This Canadian radio pioneer dreamed of 'words without wires'
He changed the world with a question about the weather. How Canadian.
Welcome time travellers! Inspired by the missing journal pages in Murdoch Mysteries: Beyond Time, we're exploring what Canada might have been like without a few extraordinary citizens.
There's magic and terror in sitting in front of a microphone and not knowing who'll hear your voice over the radio.
There was probably no moment more magical or terrifying than Reginald Fessenden's radio broadcast across the Atlantic Ocean on December 24, 1906.
A dogged dreamer
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden — or Reg, as he was known — was born in Quebec in 1866. He was the son of an Anglican minister, a lover of cats and he grew up to have the stature of a Viking. He also invented the first wireless system of transmitting speech. But he's been overshadowed by others, including fellow radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi.
In Radio's First Voice, biographer Ormond Raby says Fessenden dreamed of wireless voice transmission from an early age. He was inspired by Alexander Graham Bell's amazing telephone.
Young Reg thought that the new field of electrical engineering would be the key to sending words without wires. He travelled to the United States to work in Thomas Edison's lab. The first time he applied, Edison responded, "have enough men who do not know anything about electricity."
Eventually Fessenden became the lab's chief chemist, but Edison thought Fessenden's idea of sending speech without wires was about as likely as jumping over the moon.
When Heinrich Hertz published his discovery of electromagnetic waves that could carry sound and go through solid walls, Fessenden knew he finally had something to build on. In time, Fessenden invented a way to send Morse code messages over the air.
The United States Weather Bureau invited Fessenden to continue his research on an island near Washington, D.C.
On December 23, 1900, he and his assistant Alfred Thiessen were working a mile apart, telegraphing back and forth while Fessenden adjusted his finicky equipment to transmit something that didn't just sound like a flock of birds flapping their wings. As dusk fell, Fessenden tried again, and at last his voice carried:
"One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If it is, telegraph back and let me know."
Edison thought Fessenden's idea of sending speech without wires was about as likely as jumping over the moon.
The world changed with a mic check and a question about the weather. Fessenden spent another six years racing towards a public demonstration of his words without wires.
Meanwhile, Fessenden co-founded a company to commercialize his research. They encouraged fruit shipping companies to buy wireless telegraphs to keep in contact with their boats via Morse code. Marconi beat him to the first one-way wireless telegraph transmission across the Atlantic Ocean, but Fessenden's team sent the first two-way signals across the ocean in January 1906.
Later that year, Fessenden told those shipping companies's wireless operators to tune in at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Imagine being one of the workers on a boat in 1906 sailing across the ocean at night; waiting around the wireless, which you've heard playing dots and dashes. Suddenly, for the first time in history, a voice comes over the air: Reginald Fessenden introducing a recording of Handel's Largo, a Bible reading and a little fiddle music. It must have been hard to believe what they were hearing.
The world changed with a mic check and a question about the weather.
Fessenden brought us AM radio, sonar technology for boats to detect obstacles and hundreds of other inventions. Under a cloud of patent fights and more famous inventors though, he never got widespread recognition.
Radio's larger role
Fessenden's legwork helped usher in the age of radio, a medium uniquely important to Canadian culture.
Radio researcher and longtime community radio volunteer Jeanette Burman says, through initiatives like CBC, the Canadian government used the new medium to help the country become a cohesive community.
"That's exactly what they were doing," Burman says. "Building an identity for a nation built upon technology. It's really fascinating to me. I don't think you see that anywhere else."
Today, radio technology is the basis of all wireless data transmission, including WiFi, cellular, satellite, astronomy and GPS. And broadcasting still helps give a voice to the voiceless, especially when it lets groups like Indigenous and Francophone communities hear their own language on the airwaves.
"Sure, I can get internet radio in a car. But I know if I'm getting radio radio in a car, I'm getting it from somewhere local. Whether that's music or something else … it's pertinent to my centre, my well-being," says Burman