A 1908 Letter Proposing Aviation Radio To Orville Wright

scan0001This is a photo copy of a letter written by Reginald Fessenden to Orville Wright in 1908, proposing the use of radio as a means of communicating between the ground and the pilot. Fessenden is supposed to be the Father of Radio… not Marconi.

My late father-in-law, Ormond Raby, wrote a book on this topic, and lobbied hard to get him recognized as the father of radio… but since few people alive today know of Fessenden, we can assume his efforts were for naught.

Regardless, perhaps one day I’ll continue that battle—but for now, here’s a transcribed version of the two page document to Orville Wright:

September 4, 1908.

Orville Wright, Esq.,
Signal Corps,
Fort Myer, Va

Dear Mr. Wright:

We have a small shop at 8th and Water Sts., containing a number of Brown & Sharpe and Rivett tools and the mechanics have done work of precision for me which I could not get done elsewhere.

I will be glad if you would use this shop as your own. I enclose a copy of instructions sent our superintendent, Mr. Williams.

Continuing our interrupted conversation, the method heretofore proposed of hanging wires is inefficient and bad mechanically and electrically.

By pasting a couple of square yards of tinfoil on the surface (surface) of the airplane, and using these as antennae, communication can be maintained for forty miles without adding any frictional resistance or additional appendages. The waves are thus generated in the horizontal plane and can only be received and transmitted from two directions, thus preventing atmospheric disturbances and interference with the message by the enemy, a matter of great importance where the airplane is  

 – 2-
used for scouting work. If hanging wires are used, as proposed by the French and Germans, communication can be interfered with from any quarter and atmospheric disturbances will also injure the receipt of messages. If any question should be raised in regard to the matter, you can inform the Signal Corps that you can guarantee communication to forty miles. We will furnish you with the apparatus at cost, or will furnish you with the plan, should you prefer to build it yourself.

I shall be in town, at the Raleigh, room 401, until Monday and hope that you may be able to give me the pleasure of your company at lunch or dinner on Sunday, that is of course provided you have no work on hand, as I know how many engagements must be pressing upon you. If you cannot accept, I shall hope at some time in the future for better luck.
Yours very truly,
R.A. Fessenden



According to Mr. Raby, Fessenden and Orville Wright were unable to meet up, and Wright chose to go another way for his radio… though apparently, it was not as successful as what Fessenden was proposing.

During these early days, ground crews used colored paddles and hand signs to communicate with the pilot, which meant they already had to be pretty low for visual confirmation.  As well, the ground crew could communicate, but the pilot couldn’t.

When World War I began in 1914 (six years after Fessenden approached Orville Wright), there was still no radio system in place, so soldiers on the ground used large panel cut-outs to imply they were friendly forces. These cut-outs were also often used as a direction device for pilots to find the home base.

Pilots in flying planes WERE able to use telegraph systems, using dots and dashes to call in locations of artillery fire or to provide scouting information.

So… while voice communication was not being achieved, we do know that the British Royal Flying Corps of 1912 had experimented with ‘wireless telegraphy’.

Lead by Lieutenant B.T. James in a B.E.2a aeroplane, in 1913 had begun experiments with radios, but was shot down by anti-aircraft fire on July 13, 1915.

It wasn’t until 1917, when AT&T invented the first air-to-ground radio transmitter, testing it at Langley Field in Virginia.

It began in May of 1917, when General George Squier of the U.S. Army Signal Corps contacted AT&T to develop an air-to-ground radio with a range of 2,000 yards.

By July 4, 1917, AT&T achieved two-way communication between pilots and ground personnel via mouth, rather than Morse Code.

Only a few radios made it into aeroplanes before the war ended on November 11, 1918.

So… might the war have ended earlier if the Allied Forces utilized the radio system first proposed by Fessenden to a stubborn Orville Wright back in 1908?

Orville Wright flying at Fort Myer, September 9, 1908 - the day after the Fessenden letter.

Orville Wright flying at Fort Myer, September 9, 1908 – the day after the Fessenden letter.

By the way, this is 1908, and you’ll notice that the Wright Flyer still lacks wheels. Tsk-tsk to the inventors who owned a bicycle repair shop.

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
This entry was posted in Concepts, Firsts, People, Research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s