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World's First Radio Broadcast

By Edmund J.O. Eberdt
Published in The Cat's Whisker, v.6-n.4, December 1976

Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Six marks the 70th anniversary of the world's first radio broadcast, an event which should not be passed by unnoticed in Canada. Only too few people know or remember, that Radio as we know it today was invented by Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian born in South Bolton Quebec, in 1866. With over 500 patents to his name, Fessenden must be considered as one of Canada's most distinguished scientists and inventor. During his lifetime he received may awards for his outstanding contributions to science.

Fessenden studied and taught at Bishops College in Lennoxville Que. He had been professor of Engineering at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana and at Western University in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. In 1887 he worked for Thomas Edison and in 1891 for George Westinghouse in Pittsburg. During his work, Fessenden became extremely interested in the field of wireless communication. In 1902 he convinced-two American financiers, Given and Walker, to set up with him the National Electric Signalling Company in Philadelphia. Here he completed the development of his own wireless system which was different from Marconi's and others. In 1905 he designed and built two powerful radio stations for transatlantic communications; one in Brant Rock, Mass., the other in Machrihanish, Scotland. Already in 1906 he was able to send wireless messages across the Atlantic in both directions, which had not been done before. In order to employ his inventions in Canada he founded the the Fessenden Wireless Telegraph Comoany of Canada in Montreal. Unfortunately the Canadian Government had entered already heavy commitments to Marconi which resulted in Fessenden's failure in Canada. (Contrast this treatment by the government with that given Marconi (Across the Atlantic 1901-1976). - Editor).

In order to promote his American enterprise, Fessenden decided to offer a great surprise to the many wireless stations on ships which had been equipped with Fessenden Wireless Systems. Instead of telegraphic Morse Code they would hear music and spoken words. Only his wireless system was able to transmit these over the ether. On Christmas Eve, 1906, Fessenden sent from his station at Brant Rock the usual "CQ" calling all wireless stations. Then he transmitted a piece of music played by a phonograph record. After singing a Christmas song together with his co-workers at the station he gave a short speech and asked the listeners to report the reception of his broadcast back,to him. Within a short time many replies were received from stations as far as 300 miles. The publicity which this first radio broadcast received naturally inspired many competitors to find new ways of improving their own wireless systems.

In 1912 after the "Titanic Disaster", the Submarine Signal Co. of Boston asked Fessenden to work for them and design wireless equipment for submarine use, which he did. During WWI Fessenden offered his service and the free use of all his patents to the Minister of Militia in Ottawa. During his assignments he made many new inventions in the field of radio. The growing competition in this field after the war involved Fessenden in endless patent litigations, which resulted in a deterioration of his health. Only in 1928 did Fessenden receive several hundred thousand dollars compensation for some of his patents. Later on his radio patents were acquired by RCA from the National Electric Signallling Company for $3 million. Fessenden spent the rest of his life in Bermuda where he died in 1932.

His papers were held since 1944 at the North Carolina Archives in Raleigh, which gave them to the Public Archives of Canada in 1974. Here they are now available to Canadian historians on microfilm.

Fessenden has received honorable recognition for his work by many American institutions. The US Navy has named a US Destroyer Escort Vessel after Fessenden. A Memorial plaque has been placed at the site of the first radio broadcast in Brant Rock, Mass. and a Memorial Park has been established in his honour at Manteo, North Carolina. It is hoped that the Canadian Government will do its part one day in giving Reginald Fessenden an honourable place to his memory in Canada.