Reginald Fessenden and the First Radio Broadcast

Reginald Fessenden. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Reginald Fessenden was an electrician, chemist, and employee of Thomas Edison who is responsible for transmitting the first voice message over the radio in 1900 and the first radio broadcast in 1906.

Early Life and Work With Edison

Fessenden was born on October 6, 1866, in what is now Quebec, Canada. After he accepted a position serving as principal of a school in Bermuda, Fessenden developed an interest in science. He soon left teaching to pursue a science career in New York City, seeking employment with Thomas Edison.

Fessenden initially had trouble attaining employment with Edison. In his first letter seeking employment, he admitted that he "[Did] not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick," leading Edison to initially reject him -- though he would eventually get hired as a tester for Edison Machine Works in 1886, and for Edison Laboratory in New Jersey in 1887 (the successor to Edison's famous Menlo Park lab). His work led him to encounter inventor Thomas Edison face to face.

Although Fessenden had been trained as an electrician, Edison wanted to make him a chemist. Fessenden protested the suggestion to which Edison replied, "I have had a lot of chemists... but none of them can get results." Fessenden turned out to be an excellent chemist, working with insulation for electrical wires. Fessenden was laid off from Edison Laboratory three years after he began working there, after which he worked for Westinghouse Electric Company In Newark, N.J., and the Stanley Company in Massachusetts.

Inventions and Radio Transmission

Before he left Edison, though, Fessenden managed to patent several inventions of his own, including patents for telephony and telegraphy. Specifically, according to the National Capitol Commission of Canada, “he invented the modulation of radio waves, the ‘heterodyne principle,’ which allowed the reception and transmission on the same aerial without interference.“

In the late 1800s, people communicated by radio through Morse code, with radio operators decoding the communication form into messages. Fessenden put an end to this laborious manner of radio communication in 1900 when he transmitted the first voice message in history. Six years afterward, Fessenden improved his technique when on Christmas Eve 1906, ships off the Atlantic coast used his equipment to broadcast the first trans-Atlantic voice and music transmission. By the 1920s, ships of all kinds relied upon Fessenden's "depth sounding" technology. 

Fessenden held more than 500 patents and won Scientific American's Gold Medal in 1929 for the fathometer, an instrument that could measure the depth of water beneath a ship's keel. And while Thomas Edison is known for inventing the first commercial light bulb, Fessenden improved upon that creation, asserts the National Capitol Commission of Canada. 

He moved with his wife back to her native Bermuda after leaving the radio business due to differences with partners and lengthy lawsuits over his inventions. Fessenden died in Hamilton, Bermuda, in 1932.

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Bellis, Mary. "Reginald Fessenden and the First Radio Broadcast." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). Reginald Fessenden and the First Radio Broadcast. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Reginald Fessenden and the First Radio Broadcast." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).