the company’s first profits. They advanced him $30,000 to erect, equip, and operate commercial stations based on his inventions. Their investment would grow to more than $500,000 by 1905 and to more than $2,000,000 by 1910.
NESCO ’S first station was at Old Point Comfort, alongside Hampton Roads in Virginia. Others were established outside New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. A plan to put one in Bermuda ran afoul of British regulations.
Despite all its investment in equipment and research, NESCO had no clear business model. For most applications, its service offered no great advantage over wired telegraph or telephone. Even at sea or in remote areas, wireless equipment from other makers usually worked as well. Like the backers of many modern dot-corns, Fessenden, Walker, and Given seem to have believed that users would flock to their technology simply because it was innovative.
All this, of course, assumed that their technology could be made to work, which was far from clear. In 1904 NESCO signed a contract with General Electric to build telegraphy stations connecting GE’s laboratories in Schenectady, New York, and Lynn, Massachusetts. Though Fessenden and a team of technicians struggled mightily, the equipment never went in service, and in mid-1906 NESCO abandoned the effort. Meanwhile Fessenden made vigorous but ineffectual efforts to interest other companies, the Navy, and foreign governments. The situation was not helped by constant conflicts between the inventor and his backers over how the business should be run and who had final authority.
Since domestic sales looked so unpromising, Given and Walker began to think of transatlantic communication—telegraphy first, then perhaps telephony. Marconi had sent telegraph signals across the ocean in 1900, but after the initial demonstration, he had not been able to maintain regular service. With Fessenden’s inventions, NESCO seemed to have a much better shot. Fessenden still had hopes for the domestic market, but he was excited by the daring vision of making a signal leap 3,000 miles. He started by establishing experimental stations at Machrihanish, in Scotland, and at Brant Rock, Massachusetts, a small seaside community near Plymouth.
In July 1905, he moved his family into a cottage at Brant Rock and set about building a 400-foot-high cylindrical tower. The stations at both Brant Rock and Machrihanish were completed by late 1905, and on January 10, 1906, the world’s first successful transatlantic wireless two-way transmissions were made. Night is the best time for sending radio signals, but atmospheric conditions made it impossible to exchange successful transmissions every night, and as the days grew longer, the signals began to fade. Finally, transatlantic communications had to be abandoned, not to be resumed until October.
By that time, Fessenden had taken another great step. For years he had realized that the key to achieving greater clarity in transmission of both telegraphy and telephony lay in the use of higher frequencies. Ordinary wireless signals were sent at 60 cycles per second. These frequencies set up vibrations of their own that made telegraph clicks hard to hear and voices nearly impossible. Fessenden knew he could greatly reduce this problem by increasing the frequency of the signal above the range of human hearing.
The plan required a way to convert audible signals into higher-frequency electromagnetic waves, transmit them, and then convert them back to sound at the receiving end. In attempting to solve this problem, Fessenden came up with a pair of epochal advances, one theoretical and one practical.
The theoretical advance turned out to be the most enduring of Fessenden’s many inventions, the heterodyne principle. This principle is based on the fact that when two vibrations are created at the same time, additional vibrations, known as beats, will be heard at the sum and difference of their frequencies. Not long after he began his experiments with wireless telephony, Fessenden had seen how this principle could be used to transmit sounds.
He would send out a high-frequency signal that was modulated—varied slightly in frequency—by a speaker’s voice. That signal would be mixed with another signal of the same high frequency, except this one would be held constant. The two signals would differ by the amount of the modulation—in other words, by the frequency of the sounds being transmitted. Therefore, the beat frequency, equal to the difference of the two, would reproduce the voice that had modulated the original signal.
The principle—which Fessenden called heterodyne, Greek for “different power”—proved so simple and useful that it is still employed in radio today, countless technological generations after it was invented. In 1905, however, when Fessenden patented the system, it was way ahead of its time. Anyone receiving the signal would need to have expensive and probably finicky apparatus on hand to generate a matching frequency. It would take the addition of de Forest’s vacuum tube, which was integrated with Fessenden’s principle in Edwin H. Armstrong’s “superheterodyne” system of 1912, to make voice transmission simple and reliable enough to become widespread.
Fessenden’s great practical advance would also be important in future radio developments. Since humans can hear up to about 20,000 cycles per second, he wanted to transmit at well above that level. But the best alternators on the market could generate signals only as high as 10,000 cycles. In the fall of 1904, though, Fessenden hired General Electric to leap forward an order of magnitude by building him a 100,000-cycle alternator.
A little-known GE engineer named Ernst Alexanderson came up with an innovative design that included a pair of disks moving in opposite directions, sandwiched around a rotating armature. Throughout 1905 and 1906, Fessenden peppered Alexanderson with suggestions on how the design might be improved. While most of his ideas were quite valuable, Alexanderson could only shake his head at Fessenden’s insistence on using wood for the armature instead of iron.
In August 1906, GE delivered the finished alternator to Brant Rock. Fessenden tested it up to 76,000 cycles, though in actual use he held the frequency down to 50,000 to increase its power output. (The advantages of higher frequencies were reduced interference and the ability to use a smaller antenna.) By late 1906 his voice-transmission system was ready for demonstration.
On December 21, reporters listened as Fessenden established voice transmission with a fishing boat at sea. Then, on Christmas Eve, Fessenden made history’s first public radio broadcast. Intended for ships at sea, it consisted of the playing of a recording of a largo by Handel; Fessenden himself performing “O, Holy Night” on the violin and singing the last verse; a Bible reading; and finally Fessenden wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. “I had not picked myself to sing,” the inventor later explained, “but on Christmas Eve I could not get any of the others to either talk, sing or play, and consequently had to do it myself.” Ships equipped with Fessenden’s apparatus had been told several days earlier to listen for the broadcast. It was remarkably successful, being picked up as far away as the West Indies.
Impressive as the broadcast was, it could have been even more so. One day in November a letter had arrived at Brant Rock from one of the operators at Machrihanish. He said he had heard the voice of a NESCO engineer as he held a conversation between Brant Rock and Plymouth. The operator had transcribed the words he had heard, and Fessenden was able to confirm them. No long after, another Brant Rock-Plymouth transmission was overheard in Scotland. Fessenden was preparing a schedule of tests to follow up on these unintentional longdistance transmissions when disaster struck.
Early in December, a fierce storm tore down the Machrihanish tower. NESCO did not have the funds to rebuild it immediately. Soon there came another blow, as Marconi began providing transatlantic wireless telegraph communication on a regular basis. That installation was indeed a large step forward, but if NESCO had established transatlantic voice transmission ahead of Marconi’s dots and dashes, it might well have stolen much of the Italian inventor’s thunder.
The 1906 broadcasts turned out to be the high point of NESCO ’s ill-fated existence. No one, of course, saw broadcasting as a paying proposition at the time. The demonstration was intended merely to publicize NESCO ’S capabilities. Selling pointto-point communication remained the company’s goal. Unfortunately, an economic panic the next year hurt its prospects as clashes between Fessenden and his backers continued. The inventor resented the financiers’ efforts to meddle in his work, while Given and Walker grew increasingly anxious for a return as their investment kept mounting.
NESCO ’S fortunes picked up briefly after the company hired its first salesman in 1908. Laying aside voice transmission, Fessenden concentrated on improving spark-gap telegraphy, using his high-frequency method, which overcame static much better than low-frequency apparatus. The company made some sales to the Navy and the United Fruit Company, which needed a way to connect its extensive operations on land and sea in poorly developed Central America.
Still, NESCO ’s equipment was too expensive for most potential customers, and in any case there was too little money in selling it directly to users. Instead, Given and Walker wanted to build a communications company, as Marconi had done. So did Fessenden, but he wanted it to be done through a Canadian subsidiary that he would run and Given and Walker would finance.
Exasperated by Fessenden’s attempts to dictate business strategy, the partners tried to remove him from the company presidency, ostensibly so he could concentrate on research and development. He resisted, and the quarrel culminated in their attempt to seize his company files five days after Christmas in 1910, when he was in Pittsburgh. When he finally heard what had happened, later that day, he managed to obtain the immediate services of a Massachusetts attorney while Helen got the sheriff to place the remaining files under attachment.
Fessenden returned to Brant Rock and carried on for a few more weeks, but the family left there on January 22, 1911, uncertain about the future, short of money (Ken had to leave Yale), and tied up with handling what Helen later called “the weary round of actions with which the law crucifies those who have to seek its help.” It was the beginning of a long series of legal battles that would afflict Fessenden for most of the rest of his life.
In May 1912, he won a judgment of $400,000 from what remained of NESCO , but the company went into receivership before he could collect, and the judgment was reversed on appeal. ( NESCO , whose assets by this point consisted almost entirely of Fessenden’s patents, would eventually be purchased by Westinghouse in 1920 and then by RCA in 1921, prompting Fessenden to sue yet again.)
Leaving Brant Rock did not impair his creativity, but he made no more major contributions to radio. In 1911 and 1912 he worked on a number of ideas, the most important being a turboelectric drive for ships that the U.S. Navy eventually adopted. After a year and a half of financial struggle, he had a bit of luck in August 1912, when he met an old friend named Harold Fay in a chance encounter at Boston’s South Station. Fay was an executive with the Submarine Signalling Company, of Boston, and he invited Fessenden to come learn about the communications work his company was doing. Fessenden went the next morning and was soon working there.
Within three months he had invented an array of underwater sending and receiving apparatus, including, most notably, an oscillator that, Fay later said, “revolutionized the art of submarine signalling, doubling and trebling the range at which it was possible to send sound signals through water.” The device consisted of a copper cylinder that was subjected to a constant magnetic field and oscillating electric currents induced with a solenoid. The interaction of these forces produced longitudinal vibrations in the tube that were transmitted to the water by means of a diaphragm. The patent on this device belonged to the company, but Fessenden was able to keep for himself other patents that followed.
Fessenden developed further uses for the oscillator in iceberg detection (a major concern after the Titanic sinking of 1912) and by incorporating it in a fathometer, which read signals bounced off the ocean floor to measure water depth. This device also found application in geophysical mapping. The Submarine Signalling Company bought the fathometer patent in 1921 for $50,000 spread over 10 years, enough to enable the inventor to hire the best lawyers he could to pursue his claims against NESCO . Late in life, he ranked his marine inventions equally with those in radio as his most important technological accomplishments. So did his son, who wrote in Fessenden’s epitaph, “By his genius distant lands converse and men sail unafraid upon the deep.”
During World War I, the tireless inventor inundated the British War Office with ideas, among them the concept of massing airplanes (which would be built in Canada using a lightweight engine of Fessenden’s design) to bomb enemy lines of communications; ways to locate concealed artillery by sound; submarine finders and navigational aids; and schemes for improving rifle and machine-gun sights. Following the armistice, he devised a primitive form of television he called the pheroscope. In 1925 he said this invention was “capable of putting wireless vision into every house in the United States.”
After his stressful research activities of World War I, he became plagued with heart and circulatory problems. His continuing legal troubles, as well as a conviction that his best work had been stolen and a general hostility toward large corporations, contributed further to wearing down the pioneering inventor. In 1925, at the age of 59, he suffered a slight stroke, and from then on the infirmities multiplied.
During the 1920s, as radio exploded in popularity and a new generation of inventors took on the task of improving it, the world’s first broadcaster turned away from the laboratory and devoted himself to research in ancient history. The products of these investigations were published privately under such titles as The Deluged Civilization of the Caucasus and Finding a Key to the Sacred Writings of the Egyptians .
He also spent much time defending his own place in history and decrying rival claimants to the paternity of radio. According to another historian, “When what he was most proud of in himself was not truly valued by others, but was, he believed, squandered for some fleeting and insignificant gain, he became irreparably hardened and cynical.” His wife may have been even more affected. Her 1940 biography of Fessenden is in a sense a love story, cataloguing inventions stolen from and injustices visited upon an innocent and long-suffering genius.
The legal suits that had consumed much of his life finally came to an end on March 31, 1928, in an out-of-court settlement in which he was said to have won $2.5 million from RCA. This enabled the Fessendens to purchase property in Bermuda, and there Reginald Fessenden’s heart gave out, on July 22,1932.
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 wrote. “Before invention, man lived on fruits and nuts and pine cones and slept in caves. … Invention must still go on for it is necessary that we should completely control our circumstances. It is not sufficient that there should [only] be organization capable of providing food and shelter for all and organization to effect its proper distribution.” Most telling, perhaps, was his definition of an inventor: “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 had spent more time on the present day, few inventors of any era have been more farsighted than Fessenden. On the heels of a century that saw wireless progress from the dots and dashes of Morse code to the O’s and 1’s of the Internet, the magnitude of his achievements becomes more apparent every day.