A Brief History of the Radio

History | Editor
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi)


Radio Engineering

In 1896 Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi had demonstrated two-way radio broadcasting (of telegraph-type signals only), and Alexandr Popov had demonstrated a similar system in Russia, but it took a while for people to realize that it could be used beyond the maritime realm. For about 20 years it would mainly be used by ships. In 1897 Marconi, unable to find investors in his own country, founded in Britain the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company (better known as the Marconi Company) and opened a radio station on the Isle of Wight. In May 1897 Marconi organized one of the most famous "demos" of all times, sending a message over the sea ("Are you ready"). In 1901 Marconi carried out the first transatlantic radio transmission. In 1903 US president Theodore Roosevelt sent a radio message to the British king Edward VII. Marconi's company set up radio stations on both sides of the Atlantic to communicate with ships at sea. However, it was not yet trivial how to create a wireless communication system.

Marconi's technology was based on "spark transmitters". Much progress in that technology occurred thanks to research conducted in Germany by the army and the navy. After all, radio technology had been born in Germany: in 1887 Heinrich Hertz had performed the first successful transmission and reception of the radio waves that were implied by James Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism. Germany was perhaps the first country to realize the military relevance of radio technology. The army's research was assigned to Siemens, and Siemens engaged Ferdinand Braun of the University of Strasbourg, the inventor in 1897 of the cathode ray tube (CRT), and in 1898 Braun invented the crystal diode rectifier for radio transmitters. The navy's research was assigned to AEG, that engaged Adolf Slaby of the Technical University of Berlin, and in 1897 Slaby set a world record of 21 kms for radio transmission. In 1904 the German government invited Siemens and AEG to join forces and form Telefunken. Telefunken was initially a military invention.

In the USA, too, the first customer and sponsor of radio communications was the military establishment. The technology was mainly viewed as a technology of point-to-point communication (unlike the telephone, for which the efforts were towards creating a network of communications). Marconi himself viewed radio communication as a way to overcome the limitations of telegraph communication, not as a completely different medium.

The "wireless telegraph" would not have been too useful without two crucial additions: a device to enable the transmission of continuous sound (like voice and music), and a device to amplify electrical signals, i.e. to enable long-distance wireless transmissions. Electronics was born when the vacuum tube was invented. In 1904 the British chemist John-Ambrose Fleming had invented the two-element amplifier, or "diode", but it wasn't quite useful as an amplifier. In 1906 the Austrian physicist Robert von Lieben built a three-element amplifier, or "triode", and a few months later Lee DeForest in New York accidentally built a vacuum tube that actually worked well as a signal amplifier, and was therefore useful to wireless transmissions.

Neither of these worked in a real vacuum. The arc transmitter for radio transmission was invented in 1903 by Valdemar Poulsen in Denmark, and countless variations were employed in the USA. DeForest is the one who started using the term "radio" to refer to wireless transmission when he formed his DeForest Radio Telephone Company in 1907.

Radio stations for news and entertainment were an idea tested by independents. In 1909 Charles Herrold, one of Stanford's earliest students, started in San Jose the first radio station in the USA with regularly scheduled programming, using an arc transmitter of his own design. In January 1910 DeForest broadcasted from New York a live performance by legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, and then moved to San Francisco, where radio communications were sponsored by the navy.

In 1909 another Stanford alumnus, Cyril Elwell, founded the Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company in Palo Alto, later renamed the Federal Telegraph Corporation (FTC), to commercialize Poulsen's arc in the USA. Elwell understood its potential that was not only technological but also legal: it allowed to create radio products without violating Marconi's patents. This start-up company was initially funded by Stanford's own president, David Jordan, and employed Stanford students. In need of better receiver amplifiers for the arc transmissions, FTC hired Lee DeForest, who by 1912 had finally realized that his audion could be used as an amplifier. The problem with long-distance telephone and radio transmissions was that the signal was lost en route as it became too faint. DeForest's vacuum tube enabled the construction of repeaters that restored the signal at intermediate points. The audion could dramatically reduce the cost of long-distance wireless communications. FTC began applying the audion to develop a geographically distributed radio telegraphy system. The first tower they built in July 1910 was on a San Francisco beach and it was 90 meters tall, but the most impressive of all was inaugurated in 1912 at Point San Bruno (just south of the city), a large complex boasting the tallest antenna in the world (130 meters). By the end of 1912 FTC had stations in Texas, Hawaii, Arizona, Missouri and Washington besides California. Improvements to the audion by Leonard Fuller (mostly during World War I, when the radio industry was nationalized to produce transmitters for the Navy) that allowed the audion to amplify a signal a million times, eventually led FTC to create the first global wireless communication system, and its customer remained the military.

In 1910 Earle Ennis, who ran both a company (Western Wireless Equipment Company) to sell wireless equipment for ships and a radio broadcast to deliver news to ships at sea, organized the first air-to-ground radio message, thus showing that the same technology could be used by the nascent aviation industry.

The audion was still used only for receivers, while most transmitters were arc-based. It was only in 1915 that DeForest realized that a feedback loop of audions could be used to build transmitters as well. DeForest had already (in 1913) sold the patent for his audion to Graham Bell's AT&T, and AT&T used an improved version of his invention, developed by Harold Arnold at AT&T's Western Electric., to set up the first coast-to-coast telephone line (January 1915), just in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. In 1915 Lee DeForest, relocated to New York, started the radio station 2XG that in 1916 broadcasted live the results of the 1916 presidential elections with music and commentary from New York to stations within a range of 300 kilometers, and this time using an audion transmitter. In 1919 this station reached a thousand listeners.

The first commercial vacuum triode was the Pliotrons developed by Irving Langmuir at General Electric's Schenectady laboratory in 1915.

Quite a bit of innovation in radio engineering came from the "ham" radio amateurs. The first wireless communications were, by definition, done by independents who set up their own equipment. This was the first "virtual" community as they frequently never met in person. The first magazine devoted to radio engineering, Modern Electrics, was launched in April 1908 in New York by Hugo Gernsback, a 24-year-old Jewish immigrant from Luxembourg. It reached a circulation of 52,000 in 1911, the year when it started publishing science-fiction stories (thus also becoming de facto the first science-fiction magazine). Amateur wireless associations popped up throughout the country, such as the Radio Club of Salt Lake City in Utah, founded in September 1909, and the Wireless Association of Central California, formed in May 1910 in Fresno. meritocracy in which the kids of farmers, PhD students, professional radio engineers were all on the same level. In particular, ham-radio amateurs were the first "garage nerds" of the San Francisco Bay Area, a place isolated from the rest of the country (reaching any other city required a long journey by ship, by train or by coach). Bill Eitel presided the Santa Clara County Amateur Radio Association, formed in 1921, before he went on to launch his own "startup". The First National Radio Conference took place in Washington in February 1922, and it pitted the five big corporations that owned all the patents (American Telephone & Telegraph, General Electric, Western Electric, Westinghouse and RCA) against the ham-radio amateur clubs. That conference established their legal legitimacy. A few weeks later, in April 1922, the first transpacific two-way amateur communication was established between 6ZAC (Clifford Down) in Hawaii and 6ZAF (A.H. Babcock) in Berkeley.

During World War I, that the USA entered in 1917, the navy set up radio stations all over the place, and in January 1918 the president of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, proudly spoke live to Europe, the Far East and Latin America.

Because of its maritime business, the Bay Area became one of the largest centers for amateur radio. The Bay Counties Wireless Telegraph Association was founded in 1907 by amateurs. Among the amateurs of the second decade were Charles Litton, an eleven-year old prodigy who operated an amateur station in Redwood City in 1915, and Frederick Terman, a teenager who operated an amateur station in Palo Alto in 1917. Radio engineering created two worlds in the Bay Area that would greatly influence its future: a high-tech industry and a community of high-tech amateurs.

Founded in 1910 in Napa (north of the Bay Area), Magnavox was the brainchild of Peter Jensen (one of the Danish engineers imported by FTC to commercialize the Poulsen arc) and Edwin Pridham (a Stanford graduate who also worked at FTC). In 1917 they introduced a new type of electrical loudspeaker.

Radiotelephony switched from the Poulsen arc to his audion during the 1920s.

The radio was the first electronic appliance, the first device to use an electronic component: the vacuum tube.

When the USA entered World War I, the government decided that radio broadcasting was a strategic technology and helped perfect it to the point that, at the end of the war, the big electric companies rushed to enter the (now mature) radio market. Westinghouse combined in-house research by Frank Conrad, who was running his own amateur radio station from his garage, and the acquisition of technology developed by Edwin Armstrong at Columbia University. In 1920 Westinghouse established a professional and commercial radio station, "KDKA", that also played records.

The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) was established in 1923 near Washington mainly for research in radio engineering.


Radio Bubble

RCA was created in 1919 and supported by the government: radio technology was still considered so strategic by the navy, that the navy wanted a monopoly controlled by the government to own all the relevant patents. The US government basically forced General Electric to buy the US business of Marconi, and then General Electric (Thomas Edison's old company), Westinghouse and AT&T/Bell were de facto forced to give RCA their patents in return for a share of the new company. RCA was a government-sanctioned monopoly in radio business the same way that Bell/AT&T was the government-sanctioned monopoly in telephony. Under a 1921 agreement, AT&T/Bell was not allowed to manufacture radio boxes but had to focus on broadcasting equipment, while General Electric and Westinghouse were to focus on manufacturing radio receivers and RCA had to market them. The agreement therefore encouraged RCA to focus on selling (high-margin) electrical components than on reselling (low-margin) radio boxes. A Marconi executive, David Sarnoff, was chosen to run RCA by General Electric's vice-president Owen Young. When in July 1921 David Sarnoff at RCA backed the nationwide broadcasting of a boxing match, he invented mass-market radio. Note that RCA had not been founded for that purpose: it had been founded as a military contractor.

These US pioneers thought that the money was not to be made by selling the programs (that remained free in the USA), but by selling radios. In 1922 there were only 60,000 radios in the USA, but in 1929 there were more than 10 million, and perhaps as many as 20 million, made by more than 600 manufacturing firms. In 1923, at the beginning of the boom, there were 556 radio stations. In Europe, owners of radio had to pay a fee to the government. In the USA, the number of radio stations increased dramatically, whereas in Europe governments controlled radio broadcasting. That was one of the reasons that popular music developed in such different ways in the USA and in Europe.

Among the new manufacturers was Zenith (originally Chicago Radio Laboratory), founded in 1919 by Ralph Mathews and Karl Hassel, that also included the radio station 9ZN. In 1924 Zenith introduced the first portable radio, the Companion.

In 1923 Magnavox's TRF-S simplified the radio box.

Between 1923 (when it started making radio boxes) and 1929 (when the Great Depression started), Atwater-Kent of Philadelphia, founded by Arthur Kent, was the main radio manufacturer of the USA.

Meanwhile, AT&T/Bell had used Western Electric (acquired in 1881 from Western Union after winning the telephone lawsuit) to produce transmitters and antennas (and eventually radio boxes too). In 1922 it also set up its own radio station, WEAF, in New York that, besides broadcasting public programs, worked as a test bench for those devices. AT&T's initial goal was to make money from selling radio equipment. However, with this radio station AT&T also accidentally stumbled into a new form of business: the radio commercial. The first commercial advertising aired on WEAF in august 1922. The business plan rapidly shifted from selling radio boxes to selling advertising time.

The popularity of those early radio broadcasts and the new (advertising-based) business strategy invented by WEAF made the difference: there were still only five radio stations in 1921 but already 525 in 1923. At that point radio was no longer a military tool, funded and driven by the military. The transition had been smooth: the army de facto acted as the venture capitalist for the private industry, and the private industry then found a much bigger market outside of the army. AT&T federated its radio stations into the National Broadcasting System (NBS). Commercial advertising was a powerful engine for the creation of radio programs: the more radio programs, and the more successful they were, the more "space" in which the station could place lucrative commercials. Radio stations turned listeneres into consumers (and businesses into customers). Famous last words: "It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter" (Herbert Hoover talking about the radio in 1922). Reality check: "Advertising is a force with few peers in the cultural history of the 20th century" (Tim Wu)

However, that also created a problem: everybody was trying to make money by broadcasting commercials. When the goal was to sell radio boxes, the more stations the better: each station and its programming increased the demand for radios. But when the goal became to sell advertising time, the more stations the more competition. The lobbyists for the big radio corporations convinced the government to shrink the battlefield to only those who could provide "clear" programming. In other words: the government wiped out the small independents on behalf of AT&T and RCA.
The story was different in Britain, the place where the radio had begun its commercial journey. In 1922 Britain started the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) under the direction of John Reith with a moralizing and educating mission (to bring "the best of everything into the greatest number of homes") and therefore focusing on cultural programs. The BBC (like most national European services that followed its example) was funded with taxation, both direct (a yearly canon) and indirect (the coffers of the British government).

In 1923 Telefunken started building commercial equipment for radio broadcasting: transmitters and receivers. Its inventions contributed greatly to the progress of radio technology.

In 1925 Raytheon, founded in 1922 as American Appliance Company by Laurence Marshall and Vannevar Bush in Boston, started selling a vacuum tube that converted alternating current to direct current for radios. Raytheon rapidly became one of the world's leading vacuum-tube manufacturers.

Another company that initially specialized in "battery-eliminators" was Galvin, founded in 1928 in Chicago. In 1930 it also introduced a car radio named Motorola, and eventually changed named to Motorola.

Many people had already realized the power of the radio, including famous dictators, philosophers and scientists: "The entire Earth will be converted into a huge brain" (Nikola Tesla, talking about the radio in 1904) .
In 1926 AT&T and RCA settled a long-running dispute over their respective monopolies by agreeing to create a new radio broadcasting business, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). AT&T would provide the long-distance network to distribute radio programming and RCA would focus on selling radios, including those made by General Electric and Westinghouse. In august 1928 the Federal Radio Commission or FCC (created in 1927) decreed that public interest was better served by allocating "clear" frequencies to NBC and a few other big stations. NBC's network was divided into the "Red Network" (the old AT&T WEAF network) and the "Blue Network" (the old RCA WJZ network, originally acquired from Westinghouse).
From the viewpoint of technology, the outcome was a de-facto patent alliance among AT&T, Westinghouse, General Electric and RCA that stymied competition by any newcomer.

In 1927 the first "talkie" was made using Western Electric's Vitaphone, but RCA continued to invest in its own Photophone system. In 1928 Vladimir Zworykin invented the "iconoscope", i.e. the electron scanning tube that would be crucial for television sets. In 1929 RCA purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company, the world's largest manufacturer of phonographs. In 1887 Emile Berliner had invented the gramophone, a sort of phonograph (as manual and as mechanical as the photograph) that played flat discs instead of cylinders. Note that the operation was completely manual: the speed of the cylinder or disc was arbitrary, typically 120 rpm for wax cylinders (for a maximum duration of three minutes) and anything between 60 and 75 rpm for a flat disc.

In 1895 Berliner had introduced the shellac record, that would remain the standard for the music industry until the age of vinyl. In 1896 Berliner had outsourced the manufacture of gramophones to Eldridge Johnson's Philadelphia company, who had also improved the machine to make it more automatic, and in 1901 Eldridge had turned his business into the Consolidated Talking Machine Company (later renamed Victor) based in New Jersey.

Incidentally, Berliner's German subsidiary, established in 1931, was Deutsche Grammophon, destined to become one of the most important music labels for classical music, and Berliner's British subsidiary, established in 1898, morphed into EMI in 1931.

With this acquisition RCA became instantly the top producer of music appliances. In 1930 RCA also acquired a plant from General Electric in New Jersey and a plant from Westinghouse in Indiana. Now RCA didn't depend on others anymore: it had advanced facilities to manufacture its own appliances. Its main competitors were Philco and Zenith in radio boxes and Sylvania in electrical components.

In 1939 RCA unveiled its first television set at the New York World's Fair, and in July 1941 it began commercial broadcasting. In 1942 the government banned the production of television because the country had entered Word Wa I.

Sylvania was a Pennsylvania company founded in 1924 by Bernard Erskine to manufacture radio tubes (designed by Riger Wise) at the time when radio boxes came without the tube, that had to be purchased separately.

Thanks to the boom in radio boxes, Sylvania flourished and, after merging in 1931 with Boston-based Hygrade (another maker of radio tubes), it became the second largest maker of radio tubes in the USA after RCA and one of the main makers of electric lamps after General Electric and Westinghouse. In 1938 Sylvania also introduced a television tube, although the first television set would have to wait until 1949. Sylvania would profit enourmously from World War II.

Until 1927 radio boxes needed a battery. The Philadelphia Storage Battery Company, founded in 1906 to make batteries for electric vehicles, switched to batteries for radio boxes (and changed name to Philco in 1919) and (in 1925) to rectifiers that allowed radio boxes to be plugged into alternating-current wall sockets. In 1928 Philco introduced its first radio boxes, that incorporated the rectifier, and in 1929 Philco introduced its first radio boxes that came already equipped with the tube (mainly made by Sylvania and Hygrade). In 1931 its "cathedral" style became the most popular in the USA. Borrowing techniques from the assembly lines of the car industry, Philco became the main radio manufacturer in the USA and in 1934 it owned about one third of the US market, selling 1,250,000 radios versus RCA's 500,000.

In 1932 Philco opened an experimental electronic television station (W3XE) that in 1941 became the third commercial station in the USA (renamed WPTZ). In 1939 Philco introduced the wireless remote with the radio box 116RX-SU.

The radio bubble peak in 1929, and no radio stock performed better than Majestic, founded in Chicago by William Grunow and Bertran Grigsby, that introduced its first model in 1928, the Majestic.

Paul Galvin's company in Chicago, that originally sold devices to connect battery-powered radios to household sockets, started selling car stereos in 1930 and was therefore renamed Motorola.

In 1931 AT&T was forced by the government to withdraw from the patent alliance (that had obviously created a monopoly). Eventually, RCA remained the sole owner of NBC. It was just a matter of time before the government targeted NBC, the clear monopoly in radio broadcasting. In 1939 the FCC forced NBC to split and in 1943 the "Blue Network" became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

Meanwhile, a new player had joined the industry. In 1927 the Columbia Phonograph Company, a record company, acquired a network of independent radio stations and quickly sold it to a group of Jews from Philadelphia who appointed William Paley, the son of one of them, to run it under the new name of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Paley applied the exact same advertising-based strategy of WEAF, just more efficiently. His network of affiliate stations shared both programming and advertising. He encouraged radio stations to become affiliates by charging very little to broadcast CBS' programs and by giving them a cut on the advertising revenues, the goal being to offer advertisers an ever larger platform of radio stations.

NBC, ABC and CBS would remain for a long time the dominant radio networks of the USA.

In 1935 Zenith introduced its classic Z-1000 "Stratosphere" model.


FM Radio

Edwin Armstrong invented Frequency Modulation radio (FM radio) in 1933, but his employer, RCA, ignored and even boycotted the invention. FM radio vastly improved audio fidelity over the existing Amplitude Modulation (AM) technology, and RCA was afraid this would disrupt its business: since it required less power than AM, it would allow a new generation of independents to threaten NBC's monopoly, at a time when revenues from NBC's broadcasting business were increasingly important for its parent company RCA. Hence, RCA (ruthlessly run by David Sarnoff) used its political power on Washington to introduce regulation that de facto suppressed FM radio until 1940 and starting in 1945 forced FM stations to use AT&T's long-distance network. In fact, despite being available, FM would not displace AM until the 1980s. Edwin Armstrong would commit suicide in 1954 after being denied by RCA both the credit and the profits of his invention that was by then used in television sets.

In 1940 Zenith launched one of the earliest FM stations in the USA, Chicago's WWZR (later WEFM).

Thinkers started realizing the importance of the radio in the 1940s, with Rene Sundre's "The Eighth Art" (1945) being perhaps the first major study of radio broadcasting as an artistic medium.

See the History of Television


Sources (listed by publication date):
Llewellyn White: "The American Radio" (1947)
Rupert Maclaurin: "Invention and Innovation in the Radio Industry" (1949)
Henry Ewbank & Sherman Lawton: "Broadcasting - Radio and Television" (1952)
Wilbur Schramm: "Mass Communications" (1960)
Chris Sterling & John Kittross: "Tuned - A Concise History of American Broadcasting" (1978)
Hugh Aitkin: "The Continuous Wave - Technology and the American Radio, 1900-1932" (1985)
John Dunning: "On The Air - The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio" (1998)
Alfred Balk: "The Rise of Radio, from Marconi through the Golden Age" (2005)
Please avoid the anonymous Wikipedia, a colossal archive of disinformation

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(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi)