It was not easy to surprise Thomas Edison, whose forward thinking abilities predicted things so far in the future as clean energy and robots that could do people’s jobs for them. However, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (1866-1932) was one employee that impressed Edison beyond his own predictions.
As one of the world’s most influential electrical engineers, Fessenden was celebrated by the International Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) for his great contributions to the early days of radio and wireless transmission. He was responsible for the first audio radio transmission in 1900, discovering the principle of amplitude modulation that lead to AM radio, and even developing sonar systems that determined things like ocean depth and iceberg collision avoidance. Fessenden was considered to be the Father of radio-telephony and even had a WWII boat named after him called the the USS Fessenden!
However, before he went on to create 500+ patents himself, Fessenden was a life-long admirer of Thomas Edison and in 1886 applied to work for him so that he could learn from the best.
As legend has it, Fessenden’s original appeal to Edison about working for him went something like this…His written communication to Edison said, “Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick,” to which Edison replied, “Have enough men now who do not know about electricity.” However, before the end of the year he was hired for a semi-skilled position as an assistant tester for the Edison Machine Works laying underground electrical mains in New York City.
Fessenden moved to Edison’s West Orange labs in 1887, where he was Edison’s assistant and participated in a broad range of projects which included solving problems in chemistry, metallurgy, and electricity. Edison valued him for his ability to work out solutions across a variety of technical areas. His thinking and process skills surpassed the knowledge one is expected to build in school and formal settings. Fessenden could think on his feet, and Edison highly prized this ability. Eventually, Fessenden would become the chief chemist of Edison Electrical Co. in 1890.
However, when Edison faced financial problems in 1890, he was forced to lay off most of the laboratory employees, including Fessenden. Despite this, Fessenden remained an admirer of Edison his entire life. He once said of Edison, “There is only one figure in history which stands in the same rank as him as an inventor…..Archimedes.”
Taking advantage of the practical experience that he gained with Edison, Fessenden had no problem finding positions with a series of manufacturing companies, including his own. He went on to surprise Edison, yet again, with his discoveries in radio by sending speech without wires, which Edison had initially thought impossible. In the following years, Fessenden taught electrical engineering at Purdue and the University of Pittsburg to teach others the same way of thinking that Edison had valued and cultivated with many projects at his labs.