Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was a prolific inventor. His creations ran the gamut from microfilm to sonar to the turbo-electric drive for battleships. His wireless innovations, however, were simply visionary. In Canada, the centenary of the first audio broadcast was celebrated with a postage stamp honoring Fessenden.
Fessenden recognized that the technology used by Guglielmo Marconi, spark radio, had severe limitations. Sparks are inefficient, invite interference, and are ill-suited to carry speech. Fessenden knew exactly what the problem was, and it wasn’t long before he conceived a solution.
Fessenden envisioned a simpler and cleaner technology. He knew that if he could produce steady electromagnetic waves—the kind represented mathematically as pure sine waves—he could boost efficiency, reduce interference, and impress the signals with speech and music. Fessenden’s pristine signals became known as “continuous waves.”
Reginald Fessenden could be called the Alexander Graham Bell of wireless. He was first to demonstrate the transmission of voice and music over wireless. He also invented a variable detector (for receiving audio) and the heterodyne principle (enabling easy-to-use receivers for consumers).
Unfortunately, Fessenden was at least ten years ahead of his time. He tried to create continuous waves by building AC power generators rotating at extraordinarily high speeds. Once Edwin H. Armstrong discovered that a vacuum tube amplifier could be made to oscillate using feedback, it became possible to replace Fessenden’s giant, mechanical generators with small, inexpensive boxes that could run at even higher frequencies and required no moving parts.
Fessenden’s business accomplishments, however, never came close to matching his technical achievements. Consequently, he received neither the fame nor fortune that the quality of his work should have commanded. His mother was adamantly opposed to his becoming an inventor because her father had traveled the same road and left his family in poverty when he died. That may explain why Fessenden hesitated, wasting years looking for someone to hire him on safe terms. He wanted to pursue his own inventions, but he also wanted a steady salary. When he finally started his own business, he hedged his bets, pursuing both spark radio and continuous wave products, believing all the while that the former was racing towards obsolescence. He would have been better off pursuing the two leading continuous wave technologies simultaneously, never missing an opportunity to promote continuous waves, and doubling his chances of being in the right place at the right time.
Reginald Fessenden kept making compromises. Instead, he should have followed his passion.