REGINALD FESSENDEN BROUGHT VOICE TO THE AIRWAVES—ONLY TO LOSE CONTROL OF HIS
BY WILLIAM S. ZUILL
THE INVENTOR'S WIFE STOOD WITH HER ARMS SPREAD across the filing cabinets,
trying to cover the open drawers as three men struggled to remove the files
they contained. She knew she couldn't win, but she thought it might somehow
help her husband legally if the men had to use force. The men pulled her
away and started loading boxes. Then, with about a third of the files gone,
they began to relax their guard. She seized a moment when they all were
outside the office to slam the door and lock it. More time gained.
It was December 1910, and the woman who had been reduced to playing cat and
mouse with the movers was the wife of the man who had discovered how to
broadcast words. His name was Reginald Fessenden, and he deserves, as much
as anyone else, to be called the father of radio. Yet instead of making him
rich, Fessenden's inventive genius brought him mostly frustration.
For all the tumult of his later years, Fessenden enjoyed a peaceful
middle-class upbringing after his birth in East Bolton, Quebec, in 1866. The
boy's brilliance showed itself early, and in 1884 he became a master at
Bishop's College School, in Quebec, while attending Bishop's College there.
Before completing his degree, Fessenden took a job as headmaster (and only
teacher) at a small private school in Bermuda. While there he fell in love
with Helen Trott, the farmer's daughter he would later marry. (At the same
time, this writer's grandfather became engaged to Helen's elder sister
Eliza, whom he later married.)
Helen Trott went everywhere with the six-foot-tall Canadian, even when he
floated on his back in the sea, working out mathematical problems about
electricity. Years afterward, he would write: "One could miss a great deal
out of one's life and still be happy remembering those [carriage] drives
back after a dance, along the shore of Harrington Sound, and the moonlight,
the semi-tropical air and the smell of the jasmine flowers."
Fessenden's stay in Bermuda lasted two years. His family hoped he would
enter the church, like his father, an Anglican minister. Instead he decided
to go to New York City, armed with a few introductions, and try to either
find a job with the great Thomas Edison or make a living writing for
magazines. He was not yet married; Thaddeus Trott did not want a sonin-law
who admitted to holding the extraordinary notion that voices could be sent
great distances without wires.
New York was a disappointment. Fessenden sold only a few magazine articles
and repeatedly failed to get a job with Edison. Persistence finally paid off
in 1885, when he was given the post of assistant tester for the Edison
Machine Works as it lay electrical cables under New York's streets. During
his lunch hours he studied electrical theory and analytical mechanics and
worked out ways to do the testing faster. Before long he rose to inspecting
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