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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

Reggie and Me by Michael Back

My first meaningful relationship with technology was as a grade 5 student in Ottawa in the fall of 1979 as I pondered potential science fair topics.  What did I really know about science?  My parents were both PhD chemists but what could I do?  Was I doomed to failure and the tarnishing of the family’s scientific legacy?

My family was surrounded by books growing up and my first areas of inspiration usually started at one of the bookshelves in the living room.  I stumbled onto a book called “Radio's First Voice, the Story of Reginald Fessenden” and brought it to my Dad.  “Hmmm… you might enjoy it. Did you know that Reginald Fessenden is your great, great uncle?” he told me.  My jaw dropped. “You’re kidding?  I sputtered.  The inventor of the radio - this could be cool, I thought to myself
The radio already played a big role in my life at that time as I was a rabid baseball fan who listened to Montreal Expos games whenever I could.  This involved sneaking a transistor radio with me on Sunday family hikes in the Gatineau Park so that I could stay in touch with the current baseball pennant race “Gary Carter hits a long fly ball to center field - it is up, up and away for a three run homer!

I started to read through the story of my great, great uncle and how he labored for years to create the first wireless radio broadcast on Christmas Eve 1900.  The Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi is often cited as the inventor of the radio but in fact he was focused on telegraphy using Morse code and not the wireless transmission of speech. I read on about the lineage of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden who was born in 1866 in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. He went to Bishops College and the University and then later worked with Thomas Edison having never graduated - a previous black sheep of the family!  I could always cite his unconventional education if things didn’t work out for me in school.

He pioneered wireless speech transmission and went against the conventional wisdom of the day by Marconi and others. He continued his ground-breaking experiments at Brant Rock, Massachusetts and on Christmas Eve 1906 sent out another radio broadcast - this time playing a phonograph record of Handel and then playing “O Holy Night” on the violin (clearly a musical talent as well!) that was heard by ships at sea hundreds of miles away.

My Dad and I then built a radio transmitter together from a basic kit and displayed the innards of an old transistor radio for my project.  I had a large poster board proudly filled with the rich history of the radio intertwined with some family history of a curmudgeonly old inventor who changed the face of communication forever.  Who knew that the Canadian beginnings behind the technology of the radio and the iPhone that I hold in my hand today were so modest?

Michael Back is from Calgary, AB

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