Reginald Fessenden, the first voice of radio

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Reginald Fessenden not only invented a way to transmit the human voice, but made the very first radio broadcast.

Ilana Reimer

Algonquin College Journalism Program

The first radio broadcast in history was on Christmas Eve in 1906. Crackling slightly, but still audible, the voice belonged to Reginald Fessenden, also known as the father of radio.

He was born in Knowlton, Quebec, but his family moved to Ontario not long afterwards. Growing up, one of Fessenden’s heroes was Thomas Edison. And, a few years later, due to unstoppable determination and a knack for wiring, he even ended up assisting Edison at his main plant in New Jersey. Fessenden also developed a more effective way of sending Morse code than Guglielmo Marconi, the original inventor.

This was a few years before that first “Christmas concert” broadcast. But Fessenden was not content to stop there. He wanted to transmit the human voice. He spent hours upon hours relentlessly cutting tiny incisions into a phonograph cylinder so his interrupter would break the circuit 10,000 times per second. At first the trials sounded incomprehensible, but at last in 1900 he succeeded in transmitting the sound of a human voice between two 50-foot towers on Cobb Island, near Washington, D.C.

As for the Christmas Eve program, it went off almost without a hitch. Fessenden began with a short introduction to the concert, which was followed Handel’s Largo, played on phonograph. Unfortunately an assistant became gripped with nervousness before he was supposed to speak, and Fessenden was obliged to come to the rescue. With great presence of mind, he picked up his violin and played O Holy Night to fill in the gap. He finished the broadcast with a hearty, “Goodnight to all.”

Fessenden died in 1932. His grave is marked with these words: “By his genius, distant lands converse and men sail unafraid upon the deep.” Fessenden was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 1992.

Reproduction of the First Radio Broadcast on Christmas Eve 1906, No Copyright infringement intended!

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