At the turn of the twentieth century, America's airwaves were a virgin communication wilderness, barely touched by Guglielmo Marconi's recent discovery, the wireless. The transmission of voices through the North American airwaves began on Christmas Eve, 1906, when Reginald Aubrey Fessenden fired up his experimental radio station at Brant Rock, Massachusetts.

Wireless operators on ships off the East Coast, listening on their headsets for the short electronic burst of messages in Morse code, were astounded to hear a woman singing. They called in ship's officers and other technicians to experience this wireless miracle and thrilled to the sound of a violin soloist performing "O, Holy Night." With this successful experimental broadcast of his own violin performance, Fessenden displayed one of the most important capabilities of Marconi's invention: the capability of sending the human voice out through the heavenly ether.

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (October 6, 1866 July 22, 1932) was a Canadian-born inventor, best known for his work in early radio. Three of his most notable achievements include: the first audio transmission by radio (1900), the first two-way transatlantic radio transmission (1906), and the first radio broadcast of entertainment and music (1906).

In the late 1890s, reports began to appear about the success Guglielmo Marconi was having in developing a practical radio transmitting and receiving system. Fessenden began limited radio experimentation, and soon came to the conclusion that he could develop a far more efficient system than the spark-gap transmitter and coherer-receiver combination which had been championed by Oliver Lodge and Marconi.

In 1900 Fessenden left the University of Pittsburgh to work for the United States Weather Bureau, with the objective of proving the practicality of using a network of coastal radio stations to transmit weather information, thus avoiding the need to use the existing telegraph lines. The contract gave the Weather Bureau access to any devices Fessenden invented, but he would retain ownership of his inventions.

Fessenden quickly made major advances, especially in receiver design, as he worked to develop audio reception of signals. His initial success came from a barretter detector, which was followed by the electrolytic detector that consisted of a fine wire dipped in nitric acid, and for the next few years this later device would set the standard for sensitivity in radio reception. As his work progressed, Fessenden also evolved the heterodyne principle, which combined two signals to produce a third audible tone. However, heterodyne reception was not fully practical for a decade after it was invented, since it required a means for producing a stable local signal, which awaited the development of the oscillating vacuum-tube.

The initial work took place at Cobb Island, Maryland, located on the Potomac River about 50 miles downstream from Washington, DC. While there, Fessenden, experimenting with a high-frequency spark transmitter, successfully transmitted speech over a distance of about one mile, which appears to have been the first audio radio transmission. At this time the sound quality was too distorted to be commercially practical, but as a test this did show that with further technical refinements it would become possible to transmit audio using radio signals.

It sometimes happens, even in science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man. He fought bitterly and alone to prove his theories. It was he who insisted, against the stormy protests of every recognized authority, that what we now call radio was worked by continuous waves sent through the ether by the transmitting station as light waves are sent out by a flame. Marconi and others insisted that what was happening was a whiplash effect. The progress of radio was retarded a decade by this error. The whiplash theory passed gradually from the minds of men and was replaced by the continuous wave one with all too little credit to the man who had been right.


First Voices Transmitted by Radio in 1900


Experimental radio station at Brant Rock, Massachusetts in 1910.

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden