March 3, 2017

FTV: R.A.Fessenden


    In 1911, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was fired from his own company.  The Canadian born, largely self-educated scientist had finally exhausted the patience of his Pittsburgh based investors who had bankrolled his experiments in radiotelephony.  The National Electrical Signalling Company (NESCO) had succeeded in demonstrating the concept of wireless radio broadcasting in December of 1906, but the return on their investment wasn’t meeting the expectations of the money men.  All great achievements require someone to plant the seeds.  When he was released in 1911, financing Fessenden’s company had chewed through an amount of seed money that would amount to more than $40 million in today’s dollars.

    Shortly before his death in 1944, Fessenden’s son R.K. Fessenden donated a large collection of his father’s papers to the State Archives of North Carolina.  Frequent RADIO WORLD magazine contributor James E. O’Neal has done exhaustive research looking for evidence that the first wireless broadcast took place on December 21, 10\906 and not the more commonly reported December 24, 1906.  While Fessenden is certainly not a name widely known outside of folks interested in the history of radio, it is certainly a name we should not forget.  Everyone knows the Wright Brothers, but their story is incomplete without knowing how their battles with fellow aviation pioneer Glenn Curtis laid the foundations of modern aviation.  The same can be said about Fessenden and the early days of radio.

    Radio after Marconi was an emerging technology but the NESCO backers weren’t investing in the project for the pure science of it.  As a businessman, Hay Walker, Jr. and Thomas H. Given recognized Fessenden’s potential to develop the new wireless (radio) technology but, as correspondence between them shows, were unhappy with his progress.  This correspondence also gives us a peek at their motivation (in financing Fessenden’s work).  As Walker stated in a letter dated April 27, 1906, “To really get over [the top] is our aim and to be the first on record that is witnessed by people who are in every way disinterested would, as you know, be worth everything to us . . . the man or company first ever publicly have [sic] a great startin a business way, and that part now is of importance to us.”  To underscore his point, Walker added,  “Art is long but time is fleeting.”

    Further correspondence throughout the remainder of 1906 hinted that they might reduce his funding and paid staff.  For his part, Fessenden told his staff at his research and broadcast test stations in Brant Rock and Plymouth, Massachusetts and Machrihanish, Scotland that, “I want to avoid doing this if we possibly can because if we shut down even for a month, it will make a great deal of trouble starting up again . . . We can probably form a company soon and Mr. Westinghouse and some other me whom I have seen will come into it.”

    Fessenden was attempting to manage multiple sites, mollify his backers, and prepare for a public demonstration.  He was testing his backers patience and by September 24, 1906, they telegraphed their displeasure:  “Wire us what you have actually accomplished on [radio] telephone.  No prediction.”  This was in reference to a separate over-water radiotelephone demonstration that soon disappeared completely as Fessenden tried to get his other broadcast demonstration together.

    Walker and Thompson continues to press Fessenden throughout October and November.  Fessenden had oversight of Machrihanish Station removed from his duties when he received a wire in early December that informed him the 420 foot smokestack/tower being used there (as an antenna) had toppled over in high winds.  He then began the process of inviting the parties who would be necessary to witness the test broadcast between Brant Rock and Plymouth nine miles away.

    The demonstration of December 21, 1906 was reported to Walker et al the next day:  “The test passed off successfully.  With our own transmitter [carbon microphone] an Associated Press man at Plymouth got every word except one which the Associated Press man at Brant Rock spoke.”  When asked about this demonstration in 1932, Fessenden had replied, “If you mean broadcasting the transmission of speech, music, and singing to other stations . . . at the exhibition (on December 21, 1906) . . .this would be a broadcast.”  Fessenden himself repeated the demonstration by broadcasting his voice and music on December 24, 1906,but anecdotal accounts about this broadcast aside, the account from Fessenden himself (about December 21) appears to set the actual date of the first true radio broadcast to the December 21, 1906 date.

    Fessenden may have been planting the seeds, but it took another decade for broadcast radio to become a widely accepted reality.  He had a vision of what was to come as he wrote in 1906: “[Radio] Telephony is admirably adapted for transmitting news, stock quotations, music, race reports, etc simultaneously over a city, on account of the facts that no wires are needed and a single apparatus can distribute to ten thousand subscribers as easily as to a few.  It is proposed to erect stations for this purpose in the large cities here and abroad.”

    Would Fessenden recognize his vision 110 years later?  I think that he would.

Top Piece Video:  Queen’s Radio Ga Ga seemed to fit the era of Fessenden and the birth of radio.