On a very hot June day in 1876, when Reggie Fessenden was 10 years old, he surprised his friends by blasting them with snowballs, “the result of his first experiment,” said scientist and biographer John Belrose.
A curious boy, Reggie had noticed that winter ice in the shade took a long time to melt. He wondered whether packing snow in a box and storing it in the shade would keep it from melting. Sure enough, it did, and Reggie clobbered his amazed friends with snowballs in summer, said Belrose, a Canadian expert on the long-forgotten inventor Reginald A. Fessenden.
Young Reggie was smart and driven to find answers to questions that puzzled him, said Belrose, an editor of the Proceedings of the Radio Club of America. A hard worker and good student, Reggie had a master’s degree in mathematics by time he was 14. By age 20, he had moved from his native Canada to the British colony of Bermuda, about 650 miles off the North Carolina coast.There he became a teacher and principal.
Dazzled by science, he contacted Thomas Edison — the American who invented a long-lasting incandescent light bulb, phonograph, movie camera and much more — writing, “Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick.”
Edison replied, “Have enough men now who do not know about electricity.” But Fessenden kept after Edison, and soon he became chief chemist of Edison’s electrical works in New Jersey.
In 1900, Fessenden moved to Washington to work for the U.S. Weather Bureau on an exciting question: Can the dot-and-dash wireless radio of Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi also carry the human voice?
At the time, weather reports to ships at sea were limited to flags, lighthouses, flares from land and the recently invented (1896) Marconi wireless radio, which used sparks to dot-and-dash Morse code messages. The wireless was very slow, and no one believed that the hissing and crackling radio could produce anything beyond dots and dashes.
Fessenden and a Weather Bureau crew set up two 50-foot-tall antennas on Cobb Island, Maryland, in the Potomac River about 50 miles south of Washington. Today, a roadside sign marks the spot.
Using steam engines to generate electricity and refining the technical work of many other scientists, Fessenden sent speech over a distance of one mile on December 23, 1900. It was an accomplishment that paved the way for cellphone conversations, in which voices are transmitted and received by radio waves. Although your cellphone slips easily into your pocket, Fessenden’s equipment weighed tons.
On Christmas Eve 1906, Fessenden sent the world’s first voice radio broadcast: a holiday program featuring himself playing the violin and singing.
He became rich and famous because of several communications inventions. His friends included Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the airplane pioneer brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. Fessenden is buried in Bermuda, where he died in 1932, famous — but now largely forgotten.