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Inventing Schemes and Strategies: The Making and Selling of the Fessenden Oscillator

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 42, Number 3, July 2001
pp. 462-488 | 10.1353/tech.2001.0109

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Technology and Culture 42.3 (2001) 462-488


Reginald Fessenden's pioneering work in radio has been the subject of much scholarly attention, but historians have neglected his equally impressive career in the field of underwater acoustic technology. In 1913, as a consulting engineer for the Submarine Signal Company (SSC), he invented the Fessenden Oscillator, a versatile electromechanical device that launched two revolutionary maritime technologies: underwater telegraphy and underwater echo ranging, a method of determining the distances of submerged objects still used in sonar, acoustic depth sounding, and radar. More than a prototype, the oscillator delivered immediate practical results and achieved decades of commercial success. Seafarers considered Fessenden's invention a godsend. In 1929, a committee of the American Museum of Safety, comprised of "men who are used to commanding vessels or fleets," voted unanimously to abandon its original intention to recognize a single technological innovation and instead awarded the Scientific American Magazine Gold Medal of Safety to Fessenden for twelve inventions based on the oscillator.

But the Submarine Signal Company was slow to exploit the capabilities of Fessenden's invention. Despite trials that proved the oscillator effective both at underwater telegraphy and at detecting and locating navigational hazards, such as icebergs and passing vessels, the company decided to market only the telegraphy feature, and in 1914 began manufacturing oscillator-based underwater telegraph systems. Further successful demonstrations of echo ranging followed, including submarine detection tests during the First World War, but a full decade passed before the company capitalized on that feature of the oscillator.

This article examines the Fessenden Oscillator's origins and history, focusing primarily on the eleven years in which its echo-ranging feature remained commercially untapped. Although technical factors accounted for Fessenden's determination to design the oscillator as both a telegraph and an echo ranger, from the start nontechnical issues intervened to retard development and exploitation of the latter function. A complex interplay of influences -- personal, political, commercial, and institutional -- shaped the ways in which SSC and its customers interpreted and exploited the two aspects of Fessenden's invention. Indeed, once the Submarine Signal Company took control of the oscillator in 1912, a new set of factors, unrelated to the device's functionality, isolated Fessenden as the only advocate of echo ranging.

An Eclectic Inventor

Fessenden was born in what is now Bolton, Quebec, in 1866, the year before the British North America Act brought into being the Dominion of Canada. His mother, Clementina, instilled in him a patriotic love of the British Empire that would in turn strongly influence his career as an inventor. Clementina Fessenden was something of a professional imperialist. She began writing political broadsides early in her married life, a few to oppose the parliamentary franchise for women but most glorifying the British Empire. The extraordinary popularity of her pamphlet Our Union Jack earned her an audience with Queen Victoria. In the late 1890s, as organizing secretary of the Order of the Daughters of the Empire, she successfully campaigned for the establishment of "Empire Day," a national holiday honoring British imperialism. In 1912, the year her son invented the oscillator, a reference book of prominent Canadians described her as an "ardent Imperialist" and Reginald Fessenden as "a believer in 'Greater Britain.'"

Fessenden's views on ethnicity underlay his enthusiasm for British imperialism. His memoirs, published in 1925, outlined a theory purporting to explain why certain races and physiognomic types (particularly blond-haired men of English extraction, such as himself) tended to produce inventors. He less publicly aired his political philosophy, which boiled down to an undiluted faith in the inherent ability of the English to govern, especially over other peoples in the British Empire. Before 1925 Fessenden rarely communicated these opinions to others, but during World War I he confided to Henry L. Higginson, a Boston department store owner and a member of SSC's board of directors, that "one reason England is now in such straights [sic] is because she is no longer ruled by the English, but by the Scotch, Welsh, Irish, French, Jews, etc. . . . As an Englishman myself (The Fessendens were men of Kent . . .) I sometimes feel that England will not be itself again until we Englishmen...