Radio pioneer set stage for cell phones


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Reginald A. Fessenden, who was a University of Pittsburgh engineering professor, began experimenting with wireless technology in 1898. And his forays brought about discoveries still utilized over a century later.

Born in 1866 in Quebec, Mr. Fessenden spent some time working for Thomas Edison in his laboratory before becoming chair of Pitt's electrical engineering department in 1893. He continued his research and patented several of his own inventions. He moved on to the U.S. Weather Bureau from 1900 to 1902, to work in "wireless telegraphy," the early name for radio, including experiments on Roanoke Island, N.C. With financial backers, in 1902 he formed the National Electric Signaling Co. to promote his inventions. He left the company in 1911, according to the North Carolina State Archives, where the inventor's papers were deposited by his son in 1944.

A very bright man with very little patience, Mr. Fessenden was always fascinated with the telephone, said Marlin Mickle, the Nickolas A. DeCecco professor of electrical and computer engineering in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering. But he is perhaps better known for his work with the radio.

In December 1906, Mr. Fessenden publicly demonstrated his wireless telephony over a distance of 10 miles. Then, on Christmas Eve, Mr. Fessenden made his most famous public demonstration of transmission with the first radio broadcast, which included him playing "O Holy Night" on his violin and reading from the Bible, Dr. Mickle said.

"He is generally credited with being the first person to put his voice on the radio," said Tom Mittelstaedt, associate director of the Museum of Broadcasting in St. Louis Park, Minn. "He really showed the potential for radio broadcasting as we know it."

The intended audience for the broadcast were shipboard operators off the Atlantic coast, including those on Navy vessels and the ships of the United Fruit Company, according to "The Continuous Wave: Technology and American Radio, 1900-1932," by Hugh G.J. Aitken.

"The transmission brought an enthusiastic response from the marine operators: few if any of them can have heard a human voice through their headphones before," Mr. Aitken writes.

Mr. Fessenden sought to invent technology that would not only eliminate wires but also transmit a person's actual voice, easily recognizable to those who knew him, Dr. Mickle explained. In that, Mr. Fessenden differed from contemporary Guglielmo Marconi, who worked on wireless technology that did not transmit human voices but instead signals in Morse code, Dr. Mickle said.

"That's fine for trained operators, but if this was going to be something that the public was going to be able to use, obviously not everyone wants to use Morse code," Mr. Mittelstaedt said.

Mr. Fessenden's success rested in his use of continuous waves, experts said. Instead of a spark transmitter, he used an alternator to create a sine wave, then modulated the amplitude, or height, of the wave, Mr. Mittelstaedt said.

The AM radio we use today is essentially what he invented, Dr. Mickle said. While vacuum tubes and fancier electronics are newer developments, the physical principles are the same, he said.

The modern cell phone also owes much to Mr. Fessenden -- the difference between it and his wireless telephony is that the continuous waves are now altered using frequency instead of amplitude modulation, Dr. Mickle added.

According to the North Carolina archives website, patents owned by his former company were sold to the Radio Corporation of America for $3 million. Among his later patented inventions was the fathometer, an early sonar device. Until his death in 1932, Mr. Fessenden worked as consulting engineer for the Submarine Signaling Company and other major electrical companies.

On his grave in Hamilton, Bermuda, reads the inscription, "By his genius distant lands converse and men sail unafraid upon the deep," according to the museum's website. Beneath the words are Egyptian glyphs which read, "I am yesterday and I know tomorrow."


Katie Falloon: kfalloon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1723.


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