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1900: Canadian makes first wireless radio transmission

The Story

It was a festive first broadcast. The date was Christmas Eve 1906 and Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor born in Quebec, sang hymns in an early wireless radio transmission. He broadcast from Massachusetts to Scotland and sang O Holy Night, Handel's Largo and Adore and Be Still. But Fessenden said because he had to muster up his singing voice, he opted for a re-broadcast on New Year's Eve. When it came to doing it a second time, he didn't do the singing. But these holiday broadcasts were not the first time Fessenden transmitted a voice electronically. The inventor originally sent a radio transmission six years earlier. On Dec. 23, 1900, Fessenden transmitted a broadcast by wireless telegraph between two towers on a site near Washington, D.C. His contemporary, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, claimed to have sent an even earlier wireless telegraph in 1895. In this television clip, CBC debates whether it was Canada's Fessenden or the Italian Marconi who invented radio transmission.

Medium: Television
Program: Take 30
Broadcast Date: Oct. 16, 1979
Guest(s): Ray Ireland
Host: Harry Brown, Hana Gartner
Duration: 6:57

Did You know?

• Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was born in East Bolton, Que., on Oct. 6, 1866. Fessenden's family moved to Ontario during his school years. They lived in three different towns (Fergus, Niagara Falls and Port Hope).

• As a teaching assistant at Quebec's Bishop's College, Fessenden researched scientific theories. He later moved to Bermuda to teach, while conducting experiments on the side.

• Fessenden got a break while working in New York as a cable tester for the Thomas Edison Company.

• Edison noticed Fessenden and offered him a job in his lab where he worked for seven years. Fessenden also worked with George Westinghouse.

• As a young boy, Fessenden was inspired by Alexander Graham Bell when he got to watch the famous inventor demonstrate his telephone.

• In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi, an inventor born in Bologna, Italy, sent a radio transmission by wireless telegraphy. It travelled one and a half miles on a system he patented a year later in England.

• Marconi's first transatlantic broadcast was in 1901 from Cornwall, England to St. John's, Nfld.

• Telegraphy is an interrupted electrical message transmission by wire, while telephony transmits two-way speech.

• Radio's transmission is wireless by means of a current or a "continuous wave." Fessenden was the first to identify the continuous wave effect. A New York Herald-Tribune editorial lauded him for this: "Marconi and others insisted that what was happening was a whiplash effect.  The progress of radio was retarded a couple of decades by this error. The whiplash theory passed gradually from the minds of men and was replaced by the continuous wave -- one with all too little credit to the man who had been right."

• Doubt about Fessenden inventing radio transmission is cast in this TV clip by host Harry Brown. He suggests that because "radio" is an Italian word, Marconi might be the more likely inventor.

• According to the Webster New Third International Dictionary, the etymology of radio is from the Latin radius meaning a measurement of a circle equal to the distance between a point on the circle and its centre.

• During Fessenden's 1906 New Year's Eve radio broadcast, he received response signals from as far away as the West Indies.

• In the several years after the New Year's Eve broadcast, Fessenden earned patents for his inventions related to radio broadcast.

• In 1916 Marconi bought out Fessenden's patents because his original system did not function properly for transmitting voices. Realizing Fessenden's patents would be an obstacle to his progress, Marconi paid $250,000 in the deal.

• The deal meant Fessenden and his wife were set for life. Fessenden went on to invent the Fathometre, a submarine detection device useful in the First World War, before his death in 1932.

Also on December 23:
1859: The "Nor' Wester" becomes the first newspaper published in the Prairies out of Winnipeg.
1969: John Lennon and Yoko Ono meet Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa, as part of their peace campaign.
1983: Jeanne Sauvé is appointed Canada's first woman Governor General.


Canada Tunes In: The Early Years of Radio and TV more