north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



Marker Text:

     Scholarly studies by Hugh G. J. Aitken and Susan Douglas are useful in judging Reginald A. Fessenden’s place in the history of broadcasting and the significance on his experiments on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Both are based in part on the Fessenden papers donated to the North Carolina State Archives by his son in 1940. What is clear from the books is that no one individual was responsible for the invention of radio. Fessenden’s primary contribution was his scrapping of Marconi’s operating principles and his advocacy of the “continuous wave” theory of broadcasting. It was this theory that the former Edison assistant demonstrated successfully at Cobb Island, Maryland (first transmission of intelligible speech, 1900); on the Outer Banks (first transmission of varying musical notes, 1902); and at Brant Rock, Massachusetts (first actual broadcast of a radio program, 1906). The 1902 North Carolina transmissions were “very loud and plain, i.e., as loud as in an ordinary telephone.”

     R. A. Fessenden’s work on the Outer Banks was contemporaneous with the first flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. Although not nearly so well-known, his radio experiments have drawn attention from time to time. In 1940 his widow Helen published a biography defending her husband’s accomplishments against those she believed would rob him of the credit. A United States Navy destroyer in World War II was named in his honor. In the mid-1940s and again in the late 1970s there were attempts to create a “Fessenden Memorial Park” on Roanoke Island. The experiment station at Buxton no longer stands but the foundations for a tower used by Fessenden do remain. The station appears on period U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey maps and has been confirmed by David Stick and residents with knowledge of the area.

R. A. Fessenden Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh
Helen M. Fessenden, Fessenden, Builder of Tomorrows (1940)
Ormond Raby, Radio’s First Voice: The Story of Reginald Fessenden (1970)
Hugh G. J. Aitken, The Continuous Wave: Technology and American Radio, 1900-1932 (1985)
Susan Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 (1987)
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north carolina highway historical marker program

Reginald A. Fessenden

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources