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The memorial that wasn't

Reginald A. Fessenden, the radio pioneer known as the "father of voice radio," conducted some of his experiments on North Carolina's outer banks, earning a place along side the Wright Brothers as inventors claimed by the state.

Professor Fessenden is credited with the perfection of continuous wave telegraph. His messages in 1902 between Roanoke Island and Hatteras represented the longest two-way wireless telephone communication up to that time. Later, he successfully bridged the Atlantic with two-way radio communication, and made the first broadcast in radio history.

He is credited with over 500 patents, and these include many pioneer inventions. His successes were dimmed by litigations. For nearly 30 years his achievements were ignored, and not until 1928, until court after court had upheld his claim, did he reap some financial reward for his inventions.

In 1926, citizens of Dare county, seeking to further recognize their history, started a program to create a monument to the Wrights at Kill Devil Hills, and one to Fessenden on Roanoke Island. For lack of sufficient data on Fessenden, plans for his memorial was postponed.

... Fessenden moved to Bermuda and died in 1932. Mrs. Helen M. Fessenden published his biography in 1940. Once again the citizens of Dare County got in touch with the Fessenden family ... and asked the approval of the family that a national memorial to the inventor be in North Carolina.

Hardly had Mrs. Fessenden given her approval ... than she was stricken with a heart attack and died in April of this year. -- The News & Observer 8/16/1941

In 1941, the Fessenden National Memorial Association was organized, and that summer, a ceremony was held on Roanoke Island to dedicate its efforts. Writer Ben Dixon MacNeill captured the scene:

This island which has had a ringside seat at three and a half centuries of history-making moved a mighty epoch out from under the shadow of more noted epochs this afternoon, and so was begun the rendering of due honor to Reginald A. Fessenden who four decades ago sent from this island the first transmission of the human voice by wireless telephone.

George Gordon Battle, come home from New York back to the scenes where his childhood Summers were passed, described the epoch as "the last mighty link in the cycle of human communication that began when man first rode an animal or floated on a log." In eloquent peroration he challenged Americans to preserve and rededicate the ideals of the pioneer that brought these implements of civilization into being.

Very nearly forgotten by the world in the glamorous shadow of Kill Devil Hill, where men found wings, and within the shadow of the Lost Colony, where English civilization found rebirth, were worked out the first experiments that flowered into the miracle of radio. And to the island this afternoon came a goodly company of those who remembered to do honor at last to the man who began the miracle.

Those attending the program were Governor Broughton, who was making his first trip to the Outer Banks, the widow of Thomas Edison's son, "who happened to pass by the island on a vacation cruise while the Fessenden experiments were underway and remained here two years with her late husband," and others who helped with the experiments.

Beside these there were many old timers on the island, or they rate as old timers now. They knew the Fessendens and the Edisons and Marconi when they were all here. ...

It was the sheriff's idea that came into flower this afternoon with the celebration and dedication. It has been tugging away at him for years and years ever since the Wright Memorial reared its glorious head above the crest of Kill Devil. -- The News & Observer 8/25/1941

But the enthusiasm for the proposed memorial was not shared throughout the state. The News & Observer's Under the Dome column raised some questions about the plan:

While private contributors are being asked to sink $100,000 into a memorial to the late Reginald A. Fessenden on Roanoke Island, where officials yesterday whooped it up for the famous inventor, there are a lot of questions arising in the minds of persons farther from the scene.

In the first place, some are asking why Roanoke Island, where the inventor brushed up a system he already had devised elsewhere, should be the spot for a high-priced memorial to a Canadian whose activities took him all over the country. Some would like to know who now owns the equipment which was sold at auction after Fessenden left Roanoke in a huff following a quarrel with the U. S. Weather Bureau. They also would like to know how much of that $100,000 those owners would ask for that equipment to be placed on display in a memorial. -- The News & Observer 8/25/1941

As it turned out, the Fessenden memorial never quite got off the ground. According to the Outer Banks History Center, maintained by the State Archives of North Carolina, the Association, led by the Dare County sheriff Victor Meekins, had plans well underway by 1963, but when Meekins died in 1964, the group became inactive. Despite an attempt by Meekin's son to resurrect the group, the land set aside for the memorial was transferred to the Roanoke Island Historical Association in 1980.

Above, Reginald Fessenden, seated, and his staff (inlcuding Mike "The Wireless Cat") at Brant Rock, MA station. Top, Fessenden's wireless station on Cape Hatteras. Photos courtesy of the NC State Archives.

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