Commentary: Was Fessenden's 1906 Broadcast Accidental?

This December Brings a Big Radio Anniversary. But Why Did Fessenden Miss the Point?

One-hundred-and-three years ago, Professor Reginald Audrey Fessenden, an educator, engineer and inventor, began construction of a radio station in Brant Rock, Mass. He designed that station to transmit voice communications and arranged to have special receivers installed on a number of ships.

On Christmas Eve, 1906, he played phonograph records and performed on his violin in front of a microphone. The audience at sea was astonished. Fessenden was delighted. He had demonstrated the feasibility of a wireless telephone.

Fessenden never pursued the concept of broadcasting, and at the time probably never envisioned there could ever be such a thing.

Serendipity

Most historians view the event we celebrate this year - the first broadcast of words and music actually received by a mass audience - as a mere spur in the history of communications technology. Today in 2006, it seems automatic that the technical ability to transmit sound without wires must certainly lead to the practice we know as "broadcasting."

But Fessenden did not found a broadcasting industry. His experiments with wireless voice communication did not even seem to stir imaginations in that direction. And despite Helen Fessenden's diary entry about her husband's "broadcast," there is the possibility that Fessenden did not mean to broadcast at all; that the multiplicity of receivers he had installed in ships were there, not to create an audience, but to ensure he could document at least one reception report.

It fell to Lee De Forest, one of Fessenden's competitors, to demonstrate nearly a decade later that radio was, in fact, a magic carpet that would bring the world into everyone's home.

Why did Fessenden miss the point so completely? Probably it was the scientific mindset at the time. The telephone was still a new device; a tidy little miracle that transformed Bell and his engineers into legends.

Communications was a point-to-point business and Fessenden's financiers naively set their sights on Bell's customers. But it was also the tenor of the times.

There are people alive today who remember the early years of the twentieth century. Ask about mass communication at that time and they will tell you about newspapers. The concept of instantaneous broadcasting simply did not exist then.

The idea that one could sit at home and leisurely peruse that world of songs, stories and news spewed from a speaker on the table was unknown. In fact, in 1906, the concept of leisure existed in only a limited number of homes.

So in this centennial year we honor Fessenden and his first broadcast because of what he did, not because he became rich by doing it. The first astronaut on a distant planet may leave it without ever mining the gold. He may never even see the glimmer. And though others may find the fortunes, he will be secure in history as the one who went there first.

History, at least the history of broadcasting, must certainly remember Professor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden. On Christmas Eve, 1906, he went there first. And proved it could be done.


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