This Week in History


The Unsung Hero

For the week of Monday December 20, 2004

On December 23, 1900, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden's voice was the first ever to be broadcast over radio. Fessenden was a brilliant inventor. His inventions included sonar, the pager, the tracer bullet, and the automatic garage-door opener, but his greatest achievement was the development of speech transmission through electromagnetic waves.

Reginald A. Fessenden (Portrait)
© Courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives / N.60.2.13

Fessenden was born in Quebec in 1866, but he spent most of his youth in Ontario. He excelled in mathematics and sciences from an early age. At 14, he was awarded a mathematics mastership to Bishop's College. He became a teacher in Bermuda, but then decided to devote more time to his inventions.

Fessenden and his assistant, Alfred Thiessen, performed experiments with electromagnetic waves. They tested their theories on Cobb Island, near Washington, D.C. Thiessen stood a mile (1.6 km) away while Fessenden asked with a microphone, "Is it snowing where you are Mr. Thiessen? If so, telegraph back and let me know." Thiessen's reply confirmed that it was snowing, and marked the first time that intelligible speech was transmitted by way of electromagnetic waves. This ground-breaking discovery contributed to the development of modern radio.

View inside Brant Rock Station (Mass.) showing Fessenden and others at operating table, 1906.
© Courtesy of North Carolina State Archives / N.77.10.40

Fessenden continued his wireless experiments with the financial assistance of millionaires Walker and Given, who agreed to form the National Electric Signaling Company, provided that Fessenden agreed to credit his inventions to the company. Soon, wireless stations were being constructed in various American cities. Fessenden and his team were the first to transmit speech across the Atlantic, from the United States to Scotland. On Christmas Eve 1906, Fessenden contacted all ships at sea through Morse code, explaining that a special message would follow. Fessenden spoke to the people on the ships and played a recording of Handel's Largo. The people who witnessed this were stunned to hear a human voice coming from earphones that had previously transmitted only Morse code.

After the Second World War, Fessenden retired to Bermuda and died there in 1932. On his grave are the Egyptian Hieroglyphs, "I am yesterday and I know tomorrow," an accurate description of an exceptional man who never received the credit he deserved during his lifetime, but whose inventions have continued to live on after his death. Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was designated as a person of National Historic Significance in 1943.

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