Reginald Fessenden Makes Christmas History

For our October 2017 meeting, we had Professor Donna Halper speak about the history of amateur radio and its heroes. Having heard her speak at Boxboro 2016, I knew our members were in for a treat. So in keeping with this theme, I searched for some interesting nugget, some salient morsel about the history of amateur radio that was somehow linked to Christmas time. I struck gold when I came across Reginald Fessenden.

A brief segue into the life of Reginald Fessenden

Reginald Fessenden, looking dapper and scholarly.

Reginald Fessenden was born in 1866 in Quebec and showed an aptitude and high interest in mathematics / engineering from a young age. Though he did not have a degree, he desired to work in the field of electricity, and so he went to the Mecca of electrical work in the U.S., namely NYC in 1886 to work with Thomas Edison. He personally wrote Edison saying “Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick,” to which Edison replied “Have enough men now who do not know about electricity.” Luck had different plans, however, and he ended up obtaining a job with Edison and rose through his company quickly to even work directly with Edison at his new laboratory in NJ. He was laid off in 1890, however, due to financial problems Edison encountered, and so Fessenden searched for additional opportunities.

In 1900, Fessenden went to work for the U.S. Weather Bureau with the goal of “proving the practicality of using a network of coastal radio stations to transmit weather information, thereby avoiding the expense of the existing telegraph lines.”  The Bureau would have access to any devices he created but he could retain the rights to ownership. He quickly advanced receiver design with one notable achievement being the development of the heterodyne principle among other advancements such as the invention of a barretter detector and electrolytic detector.

After his time with the weather bureau was up, Fessenden was able to secure funding for his research that led to the design and implementation of a rotary-spark transmitter (continuous wave phenomena was not thought to produce wireless communications and it was in fact Fessenden himself who championed the theory and practice of CW signals as understood by Hertz) and the world’s first trans-atlantic transmission — that of Morse code. Unfortunately, at the time, the destruction of one of the radio towers led to the end of the project.

Fessenden soon became obsessed with audio radio transmissions as opposed to his colleagues of the day (Marconi included) that advocated Morse code transmissions. He in fact applied for and was awarded a patent in 1901 for essentially inventing a CW transmitter! The man was unstoppable. Soon after he learned how to modulate speech on his CW waves to create Amplitude Modulated (AM) radio waves.

Upon reading more about Fessenden, his career seems to have comprised breakthrough after breakthrough in the field of radio engineering. I could go on and on regarding all his accomplishments, but if I did, I still would have not arrived at the point about what any of this has to do with the holidays.

The connection to Christmas Eve

Until the early 1930’s, it was widely believed that a gentlemen by the name of Lee de Forest was the first person to transmit music and speech by radio in February 1907. Fessenden, however, challenged this notion when it was advertised by other scholars that Fessenden had in fact accomplished the pioneering benchmark by broadcasting on Christmas Eve 1906. Specifically, he claimed that he played a phonograph of Handel’s Ombra mai fu (Largo) and then he himself played a violin rendition of O Holy Night and also sang Adore and be Still by Gounod. Furthermore, he also stated he broadcasted on December 31st of the same year and that his transmissions were heard as far as Norfolk, VA on Christmas Eve and  the West Indies for his New Year’s Eve transmission.

Now the interesting bits are that in 2006 (the centennial of the broadcast) renewed interest was sparked into Fessenden’s groundbreaking feat. But, surprisingly, questions were raised. Some of these were that there seemed to not exist any independent corroborations that the transmissions were heard. It is widely believed Fessenden had the technical means to make the transmissions, in the first place, but that it was uber QRP and so may not have been heard by many. Additionally, it was uncovered, that in 1956 more detective work went into verifying the Dec 24th transmissions but again, it failed to uncover any evidence.

If one continues to read about this intriguing individual, you will even learn that Donna Halper (the same one I mentioned at the beginning of this post) and Christoper Sterling  argued “that debating the existence of the holiday broadcasts was ignoring the fact that, in their opinion, the December 21 demonstration, which included the playing of a phonograph record, in itself qualified to be considered an entertainment broadcast”. (I think instead of Dec 21, they meant Dec 24) And other scholars argued there is no reason to discount or doubt Fessenden’s account since it was not challenged immediately following an article, in 1932, originally detailing Fessenden’s story.

So, where do things lie now? Well, the IEEE recognizes this event to be a IEEE Milestone. And, from the little investigative work I did for this post, it seems his account is widely believed. But, even if it weren’t true, it’s pretty dang cool that Fessenden gets to share his achievement with St. Nick’s biggest work day of the year.

Hope you all enjoyed the history lesson and Happy Holidays everyone!

Brian, AB1ZO




If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Follow or Contact Us:

One thought on “Reginald Fessenden Makes Christmas History”

  1. Thank you Brian, AB1ZO, for a terrific article on RA Fessenden. I was in Austin QC this year for a ham radio project and was able to visit Austin, QC, where Fessenden grew up. His actual birth place was a few miles West in East-Bolton QC. Just a couple notes to the fantastic contributions Fessenden made to the radio community. He received credit for development of the heterodyne principal, 1901, and later Sonar. Perhaps this was brought out at the meeting, which regrettably I missed.
    Town of Austin, QC is named for its founder, Nicholas Austin, a member of the Society of Friends (also known as Quakers). He was a Loyalist from New Hampshire and left during the American Revolution to come to Canada, circa 1783.

    73, KU1V

Comments are closed.