History of the Radio

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson provides an exciting look into the history and technology of the radio, including communication and broadcast technologies made possible through radio wave usage. Find out who invented the radio and how early radios were used.

Turn up the Radio!

Everyone alive today has probably listened to a radio at least once and most people listen every day. Have you ever thought about what it must have been like before the radio was invented? Have you ever watched a movie about the days when there was no television but people gathered around the radio for music, news, and to hear stories? Have you ever wondered how sounds and messages can travel invisibly through the air to come across perfectly from a small receiver? How did someone even figure out how to make that happen? From the earliest use of Morse code on ships' radios to modern cell phones, the radio revolutionized our lives.

Westinghouse Radio Advertisement
Westinghouse Radio Ad

Invention of the Radio

The radio came from a series of discoveries and inventions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The first contributor, the one responsible for opening the door to all radio, is Heinrich Hertz. The German physicist studied radio waves and proved signals could be transmitted wirelessly. You might recall that radio wave frequencies are still measured in Hertz today.

The first inventor of the radio, however, is a well-debated topic. Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor and businessman, often receives credit based on his 1894 device capable of ringing a bell from 30 feet away. On the other hand, Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant to the United States, demonstrated a wireless radio to audiences in St. Louis the year before Marconi's demonstration. Although Tesla came first, Marconi patented his invention in 1896 while Tesla patented his in 1900. One year later, in 1901, Marconi transmitted the first signal to cross the Atlantic from Europe to America.

Nikola Tesla on Left and Guglielmo Marconi on Right
Tesla Left - Marconi Right

Other inventors helped advance the technology. Swedish-born inventor Ernst Alexanderson invented the first alternator capable of transmitting speech, which Reginald Fessenden used to combine radio waves and sound for the first long-range transmission of a human voice. Finally, Edwin Armstrong introduced the continuous-wave transmitter and amplifying receiver, making FM radio possible for the first time.

Usage of Radio

The first use of radio technology appeared aboard seagoing ships, helping them communicate with nearby vessels and the shore. Prior to this, ships relied on semaphore flags to send messages between ships and carrier pigeons for longer-range communication. The radio, while originally only able to transmit beeps in Morse code, is directly responsible for the distress signal and rescue response in the Titanic disaster. Without radio, no one would have survived. The radio also found its use in aviation when Frederick Baldwin and John McCurdy used it on their bi-plane in 1910. In 1921, the radio became part of public safety vehicles in Detroit, thanks to Police Commissioner William Rutledge.

Sinking of the Titanic by Willy Stowe

Radio and the Military

Early on, the military forces around the world realized the potential for radio communication. Beginning with the use of radio on naval ships, the military adapted the technology for the field to guide troop movements during WWI. To this day, various radio technologies continue to aid the military in communicating and coordinating their efforts.

Radio News and Entertainment

Following WWI, the radio found public uses as well, such as entertainment and news broadcasts. In Britain, the BBC aired plays, music, and other forms of entertainment. However, news broadcasting only began after the 1926 newspaper strike left a vacuum with many clamoring for information.

In the United States, entertainment broadcasts began when the Westinghouse Company applied for a commercial license, founding the KDKA station in 1920. They broadcast news and entertainment programs to entice people to purchase the radios they manufactured.

The Brox Sisters listening to early radio.
Three Sisters with Early Radio

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