National Treasure #113: Reginald Fessenden

“An inventor is one who can see
the applicability of means to supplying demand
five years before it is obvious to those skilled in the art.”
The Inventions of Reginald A. Fessenden

I never understood radio: I admit it freely. Neither, it turns out, did Marconi, exactly.

“It sometimes happens, even in science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man. It is ironic that among the hundreds of thousands of young radio engineers whose commonplaces of theory rest on what Professor Fessenden fought for bitterly and alone only a handful realize that the battle ever happened… It was he who insisted, against the stormy protests of every recognized authority, that what we now call radio was worked by “continuous waves” of the kind discovered by Hertz, sent through the ether by the transmitting station as light waves are sent out by a flame. Marconi and others insisted, instead, that what was happening was the so-called “whiplash effect”… It is probably not too much to say that the progress of radio was retarded a decade by this error… The whiplash theory faded gradually out of men’s minds and was replaced by the continuous wave one with all too little credit to the man who had been right… ” – Wikipedia quoting a New York Times editorial on Fessenden’s death

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was what today we’d call a dual citizen: Born in Quebec, he also claimed American citizenship through his father. He did most of his work in the USA, driving patents issued from 1891 to 1936, although he died in 1932.

He sounds like an interesting but not an easy person.

An inveterate tinkerer, Fessenden eventually became the holder of more than 500 patents. He could often be found in a river or lake, floating on his back, a cigar sticking out of his mouth and a hat pulled down over his eyes. At home he liked to lie on the carpet, a cat on his chest. In this state of relaxation, Fessenden could imagine, invent and think his way to new ideas. Fessenden also had a reputation for being temperamental, although in his defense his wife later stated that “Fessenden was never a difficult man to W O R K with but he was an intensely difficult man to play politics with.” However, one of his former assistants, Charles J. Pannill, recalled that “He was a great character, of splendid physique, but what a temper!”, while a second, Roy Weagant, ruefully noted that “He could be very nice at times, but only at times.” – Wiki, with links to source documents

Truly, the technical aspects of his work on radio are beyond me. I never understood sonar, either, and he seems to have been pivotal there as well. Thank goodness. How else would we have this scene from The Hunt for Red October?

“One ping, Vasili. One ping only.”

Thanks, Reg.

See more/different here:

Museum of Broadcasting


The Canadian Encyclopedia

Purdue University Library


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