Every day, people use wireless technologies that may be taken for granted, like music streaming, FaceTime and podcasts listened to on smartphones.
All of this and more can be traced back to the work of Reginald Fessenden, described by the United States National Park Service as the “Father of Voice Radio.” Fessenden served as chairman of the electrical engineering department at Pitt when it was called the Western University of Pennsylvania. The department has since evolved into today’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
“Fessenden was one of the greatest engineers and inventors in history, truly a genius,” said Alan George, the department’s current chair. “Much of the research and education in my field, electrical and computer engineering, including my research on space systems, sensors and missions, wouldn’t exist without his pioneering work in radio communications. Our department is most proud to have been founded by the father of radio.”
Fessenden was recruited to Pitt in 1893 by George Westinghouse, who developed the alternating current electrical system and the Westinghouse light bulb among other innovations. Fessenden previously helped Westinghouse with electrical infrastructure and lighting for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and, prior to that, worked with another inventor he admired, Thomas Edison.
It was at Pitt where Fessenden began experimenting with the foundations of what would become radio technology, at a time when wireless communication was very limited and people could only send messages via Morse code’s dashes and dots.
By 1899, he was able to send wireless telegraphs between Pittsburgh and the former Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh’s North Side. He would leave Pitt in 1900 to dedicate his time to inventing, eventually being employed by the National Electric Signaling Company. His next achievements included the first wireless transmission of speech by radio in 1900, and the first two-way transcontinental radiotelegraphic transmission in 1906.
World Radio Day
The United Nations established World Radio Day to raise awareness of the importance radio as a source of public information and to encourage cooperation among international broadcasters.
Feb. 13 was chosen because it was on that day in 1946 that United Nations Radio was established.
“Radio is a low-cost medium specifically suited to reaching remote communities and vulnerable people, offering a platform to intervene in the public debate, irrespective of people’s educational level,” said Antonio Guterres, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “It also plays a crucial role in emergency communication and disaster relief. … On this World Radio Day, let us recognize the enduring power of radio to promote diversity and help build a more peaceful and inclusive world.”
Fessenden developed concepts and technologies for transmission and reception of continuous-wave signals, in the form of amplitude-modulated (AM) radio signals carrying audio information such as speech and music, which was a leap beyond the spark-gap transmitters of the day used for Morse code. AM signaling would later lead to frequency-modulated (FM) signaling, the two keystones of radio technology, and many more radio-frequency technologies that followed.
“Fessenden laid the foundation for all modern communications,” George said. “Throughout our modern society, from TV to cell phones to GPS satellites, you can trace back to the work of Fessenden on radio technology. He deserves far more credit than he ever received.”
Fessenden’s legacy at Pitt has been carried through the decades, with the late Marlin Mickle advancing research in the application of radio frequency energy. Mickle was the Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor in the Swanson School of Engineering, holding a primary appointment as professor of electrical and computer engineering and secondary appointments in computer engineering, biomedical engineering, industrial engineering and telecommunications. He worked as a Pitt faculty member from 1962 until his retirement in 2013.
Mickle had over 40 patents licensed, including a method to passively power image capturing and a method to control radio frequency transmissions to mitigate interference with critical care equipment. Pitt’s licensing of his patents led to seven spinoff companies forming. Mickle also directed Pitt’s Radio Frequency Identification Center of Excellence, which focused on research pertaining to advancements in wireless medical and engineering technologies.
“He (Mickle) would make sure to dedicate part of his time to telling students in his networking classes about Fessenden and his work so they knew the connection between Fessenden and the department,” said Sam Dickerson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “He would tell students ‘Nothing is new,’ and that all technology we have is simply repackaged ideas implemented with better devices.”
In medicine, communication is important for faster accurate diagnoses and treatments.
“A lot of work in my field wouldn’t be possible without Fessenden’s work,” said Christopher Brown, an associate professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “Wireless communication has solved many problems in medicine. You can try using wires to transmit information from an external device to an implant in a patient’s body, but then you have the problems of infection, device failures and inconvenience.”
Brown studies psychoacoustics, speech understanding in the presence of background noise, hearing impairment and cochlear implant processing.
“Hearing devices have a direct link to Fessenden’s work,” he said. “For example, when someone has hearing aids in both ears, the aids will ‘communicate’ with each other to adjust volume levels so the listener is more comfortable. A cochlear implant is another surgically implanted device that takes radio information from external components through the skin into audio.”
Pitt’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering reflects every year on the importance of Fessenden’s work at its graduation ceremony.
“It’s important for every engineer to understand history in their field, because we can foresee much about the future by understanding the past,” George said. “The inventors of that era were amazing, and much of their new science was based upon faith in their ideas and that they can be successful, even when others didn’t believe in them.”