Fessenden Pioneers Radio Broadcasting

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden revolutionized radio broadcasting by transmitting music and voice for the first time.

Summary of Event

The first person in the United States to conduct major experiments with wireless radio was Reginald Aubrey Fessenden. This transplanted Canadian was a skilled, self-made scientist, but unlike Thomas Alva Edison, Edison, Thomas Alva he lacked the business acumen to gain wealth and full credit for his pathbreaking work. Guglielmo Marconi is most often remembered as the person who invented wireless (as opposed to telegraphic) radio, but there is a fallacy in the Marconi claim. The contributions of Marconi and Fessenden differ significantly. Marconi limited himself to experiments with radio telegraphy; that is, he sought to send messages through the air in the form in which they had been sent by wire up to that point—as dots and dashes. Fessenden sought to perfect radiotelephony: voice communication by wireless. Fessenden pioneered the essential precursor to modern radio broadcasting. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he spent much time and energy publicizing his experiments, thus promoting interest in the new science of radio broadcasting. Radio;broadcasting development
[kw]Fessenden Pioneers Radio Broadcasting (Dec. 24, 1906)
[kw]Radio Broadcasting, Fessenden Pioneers (Dec. 24, 1906)
[kw]Broadcasting, Fessenden Pioneers Radio (Dec. 24, 1906)
Radio;broadcasting development
[g]United States;Dec. 24, 1906: Fessenden Pioneers Radio Broadcasting[01750]
[c]Science and technology;Dec. 24, 1906: Fessenden Pioneers Radio Broadcasting[01750]
[c]Communications and media;Dec. 24, 1906: Fessenden Pioneers Radio Broadcasting[01750]
[c]Radio and television;Dec. 24, 1906: Fessenden Pioneers Radio Broadcasting[01750]
[c]Inventions;Dec. 24, 1906: Fessenden Pioneers Radio Broadcasting[01750]
Fessenden, Reginald Aubrey
Marconi, Guglielmo

Fessenden had a varied background. He worked with Edison as well as at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and the U.S. Weather Bureau of the Department of Agriculture. The three years he spent working with Edison shaped his values about the process of invention. He sought to make a name for himself, aspiring to become as famous for the miracle of radio as Edison had become for the phonograph, the electric lightbulb, and the motion picture.

Fessenden began his career as an inventor while working for the Weather Bureau. He set out to invent and innovate a system by which to disseminate weather forecasts to users on land and on the sea—by radio. Fessenden believed that his technique of continuous waves in the radio frequency range would provide the power necessary to carry Morse telegraph code yet be effective enough to handle voice communication. He turned out to be correct. He conducted experiments as early as 1900 at Rock Point, Maryland, about fifty miles (eighty kilometers) south of Washington, D.C., and registered his first patent in the area of radio research in 1902.

In 1900, Fessenden asked the General Electric Corporation to produce a high-speed generator of alternating currents—or alternator—to serve as the basis of his radio transmitter. This proved to be the first major request for wireless radio apparatus useful for projecting voices and music. It took the engineers three years to design and deliver the alternator. Meanwhile, Fessenden worked on an improved radio receiver. To fund his experiments, Fessenden piqued the interest of financial backers, who put up one million dollars to create the National Electric Signaling Company National Electric Signaling Company in 1902.

He and a small group of handpicked scientists worked at Brant Rock on the Massachusetts coast south of Boston. Fessenden followed the methods he had learned under Edison, creating a small, crude shop and learning by trial and error. His intent was to work outside the corporate system and then seek fame and glory based on his own work, not something owned by a corporate patron.

Fessenden’s moment of glory came on December 24, 1906, with the first announced broadcast of his radiotelephone (this occasion followed a private demonstration a month earlier). Using an ordinary telephone microphone and his special alternator to generate the necessary radio energy, Fessenden alerted ships up and down the Atlantic coast with his wireless telegraph and arranged for newspaper reporters to listen in from New York City. In his “broadcast” from Brant Rock, Fessenden made himself the center of the show. He played the violin, sang, and read from the Bible. Anticipating what would become standard practice fifty years later, Fessenden also transmitted the sounds of a phonograph recording. He ended this first broadcast by wishing those listening a merry Christmas. A similar, equally well publicized demonstration was presented on December 31.

If one considers the audience of telegraph operators on the ships of the day and newspapers as a means of mass dissemination, then this public display in late 1906 represented the first radio broadcast. It was a scheduled event, and listening required no special knowledge of code because the sounds consisted of voice and music. Newspaper reporters wrote about shipboard radio operators “hearing” the voices of angels rather than the usual static and Morse code.

Although Fessenden was skilled at drawing attention to his inventions and must be credited, among others, as one of the engineering founders of modern principles of radio, he was far less skilled than others at making money with his experiments, and thus his long-term impact was limited. The National Electric Signaling Company had a fine beginning, and for a time it was a supplier to the boats of United Fruit Company. The financial setback of the Panic of 1907, however, wiped out an opportunity to sell the Fessenden patents—at a vast profit—to a corporate giant, the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. Fessenden found himself deserted by his original backers. As had been the case with Edison, backers loved the promise of his experiments but avoided being associated with failure.

Fessenden was not a rich man; once his financial support dried up, he was isolated. Thereafter, his career went downhill. Much like Edison, in the twentieth century Fessenden spent more and more of his time in court trying to protect his inventions. His laboratory career was over. Eventually, this led to a series of extended lawsuits and, in the end, the sale of patents to Westinghouse Electric Corporation following World War I. Fessenden’s experience again proved that simple invention (and skilled promotion) was not enough. One also had to be an innovator, able to develop a product that could sell in the economic marketplace and then display the skills to market it. Fessenden’s invention, spectacular in its day, required massive apparatus that was too cumbersome to use permanently. Thus, along with a handful of others, Fessenden had to be satisfied with knowing he had helped to spawn the modern age of radio and television communications.


In many countries, several scientists and inventors claimed to be the first radio broadcaster. How can one know which was the first radio broadcast? As an industry, radio broadcasting as it is currently known did not commence until late in 1920, when the Westinghouse Electric Corporation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, established its station, KDKA. Many experiments and demonstrations preceded KDKA. Of these experiments, Fessenden’s broadcast of December 24, 1906, to ships along the Atlantic seaboard ranks as a pioneering effort. Fessenden’s transmission was intended for the audience of the day. Had more receiving equipment been available and in place, a massive audience could have heard Fessenden’s voice and music.

Fessenden had the correct idea, even to the point of playing a crude phonograph record. Yet neither Fessenden nor Marconi, nor any of their many other rivals, was able to establish a regular series of broadcasts on a permanent basis. Their “stations” were experimental and promotional. At best, they performed a series of demonstrations. Fessenden, however, became better known than most through his skills in generating favorable publicity, and his equipment was more powerful. Fessenden was what one might consider today an amateur radio operator. Indeed, in the years immediately preceding World War I, the creation of a growing community of amateur radio hobbyists across the nation must be judged the principal effect of the Fessenden experiments. These early radio enthusiasts rarely ventured into voice or musical broadcasting; rather, they continued to use point-to-point communication through Morse code. Nevertheless, this development marked the beginning of modern mass communication.

It took the needs of World War I to encourage broader use of wireless radio based on Fessenden’s experiments. Suddenly, the ability to communicate from ship to ship or from ship to shore became a matter of life or death. Generating publicity was no longer necessary. Governments fought over crucial patent rights. The Radio Corporation of America pooled vital knowledge. Ultimately, RCA came to acquire the Fessenden patents. Radio broadcasting commenced, and the radio industry, with its multiple uses for mass communication, was off and running. Pioneers such as Fessenden were left for the history books.

Fessenden’s is another case of an independent inventor who tried to go against the modern science trend toward confining invention within corporate laboratories. One could not work outside the given institutional relations and hope to succeed. Fessenden proved that Edison ended an era, the age of the inventor as lone wolf. Radio;broadcasting development

Further Reading

  • Aitken, Hugh G. J. The Continuous Wave: Technology and American Radio, 1900-1932. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. The author, a longtime student of radio history, analyzes the technical shifts that led to the configuration of modern radio. A highly specialized and difficult work, but the standard for technological history.
  • Barnouw, Erik. A Tower in Babel. Vol. 1 in A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. Barnouw’s work stands as the standard multivolume history of broadcasting in the United States. He covers the coming of radio in this first volume.
  • Douglas, Susan J. Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899-1922. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. A richly illustrated account of an important era in media history. Identifies the use of newspaper and magazine publicity as crucial for the cultural evolution of radio, as the press legitimated the new technology.
  • Fessenden, Helen M. Fessenden: Builder of Tomorrow. 1940. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1974. The inventor/promoter’s wife argues after his death for his proper role in the creation of modern radio. Includes index.
  • Head, Sydney W., Thomas Spann, and Michael A. McGregor. Broadcasting in America: A Survey of Electronic Media. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. The standard introduction to the institutions of radio and television in the United States. Begins with an analysis of the invention of wireless radio broadcasting.
  • Lichty, Lawrence W., and Malachi C. Topping. American Broadcasting: A Source Book on the History of Radio and Television. New York: Hastings House, 1975. Contains articles and documents concerning the history of radio and television. Treats the invention of radio transmission in some detail.
  • Sterling, Christopher H., and John Michael Kittross. Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. 3d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. The standard one-volume history of radio and television in the United States. A good beginning point.

First Transatlantic Telegraphic Radio Transmission

First Demonstration of Transatlantic Radiotelephony

Principles of Shortwave Radio Communication Are Discovered

Radio Develops as a Mass Broadcast Medium

Radio Broadcasting Begins

National Broadcasting Company Is Founded