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Reginald Fessenden: Father of Modern Radio

2022 inductee to the National Inventors Hall of Fame is known for his work developing AM broadcasting

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

Established in September 2011 by UNESCO, World Radio Day celebrates the profound influence of radio technology in spreading diverse, democratic discourse. Because of the medium’s relatively low cost and massive reach, it remains one of the most accessible forms of communication.

At the National Inventors Hall of Fame, we have the privilege of honoring some of the world’s greatest inventors, several of whom have played a significant role in developing radio technology. In recognition of the 10th anniversary of World Radio Day, we invite you to learn about NIHF Inductee Reginald Fessenden, who is known not only for discovering amplitude modulation (AM) radio, but also for conducting the first radio broadcast.

A Varied Background
Fessenden was born on Oct. 6, 1866, in what is now Québec. The son of an Anglican minister, he studied at Trinity College School and later at Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, Quebec.

In addition to teaching, he landed a job as principal of the Whitney Institute, a newly formed school in Bermuda. It was there that he met his wife, Helen Trott, and became interested in the field of science.

[Read More from Radio World About Fessenden]

Fessenden later moved to New York City to work for fellow NIHF Inductee Thomas Edison. While he began as a tester at the Edison Machine Works in 1886, he impressed Edison so much that just one year later, he was promoted to the position of chief chemist at the newly built Edison Laboratory in West Orange, N.J.

Unfortunately, Edison’s companies ran into financial hardship during the late 1880s, and Fessenden was let go. Undeterred, he continued working in the field of electrical engineering and eventually returned to the classroom to teach at the University of Pittsburgh.

A History-Making Broadcast
In 1900, Fessenden left academia for a job at the U.S. Weather Bureau, where he was challenged to adapt radiotelegraphy for use in weather forecasting. Frustrated with the cumbersome and slow process of decoding radiotelegraphy messages, he began exploring ways to transmit voice. Through his experiments, Fessenden realized that combining radio waves with a locally generated wave of a slightly different frequency created an audible frequency that could transmit the human voice.

He continued developing this idea, which he named the heterodyne principle, and on Christmas Eve 1906 he used his technology to successfully transmit human voices from Brant Rock Station, Mass., to ships off the Atlantic coast. The ships at sea enjoyed a broadcast that included Fessenden playing “O Holy Night” on his violin and reading a passage from the Bible.

To ensure the broadcast worked, he requested sailors send him a letter describing what they had heard on the other end. Their responses confirmed that the transmission was a success.

However, it would take another 10 years for this modern idea of radio transmission to become commercially viable with the availability of electron tubes (also known as vacuum tubes) to serve as the oscillator.

Fessenden held over 200 U.S. patents, and thanks to his celebrated 1906 Christmas Eve broadcast, he is considered by many to be the father of modern radio.

Discover More World-Changing Hall of Famers
To learn about more NIHF Inductees whose innovations have helped improve the lives of people around the world, we invite you to visit our blog.

The author is a content strategist at the National Inventors Hall of Fame based in North Canton, Ohio.