THE FIRST SOUND BROADCAST, REGINALD FESSENDEN’S FEAT
On Friday June 2, in the Great Hall of Luther Village, about 120 members of the Kitchener-Waterloo community, including residents of Luther Village, members of the local section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and members of the Kitchener Waterloo Amateur Radio Club, were treated to a short talk by Dr. Thomas W. R. East, followed by a three act play, highlighting the life of Reginald Fessenden.
The play was written by Dr. East, a long-time member of the IEEE. His author biography stated that “Dr. East has a B.A. from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from McGill University, Montreal. He worked on radar in World War 2, and on weather radar at McGill. From 1958 to 1987, he was with Raytheon Canada Limited in Waterloo, working on air traffic control radar, navigational aids and telecommunications. He is the co-author of Satellite Communications Fundamentals.”
The first act of the play was set at Chemong Lake near Peterborough, in 1893, where Reginald Fessenden, played by Tom East, is discussing wireless transmission of sound with his uncle Cortez Fessenden, played by Morris Fraser. Both actors showed the enthusiasm that accompanies engineers and inventors as they discuss the latest in technology, in this case the transmission of sound without wires. With the cry of a loon, the audience was transported to this Ontario lake, and so the image of ripples in the water from a stone as being like a continuous sound wave was something everyone in the audience could vividly imagine. Reginald Fessenden had to fight to prove that his theory of a continuous wave, in contrast to others such as Marconi who felt that sound was transmitted through a whiplash effect, was correct.
A short scene change gave us Fessenden’s laboratory at Brant Rock, Plymouth Massachusetts. In the first scene, in October 1900, Fessenden, his engineer assistant Adam Stein, played by Dave Brooks, and his wife, Helen Fessenden, played by Dorothy Hobson, reenacted the first wireless transmission of voice, receiving a Morse code reply. The message was quintessentially Canadian, as
befitting an engineer and inventor born in Quebec, as Fessenden asked about the weather.
In the second scene, six years later in September 1906, we see the three hoping to send a wireless transmission. Alas, it was not to be as we hear a Morse code message informing them that a tower has fallen in the wind, dooming the experiment to failure. The scene nicely set up the dramatic tension for scene three, which occurred on Christmas Eve of 1906.
Wireless operators for ships in the Atlantic had been told to expect something unusual. Fessenden then sent the first radio broadcast of both voice and music. As the last notes of the violin solo performed by Tom East as Fessenden died away, the audience held its collective breath waiting for the sound of Morse code as a reply, hoping that this time, there would be success. There were smiles all round as the replies from the Atlantic, praising a clear broadcast, were received.
Fessenden, while a visionary engineer, unfortunately did not receive much credit for his work, and his patents were seized by his partners. In the last scene of Act 3, Dorothy Hobson did an excellent job of expressing the distress of discovering that Fessenden’s life work was to be taken away. Bill Bergey, as T. H. Given, a partner in the National Electric Signalling Company nearly stole the show as he showed up at the lab with an employee, played by Henk van Duren, to dismantle the lab and remove the patents. The scene change was handled particularly deftly as the two actors then dismantled the lab in front of our eyes.
In the last act, we see a much older Fessenden and his wife at their house in Bermuda in 1928. They are reflecting on the many inventions of his life, and the few times when Fessenden was honoured for his work. As they sort through the mail, Fessenden opens a letter from the Institute of Radio Engineers (one of the two societies merged to form the IEEE), muttering that it is likely a letter asking for his annual dues. As he read the letter, we were able to share in the pride of knowing that he received a Medal of Honour from the IRE. The year was a good one for Fessenden, as he also finally received a settlement for his patent lawsuits.
The play was very enjoyable, and John Kerr as director obviously did a fine job working with his cast of amateur actors. Everyone involved in the production was a resident of Luther Village. While there were, ironically, a few initial technical glitches with the sound, this in no way detracted from the audience’s enjoyment of the play once it started. It was a wonderful (and apparently technically accurate as I am told even the Morse code messages were correct) way to learn more about a great Canadian inventor and engineer.
Reviewed by Carol Hulls