As a child, the family moved to Ontario, where at an early age, Reginald Fessenden showed an interest in mathematics far beyond his years and conducted experiments that often both astounded and horrified his parents who made certain he received a quality education. A brilliant student at Trinity College School, in Port Hope, Ontario, at age fourteen he was granted a mathematics mastership to Bishop's College (now Bishop's University) in Lennoxville, Quebec. At age eighteen, he became headmaster at a school in Bermuda but he had become fascinated with the idea of wireless telegraphy as a child when he saw Alexander Graham Bell demonstrate his telephone over a several mile distance near Bell's home in Ontario.
Trained as an electrician, his research subsequently took him to the United States to work with Thomas Edison as a chemist developing insulation for electrical wires. In 1892, he worked with George Westinghouse to light the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Fessenden then became professor of electrical engineering at Purdue University, and a year later he was named head of electrical engineering at Western University of Pennsylvania.
Reginald Fessenden had considerable difficulty in attracting capital for research and development of his radical ideas. He lacked the showmanship of Marconi and Edison, and his frustration often showed in his personality that made it near impossible to market himself or his inventions. In 1900 he joined the United States Weather Bureau on the understanding that the bureau could have access to any devices he invented but that he would retain ownership. On December 23, 1900, he transmitted his own voice over the first wireless telephone from a site on Cobb Island in the middle of the Potomac River near Washington, DC.
Finally, two wealthy Pennsylvania businessmen joined with him to form the National Electric Signaling Company (NESCO) to develop Morse code services between Brant Rock, Massachusetts and several American points and to carry on his own research. In 1903 he sent a voice message to an assistant 50 miles away, and another voice sound was heard at his experimental towers in Scotland. In 1904 he was hired to help engineer the Niagara Falls power plant for the newly formed Ontario Power Commission. In 1906 he opened his own Canadian company in Montreal and on Christmas Eve, 1906, using his heterodyne principle, Fessenden transmitted the first radio broadcast in history from Brant Rock Station, Massachusetts. Ships at sea heard a broadcast that included Fessenden playing the song O Holy Night on the violin and reading a passage from the Bible.
Marconi had sent radio signals from England to Newfoundland in 1901, but only one-way and only in Morse Code. In 1906, Fessenden achieved two-way voice transmission by radio between Scotland and Massachusetts. Still, the potential for his invention was not recognized and even his own backers were not interested in voice or music communication and their business partnership dissolved. A lengthy lawsuit would follow that years later resulted in a large settlement in Fessenden s favour.
Working for a company in Boston, Reginald Fessenden developed a wireless system for submarines to signal each other, and a device using radio waves designed to locate icebergs miles away avoiding another Titanic disaster. At the outbreak of World War I, Fessenden volunteered his services to Canada and was sent to London, England where he developed a device to detect enemy artillery and another to locate enemy submarines.
Fellow Canadians, Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans invented and patented the first light bulb that Thomas Edison commercialized. An inveterate tinkerer, Reginald Fessenden vastly improved on their work. He would become the holder of more than 500 patents, including a version of microfilm. In 1915, he invented the fathometer, a sonar device used to determine the depth of water or a submerged object by means of sound waves for which he won Scientific American's Gold Medal in 1929. The Institute of Radio Engineers presented him with its Medal of Honor, and Philadelphia awarded him a medal and cash prize for "One whose labors had been of great benefit to mankind."
A New York Herald Tribune editorial said: