It was New Year’s Eve in 1879 that Thomas Alva Edison unveiled his best known invention, but some bright ideas are Canadian first.
Edison’s incandescent bulb shone light on a new era as well as a new year.
Toronto, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, invented a light bulb before Edison. But they couldn’t get the financing they needed to get their invention from the lab to the store windows. So they sold the rights to their 1875 patent to Edison. In 1879, Edison demonstrated his light globe — one of the inventions most associated with his name. Like so many other great Canadian ideas, Woodward and Evans’s invention ended up going south.
The brain drain didn’t end there.
When you think radio, you probably think Guglielmo Marconi.
And you probably think Canada’s role in the invention of the radio was to provide some real estate for the first intercontinental radio broadcast.
You’d be wrong.
First, the broadcast was made in Newfoundland long before it ever entered Confederation. And second, don’t think Marconi. Think Fessenden.
Reginald Fessenden was a Quebec-born inventor who, like many Canadian inventors, may have been a genius but could have used some help with marketing and publicity.
When Fessenden was growing up in Ontario, his uncle, a physics teacher, brought him to see Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, the year Bell invented the telephone. Fessenden liked the telephone but was curious about why it required wires to connect the two sets. Right then and there, Fessenden decided he was going to broadcast voices through the air.
And he did. Before Marconi.
In 1901, Marconi managed to send a radio signal across the Atlantic with the message in the dots and dashes of Morse Code. Marconi had a theory of why this happened, but it was wrong and Fessenden knew it. He recognized that a radio, to be useful, would need to use a standing wave; that is, it would have to broadcast continuously, not in little spurts of sparks as his contemporaries believed. Fessenden’s first speech broadcast was looked on with something like amusement — why use speech when you can spark off some dots and dashes? And other scientists ridiculed his theories of the continuous wave.
Fessenden’s first speech broadcast took place on December 23, 1900 — the year before Marconi’s trans-Atlantic transmission of dots and dashes. 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, D.C.
In 1906, with Marconi still playing about with sparks and arcs and dots and dashes, Fessenden broadcast music and speech to ships in the Atlantic. In 1906 he also managed two-way voice communication between Scotland and Massachusetts.
Instead of getting rich, his backers seized his patents and pushed him aside. He sued. That took almost two decades to settle. When all was said and done, he won about $500,000 in damages and handed over about $300,000 in lawyers’ fees.
He wound up working in the United States building radios for that country’s military. In Canada, he couldn’t get the funding to do research. And when he tried to create a radio network in Canada, he was told he couldn’t. The Canadian government had given that privilege exclusively to Marconi — who was not a Canadian.
In 1929 Fessenden invented a television. He also developed a kind of sonar to help the world avoid another Titanic disaster by helping ships detect icebergs. The same invention came in handy during the First World War, helping ships detect submarines.
During that war, he also created a device that would allow the Canadian military to detect enemy artillery and determine its range and location. His sense of patriotism had brought him back to Canada and he was sent to work on the device in London, England. But the bureaucrats who approved purchases for the military weren’t interested. (A Canadian army officer later created a similar device out of necessity, at the front, driven by the horrific losses of men to German artillery.)
In all, Fessenden was a holder of more than five hundred patents. He was highly regarded in the United States. He was awarded money and recognition by the city of Philadelphia as “one whose labors have been of great benefit to mankind.” The Institute of Radio Engineers of America presented him with its medal of honour. The head of General Electric Laboratories called him “the greatest wireless inventor of the age — greater than Marconi.”
The New York Times wrote an editorial regarding Fessenden:
It sometimes happens, even in science, that one man can be right against the world. Professor Fessenden was that man. He fought bitterly and alone to prove his theories. It was he who insisted, against the stormy protests of every recognized authority, that what we now call radio was worked by continuous waves sent through the ether by the transmitting station as light waves are sent out by a flame. Marconi and others insisted that what was happening was a whiplash effect. The progress of radio was retarded a decade by this error. The whiplash theory passed gradually from the minds of men and was replaced by the continuous wave — one with all too little credit to the man who had been right.
In my lifetime, I developed over a hundred patentable inventions including the electric gyroscope, the heterodyne, and a depth finder. I built the first power generating station at Niagara Falls and I invented radio, sending the first wireless voice message in the world on Dec. 23, 1900.
But despite all my hard work, I lived most of my life near poverty. I fought years of court battles before seeing even a penny from my greatest inventions. And worst of all, I was ridiculed by journalists, businessmen, and even other scientists, for believing that voice could ever be transmitted without using wires. But by the time death was near, not only was I wealthy from my patents, and all of those people who had laughed at my ideas were twisting the dials on their newly bought radios to hear the latest weather and news.
In many American encyclopedia and reference books, he is considered an American Canadian, even though he never gave up his Canadian citizenship and when war was declared he returned to Canada to serve, although his genius had been ignored and gone unrewarded in his own country.
Even today the Encyclopedia Canadiana does not give him a separate listing. Mention of him is included only under the listing for his mother, Clementina, who established Empire Day in Canada. Reginald is mentioned as one of her four sons, “inventor of the wireless telephone, the radio compass and the visible bullet for machine guns, he also invented the first television set in North America in 1919.”
Still — no credit for the radio.
Aw, well, let’s head out for a drive.
On the weekend, you probably like to hit the road for the country for a picnic with your friends and family and take a few photographs with the McCurdy and …
What, you’ve never heard of a McCurdy?
Well you would have, had Arthur Williams McCurdy been as much businessman as inventor.
McCurdy was a genius when it came to inventions. One of them was a method of making pictures anywhere — not just taking them but making them. It was called the Portable Film Developing System, and McCurdy created it in 1890. A little ahead of his time.
Even so, thirteen years later, when the world caught up to him, he sold the patent to George Eastman. Yes, as in Eastman Kodak Co. It took decades for the first Polaroid cameras to come onto the market. And McCurdy was long forgotten.
Canadians have some bright ideas, sometimes it takes an American to shine a light on them.
For more on the light bulb, click here.