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This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.

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by Christine Gibson
(From Radio Recall, August 2006)

This is a summary of an article by Christine Gibson, a former editor at American Heritage magazine.

Few OTR fans have the name “Reginald A. Fessenden” on the tip of their tongue but he is responsible for turning the “wireless” into “radio” and 2006 is the 100th anniversary of his historic broadcast.

The radio telegraph had been in usage since the late 1800s in Europe and North America. in which bursts of sound were transmitted between two remote points. Guglielmo Marconi invented wireless telegraphy any by 1899 he was sending messages (bursts of dots and dashes) across the English Channel. In the early 1900s, distress signals from ocean ships, using Marconi equipment, were going from one ship to another, or to land-based receivers.

While remarkable for that period, it was a very limited form of communication. A native Canadian who was a college professor at Pittsburgh, Fessenden knew that spark-gap technology was a dead end. He realized that the transmission of speech might be possible. But to send speech and music over the airwaves would require an entirely new approach, using a continuous radio wave rather than the short, discrete bursts of energy created with the spark gap technique of the wireless. The equipment to create and receive continuous waves did not exist so Fessenden created it.

He needed a way to turn sound waves into radio waves for transmission and then convert them back into sound at the receiving end. He decided to try to generate radio waves with an alternating-current generator, most often used for electric light and power. After years of experimenting, he was ready to transmit both voice and music over the airwaves for the first time in history.

After quitting the Weather Bureau in the midst of a patent-rights squabble, he acquired the backing of two Pittsburgh businessmen. Under their aegis in January 1906 he built his wireless telegraph radio tower 400 feet high in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Months later, from his tiny studio in Massachusetts he prepared for what would be radio’s first true broadcast of the human voice, selecting Christmas Eve 1906 for this event.

Fessenden kept that news quiet as he prepared historic broadcast, notifying only Navy and merchant ships in the North Atlantic to listen for the transmission. He originally expected that his wife or employees might take the microphone that evening, but, he later said, “On Christmas Eve I could not get any of the others to talk, sing, or play, and consequently had to do it myself.”

The broadcast was short and sweet: Fessenden played a recording of a Handel largo followed by a live violin rendition of O Holy Night, and then he said: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will. Merry Christmas to all.” Next, perhaps as an afterthought, Fessenden requested: “Will those who have heard these words and music, please write to R. A. Fessenden at Brant Rock, Massachusetts? We will speak to you again on New Year's Eve.”

When he signed off, he wasn't sure anyone had heard him. But within days he began receiving postcards from sailors excited to have gotten actual voices through their headphones for the first time. A second broadcast on New Year's Eve reached as far as the West Indies. Radio , as we now know it, was successfully launched, and it happened 100 years ago this year.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Belanger, Curator of the Museum of Radio & TV in Bowie, MD, says there are some serious reservations about the accuracy of this tale. It first surfaced in a book decades after it supposedly occurred. The book’s author was Fessenden’s widow, who is probably not a neutral historian. Belanger says that as of July 2006, OTR researchers are combing through the Fessenden archives, attempting to confirm, or dismiss, this claim.