Podcast # 57: The invention of the Radio

The radio, for most people, is something they listen to music on. With growing technology, people have more options as to where they can listen to music or news shows other than the radio. The radio has a very interesting history. The first radios were very basic means of communication for ships.

Spark Gap Machines were the first type of a primitive radio of sorts. It allowed for ship to ship communication or ship to shore communication. They used an electric spark to create radio waves, but the message was spelled out in Morse Code. It was a form of wireless telegraphy. Prior to this invention when ships were in distress either visual signals or carrier pigeons were used to relay messages.

Visual signals like flying a flag upside down, shooting flares. The notion of a carrier pigeon might sound strange but militaries around the world used carrier pigeons.

Carrier pigeons played a role in naval communications from the late 1880s through World War II.

pigeons were conditioned to fly from the ship back to their home loft at the Naval College in Annapolis, Maryland. They were released from shorter distances at first, then the distance was gradually increased until they were flying up to 150 miles.

While wireless telegraphy was around in the 1900s, carrier pigeons were still utilized during both world wars. When the US got involved in WWI, the use of pigeons in racing was banned because they needed all available birds for military usage. During World War I, the Navy had pigeon trainers called Pigeoneers. The way it worked was that the pigeon would go through a little slot that rang a bell and the pigeon master would retrieve the note.

By WWII communications had improved significantly but carrier pigeons were still used by the military. Pigeons were taken on airships or used on anti submarine patrols. They were particularly useful when radio silence was in force, or during radio failure. In fact, every airship had six crated pigeons. The pigeons normally carried messages in black plastic capsules attached to one of their legs, but when the message was an emergency, a red capsule would be used.

Now that we know how people communicated before the radio, we can get into how the radio came about. Very few would have imagined the radio being used to listen to music or for entertainment when the technology was first being developed. Before the radio itself could be invented; the technology behind it had to be figured out first. You have different physicists around the world figuring out different things or inventing different components of the technology. Whether it was information on direct current or magnetic energy, electromagnetic relay technology or radio waves. The work and knowledge passed on by people too numerous to name all aided in the development of the radio.

The radio grew out of the invention of wireless telegraphy. In the mid to late 1800s there was a growing movement to improve the way people can communicate and spread information. If you look at inventions like the telegraph, morse code and the telephone, they all improved the way people could communicate.

When it comes to the question. Who invented the radio, two names are typically thrown out: Nikola Tesla or Guglielmo Marconi. Nikola Tesla was born in what was once the Austrian Empire in 1858 in what is now known as Croatia. He had a photographic memory. He was gifted in the areas of math and science. He studied at a College known for its science and engineering program but didn’t graduate. In 1881, he got a job at a Telegraph Company in Budapest as their chief electrician. That job led to another job, but this time in Paris at the Continental Edison Company. His skills and ability made him well known to the management of the company. Not only was he fixing problems but now he was also designing new and improved types of technology. He was so well known within the company that he was brought to the United States to work in their factory in NYC in 1884. He wouldn’t work long for the Edison Company in NY, he left after 6 months and started his own company, Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. He would not find immediate success. His investors had little interest in developing new electrical systems and after they pulled their financial support, Tesla’s company went under. In 1887, he found two new investors and started the Tesla Electric Company. His invention of the induction motor got him noticed by George Westinghouse and made him a significant amount of money for the time. That money gave him the leeway to spend his time inventing a number of important and revolutionary products. An 1889 visit to the World’s Fair in Paris inspired him to look into electromagnetic radiation and radio waves. He created what would become known as the Tesla Coil which was used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency alternating-current electricity. In 1895, The Tesla Company was created with the sole purpose of producing his inventions that he had patented as well as new ones. One of the areas he focused on was Wireless Telegraphy. He would also have a number of high profile investors like John Jacob Astor IV and JP Morgan. The money he made years earlier had dried out and Tesla was bankrupt. His connection to the radio stems from 1893 when Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first wireless radio in St Louis, Missouri. He got a patent for the radio in 1900.

Now we have to talk about Guglielmo Marconi. He is often called “the father of radio”. He was an inventor with both Italian and Irish heritage. He was born to a wealthy family in Bologna Italy, his mother was from the Jameson family. He was well educated and inspired by the work of German Physicist, Heinrich Hertz. Hertz was the first person to prove the existence of electromagnetic waves. This wasn’t an idea he came up with but instead proved another scientist’s theory to be true. That’s why the frequency is measured in Hertz. It was named after him. These Hertzian Waves eventually become known as Radio Waves. So Marconi is inspired by this work but can’t find backers in Italy so he goes to London, where he gets the investors he needs. Within a year of being in London he is able to send radio signals over 12 miles away.

He was the first to send radio signals in 1895. He was awarded the first patent for wireless telegraphy in England in 1896. He was the first to transmit radio signals across the Atlantic. In 1897, he established the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Limited. It was more commonly known as American Marconi. By 1902, his equipment was able to send messages at distances of more than 1,500 miles at night and 700 miles by day. Messages could be sent farther at night because of the refraction of long wave radiation that the night time allowed for. A year later, full news stories were able to be sent across the Atlantic. By the early 1900s, ships had a Marconi Radio, including the infamous Titanic. When it hit an iceberg and sank in 1912, the Titanic used its Marconi radio to send out its distress call for CQD which allowed for neighboring ships to come and allowed people to be saved from the water. In fact, in 1909, Marconi was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his advancements in radio sciences. The radio is being used minimally for entertainment purposes by a select few. It is being used mostly by ships, by militaries and there are also a number of amateurs who are building radios and using them. Think of it as a hobby or people tinkering. This would change once WWI broke out.

During WWI, any privately owned radio channels were either suspended or taken over by the Federal Government. It actually became illegal to own a working radio transmitter or receiver as these channels were for war use only. Just to show you how important radio was during WWI, German Zeppelins used radio signals to transmit exact locations of targets and the Allies began to transmit phony radio signals to throw off the Germans. The US Navy used the radio to transmit information about the war and the radio was used to broadcast entertainment to the troops. After the war ended, the US Government didn’t want to have radio broadcasting in the US owned by a foreign business. American Marconi was sold to GE and GE created RCA in 1919. RCA or the Radio Corporation of America was a trust company owned by not only GE but Westinghouse, AT&T and the United Fruit Company and other entities. When the board would meet, a government representative was there to make sure that the interests and views of the Federal Government were made clear. The Federal Government would eventually break this apart and it would take years of antitrust lawsuits. RCA was a major company. It dominated both the electronic and communications industries in the United States for more than 50 years. By the 1920s and 1930s you have broadcasting companies doing advertisements for products or companies to make a profit. The first known radio sponsorship or advertisement cost $50 for a series of 5 ads. Today, that number is much higher but the cost of course depends on location, length of the ad, how many listeners a station has during a particular time slot. There is big money to be made in advertising but when the radio was first coming out, people were trying to figure out how to make money off of it.

By the mid-1920s we saw the creation of radio networks. Many of these radio networks exist today and simply moved over to the newer medium that was Television in the 1940s. In 1926, RCA created the National Broadcasting Company, otherwise known as NBC. Rival Networks soon emerged like the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). These networks created radio programs or shows that radio stations would air. Eventually you have more radio stations than you had frequencies. This led to the passage of the Radio Act of 1927. This created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) and it allowed the agency to regulate the airwaves and create order. Some stations were reserved for networks, other stations had to share frequencies and only operated during designated times of the day. This would not be the only regulation of the radio, in 1934, the FCC was created. The FCC is the Federal Communications Commission which replaced the FRC.

The first US President to have their voice heard on the radio was Warren G. Harding. He was giving an address at a memorial dedication for the composer of the star spangled banner, Francis Scott Key. The first president to purposefully give an address on the radio was Calvin Coolidge. The first President to really utilize this new medium was FDR.

The radio and the Great Depression

FDR is considered the first radio president. Over the course of his Presidency (which was the longest in US History, he would give over 30 radio addresses. The addresses were often called fireside chats. Throughout the Great Depression and WWII his words helped to give comfort and encouraged millions of Americans. Future Presidents also gave radio addresses. Some weekly, others sporadically throughout their term or terms as President.

When we talk of the radio, many people often refer to The Golden Age of the Radio. The golden age of the radio begins in the 1920s and lasts until the creation of television in the 1940s and 1950s. The radio became the center of the home and something people used in their free time. Families would sit around the radio to enjoy their favorite programs, to listen to news stories and music. Programs would be geared towards certain audiences at certain times during the day.

There were a number of Famous radio shows.

Amos and Andy, The Lone Ranger, which was our Dad’s favorite radio show.

George Burns and Gracie Allen – their variety show, the Burns and Allen show ( I don’t know if you have ever heard the saying “Say goodnight Gracie”) People of a certain age will know what I’m talking about and have that image of George Burns smoking a cigar. People below a certain age will have to google it!

Jack Benny, Bob Hope, these were all famous radio programs and many became television programs.

Soap Operas got their name from the soap companies that sponsored them. Advertising agencies even began producing their own radio programs named after their products.

In the 1930s, you start seeing news programs becoming popular. Big stories like the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, the Hindenburg disaster, the 60-minute live broadcast of an adaption of the 1898 classic novel The War of the Worlds which was Directed by Orson Welles, in October of 1938. The broadcast led some people to believe that a real Martian invasion had taken place! With the emergence and evolution of the radio, listening to the news became more popular. Events across the world could now be discussed over the radio. Of course when WWII broke out, news programs of the war and the war effort became popular sources of information for people.

You can’t talk about the radio without talking about music. People listened to music like swing, jazz and blues. Famous musicians like Al Jolson, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong. The Grand Ole Opry began in the 1920s too!

These radio shows quickly became a part of a person’s or a family’s routine. There is something very intimate about creating something that is going to be listened to by a family in their home. There is almost this connection that people build. I know that voice, or in today’s world someone who is on a famous television show that you watch weekly. It’s almost as if you know them. Again that intimate connection.

Radios were common in most households and by the 1930s and 40s, you start seeing more and more cars having radios as a standard part of the car.

The radio changed the way people lived, it changed the way people were entertained. It changed the way people communicated and helped to spread ideas (both good and bad). The Nazis for example used the radio to spread their message, even going as far as creating inexpensive radios so that even the poorest of Germans could afford them and hear their propaganda. It was through the radio that the Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito announced the end of WWII in a radio address to his people in 1945. A radio address by a man revered as god to his people who by the way had never heard his voice before. The radio created a new age of celebrities, it introduced people to different genres of music and ways of dancing. It made the world a little smaller in a sense that you can hear about news from all over the world and people all over the world could be listening to the very same radio show or the very same song. People can sing the words of a song written in a language that they don’t understand but sing the words to the tune of a melody with accuracy. The radio has helped us learn about space, and maybe just maybe allow other life forms in the galaxy or neighboring galaxies to learn about our world. So much history, so many infinite possibilities; all made possible by the radio.

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