Engineering Hall of Fame: Reginald Fessenden

Engineering Hall of Fame: Reginald Fessenden

BY Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., Senior Director, IEEE History Center Posted: 21 Oct 2016

October marks the sesquicentennial of an important, but often overlooked, figure in engineering history. Reginald Fessenden, born 6 October 1866 in East Bolton, Quebec, might well be considered the “Thomas Edison of Canada,” since he held over 500 patents in a variety of fields.  However, he spent most of his professional career in the United States…and even worked for Edison himself!

Most of Fessenden’s contributions were to radio, and that is where he earned his fame. He is most known for the “Christmas Eve Broadcast” of 24 December 1906, when he broadcast human voices and music to several ships at sea from Brant Rock, Massachusetts.  Historians still debate exactly what firsts may have been established then, but the event was clearly an advance in the history of wireless technology, and it has been recognized as an IEEE Milestone. The event’s centennial in 2006 garnered attention, even outside IEEE, especially in Canada.  Now, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Fessenden’s birth, it is time to be reminded of his life and some of his other accomplishments.

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was the eldest child of the former Clementina Trenholme, daughter of a notable Canadian family, and the Reverend Elisha Joseph Fessenden, a minister of the Anglican Church of Canada.  The Fessenden family moved frequently to follow Elisha’s religious postings, in the course of which young Reginald proved himself a mathematical prodigy.  He attended Bishop's College School in Lennoxville, Quebec, where he received a mathematics mastership, and then Bishop’s University on the same campus.  While at university, Fessenden taught math to the younger students in the school.  He left the university in 1884 without a formal degree to become the principal of the Whitney Institute in the British colony of Bermuda.  There he married a local woman, Helen Trott. 

While in Bermuda, his mathematical studies led him to become interested in electromagnetic physics and technology.  The field of electrical engineering was a bit of a “wild west” of independent inventors and was only just starting to emerge as a distinct discipline, so he decided he could learn best from industry.  With Helen staying behind with her family, Fessenden made his way to New York City, and obtained employment at the Edison Works. There he quickly impressed Thomas A. Edison and received increasing responsibility on a range of projects.  By 1891, he decided that his own career and the development of engineering education were at a point where he should return to academia.  He applied for the inaugural chair of electrical engineering at McGill University in Montreal in his native Quebec, but he was not hired, perhaps because he still lacked a formal degree. He persevered and obtained a professorship in the new electrical engineering department at Purdue University in Indiana.

While at Purdue, his personal research focused increasingly on radio.  However, with his reputation for his work for Edison, he also received a consultant job for the Westinghouse Corporation to assist in installing lighting for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Fessenden so impressed George Westinghouse that Westinghouse personally recruited him to be chair of the newly established electrical engineering department at Western University of Pennsylvania, now known as the University of Pittsburgh. (Westinghouse was based in Pittsburgh and drew many of its technical employees from the school; George Westinghouse was a trustee.). He continued his radio research and Helen joined him. The Fessendens began a period in their life when they traveled incessantly and Helen assisted Reginald in his work.

In 1900, Fessenden decided the time was right to leave academia again, and he arranged a contract with the United States Weather Bureau that would enable him to develop and apply practical instruments out of his research. The agreement gave the Weather Bureau the rights to use any technology that came out of the arrangement, but he retained the patents.  He made amazing progress, but he left in 1902 over a contract dispute.  Much to his delight, he found two wealthy Pittsburgh backers, Hay Walker, Jr., and Thomas H. Given, and they formed a private company, the National Electric Signaling Company (NESCO).  It was under NESCO that Fessenden received most of his important radio patents and that the famous Brant Rock demonstration took place.

Despite the success, Fessenden had another contractual dispute, and left NESCO in 1911. (After a series of legal and financial maneuvers by Walker and Given, NESCO was sold to Westinghouse in 1920, which turned around and sold the Fessenden patents to RCA; Fessenden settled with RCA in 1928).

Meanwhile, while still affiliated with NESCO, Fessenden had expanded his work in other areas of engineering.  In 1903, he returned to the power field and was hired by the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario as an engineering consultant for the Canadian Niagara Falls power plant project. Around this time, he also began exploring the relationship between acoustical waves and electromagnetic waves.

The latter work came to the fore after the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912.  After leaving NESCO, Fessenden had been consulting with the Submarine Signal Company of Boston to improve underwater communication.  He and his colleagues reasoned that sound vibration could be used not just for communication, but also for a form of echolocation to detect icebergs and other hazards.  Fessenden developed and patented the Fessenden Oscillator, the first successful acoustical echo-ranging device, and the direct ancestor of what is now known as SONAR.  This invention won Fessenden the Scientific American Gold Medal in 1929. His radio work had already been recognized in 1921, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor of the Institute or Radio Engineers (the IRE is a predecessor to the IEEE).

Fessenden’s interests were quite broad, and like many inventors, he often recognized opportunities for improvement.  Indeed, in 1909 he had patented a new method for cleaning guns, and in 1926 between patents for underwater signaling and coordinating radio and phonograph sound reproduction, he patented a new kind of tea infuser which became somewhat popular (even if it never replaced the tea ball).

However, even for Fessenden the time and come to retire, and he used his RCA settlement to buy a home in Bermuda, to which he and Helen moved in 1928.  Reginald Aubrey Fessenden died there on 22 July 1932.  Helen lived until 1941, and got to see seven more of Reginald’s patents issued posthumously, including two for television.  In 1940, she published a biography/memoir, Fessenden:  Builder of Tomorrows.  Helen and Reginald’s only child, Reginald Kennelly, died in 1947. In her will Helen established the Fessenden-Trott Trust that funds scholarships awarded annually to Canadian students; U.S. students from Purdue University and the University of Pittsburgh; and Bermudian students studying at Canadian, U.K., or U.S. universities.  In that way, the Fessenden legacy lives on.

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Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., is staff director at the IEEE History Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center's Web page at: http://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.html.

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Lyle Feisel
Member
This is an excellent short history of a little known engineer/scientist. Thank you, Dr. Geselowitz
Posted on 10/27/16 3:07 PM.