It was in 1906 that people first talked to each other over long distances without the help of wires. It was done, not by Gugliemo Marconi, but by a Canadian named Reginald Fessenden, who married a Bermudian and spent his last years on the Island.

Fessenden’s inventions helped to win the battles of the Atlantic in the First and Second World Wars and his work enters our lives every day. Tragically, though, his name and achievements were almost forgotten, as others were awarded credit for his fundamental findings. It took a long battle for Fessenden to win the rights to patents, and he finally died a wealthy man—as many young Bermudians, Canadians and Americans, who have received annual Fessenden-Trott scholarships, can attest.

Fessenden made the first voice-radio transmission in 1900. It travelled only a brief distance, and there were six long years of thought and experiment before he could introduce the world to the wonder of wireless transmission of sound. It was during 1906 that Fessenden so improved his invention that on Christmas Eve, he could make the world’s first public broadcast—a programme of Christmas carols picked up by ships on their morse-code receivers all over the Atlantic. It was the culmination of his life’s dreams, and the road getting there was not an easy one. Along the way, he came to Bermuda, married a local girl and taught in a Bermuda school. His work did not stop with voice radio, for he never stopped thinking and inventing.

Fessenden achieved an enormous amount in his life. The Encyclopedia Britannica says he has also been credited with the invention of the radio compass and the turbo-electric drive for battleships.

Fessenden was a Canadian, the son of a parson, but his family had a special claim to fame, for his mother, Clementina Fessenden, was an ardent loyalist and founded both Empire Day (celebrated on Queen Victoria’s birthdate) and the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire—a counterweight to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Success required drive and ability, but her patriotism did not bring money into the home, so Reg had to find part-time work when he went to college. He taught high-school mathematics, French and Greek part-time, and this experience coupled with his remarkable ability enabled him, before taking his degree, to land a job in Bermuda as headmaster of the new Whitney Institute School.

The Whitney was a little neighbourhood school built by parish farmers who were aided, after a hurricane destroyed much preliminary work, by a handsome donation from the Whitney family. It is quite possible Reg was the school’s only teacher. He came to Bermuda in 1886, three years after the school opened, and boarded somewhere near the home of Thaddeus Trott-Rockmoor, on St. Mark’s Road, Smith’s.

Rockmoor was filled with attractive girls. Thaddeus Trott, who was a trustee of Whitney, had sent the two eldest away to school in England, and now Eliza and Helen were back again, teaching the younger ones in accordance with their father’s plan. They also worked on the farm-for it was the hey-day of the spring market business, with exports of onions and potatoes by ship to New York. There was only one boy, who one day would be a power in Bermuda and win a knighthood—the future Sir Howard Trott.

Pretty soon, there was courting going on at Rockmoor. Reg fell deeply for Helen, and Eliza was pursued by Harry Zuill. Helen accompanied Reg on some of his rambles, even though he continued his scientific studies and brought along his books to learn as much as he could about electricity. Science was always his major interest —as a schoolboy at Trinity College School, he had hidden copies of Scientific American in his Latin exercise books. And Helen was there when he took to the waters of Harrington Sound-often just to float, hat over his face, while his busy mind went round and round on speculation after speculation.

Reg’s family thought in much the same way —they wished he would give up the inventing business and settle down. Reg kept travelling out to Edison’s laboratories in New Jersey to see him, and just as regularly was rejected.

It seems fair to say that while father Thaddeus liked the young man, he thought he had a long way to go before he could support a wife— he was the kind of father who wished to make sure his daughter would not have to go out to work, but instead could stay home and look after the house and bring up the children. Reg had already broached his great hope of sending words through the air, of broadcasting voice. Of course, it sounded like a dream, and back then, it was a dream. So when Reg’s two-year stint at the Whitney came to an end, the couple parted-Reg went to New York to learn more about electricity by trying to get a job with the great inventor Thomas Alva Edison; Helen stayed behind.

Reg’s family thought in much the same way as Thaddeus Trott—they wished he would give up the inventing business and settle down. And Edison was no help. Reg kept travelling out to Edison’s laboratories in New Jersey to see him, and just as regularly was rejected. Finally, his money ran thin, and he could only stay near his lodgings in Manhattan. He hung about where wires were being erected for Edison’s electric company, made friends with the foreman—and got a job when the foreman needed a man to test the wires with a galvanometer.

Fessenden rose in Edison’s organisation with great speed and, to his delight, was offered a job in Edison’s laboratories. He was promoted to chief chemist and, with improved pay and prospects, he voyaged to Bermuda in 1889, bringing with him that wonderful new invention, the phonograph.

One letter from Eliza Zuill to Harry Zuill before they were married, tells about this visit. Her lines indicate Reg met members of the family in New York and recorded some messages before he got on the ship. It was one of the first phonographs, and it recorded and played on wax cylinders, so the impressions did not last very long.

Fessenden (top of photo) with wife-to-be Helen Trott next to him, and Harry Zuill, Eliza Trott and friends

“On Sunday morning,” Eliza wrote to Harry, “Uncle Harley (Trott) came down and Uncle Scott (Pearman) and Mr. Wedlake dropped in, of course all wanted to hear the phonograph, so we spent most of the forenoon over it; your piece doesn’t come out quite so distinctly as at first but ‘Call them to my presence’ still holds its own…On Monday your mother, Willie and Fannie came over to hear it, Willie said he could hear Julia’s and Aunt Anna’s messages quite well, but as he and Reg were the only two who could make out what was said, we had to content ourselves with what they told us.”

Eliza was a good Bermudian. She referred to Mr. Edison as Mr. Addison.

Unfortunately for Reg, the following year Edison ran into deep financial trouble and laid off nearly everyone, including Fessenden. So, of course, that was the year he wed. With her father’s blessing, she took the steamer to New York, and Reg and Helen married each other in the Church of Heavenly Rest during the last week of September, 1890. They went to Reg’s home in Canada for their honeymoon.

Meanwhile, the scientific world was discussing the exciting discovery by Heinrich Hertz at the Polytechnic Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany, of electro-magnetic waves-which today we call Hertzian waves. These extraordinary waves flew at a speed of 186,000 miles a second (the speed of light), could go through walls, and if there were a gap in his wires, they made noises like crickets and lit up. Hertz had a problem—what could be done with the discovery?

Others soon took up that challenge.

Reg and Helen returned to New York after their honeymoon and he obtained a job from George Westinghouse-the man who invented the air brake for trains. Another job offer gave the two a chance to visit England-unfortunately, they agreed to pay for it themselves and be reimbursed, and when they returned to New York, they found their new employer had gone bankrupt. It was the beginning of the 1890s depression. Reg thought he would have to return to teaching, but fortunately his experience and inventions did not mean going back to a tiny school like the Whitney (though Helen might have liked it!).

Instead, he was hired by Purdue University and became a professor. There was time for research as well, and Reg was able to learn more about Hertzian waves. Their son Ken was born at this time, bringing the professor more responsibilities.

A new University—Pittsburgh— meant more pay and a larger house, which he now needed for his files. What to do with them all? Reg decided one day to photograph them-and soon had a patent for ‘micro-photography,’ forerunner of microfilm. He is still remembered as one of the great persons connected with the university.

Of course, Fessenden was not the only person experimenting with Dr. Hertz’s waves. In Italy, Gugliemo Marconi, son of wealthy parents, was working on them one day when he succeeded in making a bell tinkle with one of the waves. He took his apparatus outside and achieved the same results. He was far more a man of the world than Fessenden, and he realised his invention was of great importance. England seemed the best place to make something of it, and in July, 1890, he gave a successful demonstration by transmitting dots and dashes across two miles of Salisbury Plain. Marconi continued working on his apparatus, aiming for the day when he could send messages across the Atlantic.

Back in the U.S., Reg was making little progress, and he became worn-down with his lack of success. A trip to Canada and some country living helped out a lot, and then he went to Toronto to attend a meeting of a Canadian scientific society called The British Association.

Back in the U.S., Reg was making little progress, and he became worn-down with his lack of success. A trip to Canada and some country living helped out a lot, and then he went to Toronto to attend a meeting of a Canadian scientific society called The British Association. There was lots of discussion about Marconi and Hertzian waves. The waves, it was felt, had to snap out into space like a whiplash, and be repeated over and over again. That was the only way transmissions could be made.

Listening to the scientists, Reg suddenly had an idea it was one he had been mulling over during the summer, but now all the bits seemed to fall into place— and he made his great discovery. Radio transmissions did not need to crack out like a whiplash.

Instead, they could be sent in continuous waves, like the way ripples spread out when a stone is thrown into a pond.

It was 1897, and many problems stood in the way, but after a winter’s work, Reg was able to prove the truth of his theory. Still, he could not transmit dots and dashes in the new way very far. In the autumn of 1898, his apparatus, to his delight, broadcast the high-pitched wail of one of his machines from one end of his laboratory to the other-the first wireless transmission of sound in history.

Now came a hit-and-miss period-employment at times, and then out of work, but with his aim still fixed. He was given a year’s contract by the U.S. Weather Bureau, and succeeded with his system in sending morse code signals up to 60 miles. At the same time, working out of hours, he developed the idea of modulating a single radio frequency with electric waves vibrating at the frequencies of sound waves. It was remarkable progress, but in the eyes of the world, Marconi had gone a further step, by sending a single letter—a morse code ‘S’—across the Atlantic.

In 1902 came Fessenden’s discovery of a new principle as a way to convert high-frequency radio signals to a lower frequency more easily controlled and amplified. Fessenden, remembering his Greek, called it a heterodyne, combining two words: hetero, meaning different, and dyne, meaning force. A decade later, Edwin Howard Armstrong improved Fessenden’s work and developed the super heterodyne—the basis of the tuner used in every radio and television set.

Fessenden at his home, Wistowe, in Flatts

Fessenden, who was facing the problem of plunderers anxious to get in on the spoils, looked for support to form a company to continue his major experiments. Finally, two Pittsburgh millionaires agreed to back him, but insisted new inventions be placed in the name of the company. They were able to make money available, which was essential for the next stages. Radio towers were built at Brant Rock, Massachusetts, south of Boston, and at Machrihanish, Scotland. More and more powerful electrical generators and alternators were obtained.

At last, in 1906, Fessenden managed to bridge the Atlantic in both directions with morse-code transmissions, the first to open such a service. It proved his system. And then came experiments with voice-radio talking to Boston fishing boats at sea, telling them by voice, rather than morse code, the latest market prices. The experiment worked! And because Fessenden’s ideas had been ridiculed by a top English scientist, Fessenden made sure the demonstration was well-publicised.

In the same year, a freak occurrence meant Reg’s apparatus sent the first words across the Atlantic to the station in Scotland. Then came a disaster—an enormous storm swept over Britain and demolished the tall radio towers, putting an end for the moment to trans-Atlantic experiments.

In the same year, a freak occurrence meant Reg’s apparatus sent the first words across the Atlantic to the station in Scotland. Then came a disaster—an enormous storm swept over Britain and demolished the tall radio towers, putting an end for the moment to trans-Atlantic experiments. But at year’s end, Reg determined to make a memorable broadcast to ships, and it was then he accomplished the first one intended to entertain and to be widely heard. It was to be a Christmas programme, and rehearsals were held to get it right. But on Christmas Eve, Reg himself had to sing the carols and make the announcements, because his assistant—who had a better singing voice-got stage fright.

It was a great scientific success, but the company still struggled to get the business which would bring in the cash. And now, while Reg worked away, his backers laid a plan to rid themselves of the scientist and seize his papers and inventions. The plot succeeded, and in a lightning move, special detectives descended on Brant Rock while Fessenden was lured away to a conference.

Thus began a series of expensive court battles while Reg and Helen sold their possessions to feed the family. Reg invented things like amplifiers, which used violins as loudspeakers—the electric guitar in reverse. Their fortunes turned again when Reg was hired by the Submarine Signal Company to develop a signalling system between submarines. Reg invented an oscillator, which created sound waves; soon submarines were talking to one another at a distance of 50 miles.

Reg invented an oscillator, which created sound waves; soon submarines were talking to one another at a distance of 50 miles. This was in 1912, soon after the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, and people’s minds were on means of detecting such tragedies.

This was in 1912, soon after the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, and people’s minds were on means of detecting such tragedies. Reg’s sound waves bounced back from icebergs miles away and the timing indicated their distance from the ship. Then he tried the same bounce technique directing sound waves downward through the sea —and in doing so, invented the fathometer. This highly successful depth-finder replaced the marked lead-line, which had to be flung well ahead of the bow, sink to the bottom and be vertical when the vessel came up for depth to be accurately noted—a nearly impossible task for a sailor working from the high deck of a speeding passenger liner.

When war broke out in 1914, Reg headed for London with his inventions, and met a good deal of disappointment, particularly over such ideas as mass air fleets carrying the war to the enemy, using an engine he had invented. On the other hand, the Admiralty welcomed his submarine signalling apparatus, his hydrophones through which allied sailors listened for submarine propellers, and his other submarine detection apparatus which laid the basis for Asdic, so important in the Second World War.

Other inventions were being used without any royalties being paid —things like his heterodyne and his alternator. After the war, armed with a handsome payment for his depth-finder, Reg hired the best lawyers he could find, and on March 31, 1928, his enemies called it a day and reached a proper financial settlement with him.

Fessenden in his later years at Wistowe, Flatts

He and Helen had already purchased Wistowe at Flatts, in addition to their Boston home, and he got busy with improvements. He had a sort of sauna in the grounds, and turned a natural pool into a swimming pool by tiling it along one side. Glass doors made a sunning place out of the wind, and a concrete tennis court took shape. There were plans for a lobster cage and a pool to raise oysters in the man-made canal, which runs through the property between Flatts Inlet and Harrington Sound. Visitor’s were treated to the fish noises with the aid of hydrophones.

In his last years, Reg suffered from angina, and finally died at Wistowe on July 22, 1932. He was buried in St. Mark’s churchyard, and if you go there, you will see a very special memorial. Helen composed his epitaph. In English is inscribed:

His mind illumined the past
And the future
And wrought greatly
For the present.

Underneath, Egyptian hieroglyphics state: “I am yesterday and I know tomorrow.”

Fessenden achieved an enormous amount in his life. The Encyclopedia Britannica says he has also been credited with the invention of the radio compass and the turbo-electric drive for battleships.

At the time of his death, The New York Herald Tribune noted: “It sometimes happens, even in science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man. He fought bitterly and alone to prove his theories. It was he who insisted, against the strong protests of every recognised authority, that what we now call radio was worked by continuous waves sent through the ether by the transmitting station as light waves are sent out by a flame. Marconi and others insisted that what was happening was a whiplash effect. The progress of radio was retarded a decade by this error. The whiplash theory passed gradually from the mind of men and was replaced by the continuous wave one with all too little credit to the man who had been right.”