Radio in America, from Its Invention to Telstar

From AM and FM broadcasts to radar, Wi-Fi, cellphones, and even your microwave oven, radio is everywhere in American life.
Marcia Wendorf

In the dark days of the Great Depression and during World War II, Americans gathered around their radios to listen to the latest news and entertainment programs. Radio was America's first mass medium, bringing together members from different classes and backgrounds into one nation.

During the 1930s, radio linked the country, and ended the isolation of rural residents. Radio was so important, that a question on the 1930 Census was, "Is there a radio set in your household?"

Radio during the 1930s included comedians Jack Benny, Fred Allen, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee, and Molly. During the evening, people listened to "The Green Hornet," "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy," and "The Shadow", with its iconic introduction: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"

Radio in America, from Its Invention to Telstar
"The Shadow" Source: Wikimedia Commons

Families were glued to their radio sets, listening to the exploits of baseball greats Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. On May 6, 1937, radio journalist Herbert Morrison of Chicago station, WLS was broadcasting live the arrival of the German airship Hindenburg at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey, when it burst into flames. Morrison's ensuing commentary went into the history books and included:

"There’s smoke, and there's flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity ..."

In 1938, at a time when the population of the U.S. was 130 million, nearly 40 million people, or almost one-third of the entire population, listened to "The Race of the Century" between horses Seabiscuit and War Admiral. If you're wondering, Seabiscuit won.

During WWII, information about what was happening in Europe was conveyed in live broadcasts from London by Edward R. Murrow that began with the famous opening, "This is London" and ended with "Good night, and good luck." President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Fireside Chats, which began in 1933 and lasted until 1944, allowed listeners to feel like the president was inside their own homes and talking directly to them.

The beginnings of radio

The invention of the radio began in 1864 when Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell theoretically demonstrated that electromagnetic waves could propagate through space.

24 years later, in 1888, German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz showed conclusively that electromagnetic waves could move through the air, thus confirming Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism. Today, the unit of frequency, or the number of cycles per second, is named the "hertz" after Hertz. It is often abbreviated "Hz."

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Following 1888, many scientists wrote about using airborne Hertzian, or radio waves, to transmit information, but it wasn't until 1894 that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi built the first successful wireless telegraphy system.

Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi Source: Pach Brothers/Wikimedia Commons

Marconi was born into an aristocratic Italian family in 1874. His mother was Irish and was the granddaughter of John Jameson, who founded the whiskey distillery Jameson & Sons, which is still in business today.

The Marconi family divided their time between Italy and the English town of Bedford. It was in Bologna, Italy when he was 18-years-old that Marconi began developing a wireless telegraphy system based on radio waves.

By raising the height of his antenna and grounding both the transmitter and receiver, Marconi was able to send signals up to 2 miles (3.2km) away. When he wrote to the director of the Italian Ministry of Post and Telegraphs explaining his invention, not only did the director respond, he wrote on Marconi's letter: "to the Longara," which was the local insane asylum.

Undeterred, Marconi traveled to England in 1896, when he was 21-years-old. There, he attracted the attention of William Preece, the Chief Electrical Engineer of the British Post Office. June 2, 1896 is seen as the radio invention date because that is when Marconi applied for a patent for his invention entitled, "Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor."

British Post Office engineers inspect Marconi's radio equipment in 1897
UK Post Office engineers inspect Marconi's radio equipment, 1897 Source: Cardiff Council Flat Holm Project/Wikimedia Commons

Marconi began demonstrating his invention over ever increasing distances, with a transmission across the English channel occurring on March 27, 1899. The first demonstrations in the U.S. took place off the coast of New Jersey in the fall of 1899.

On December 17, 1902, Marconi's transmission from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada to the UK became the first confirmed trans-Atlantic radio transmission. Marconi built a station near South Wellfleet, Massachusetts to communicate with ships at sea.

French ship-to-shore radio operator
French ship-to-shore radio operator Source: Camille Tissot/Wikimedia Commons

A life-saving invention

When the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912, the two radio operators on board weren't employees of the White Star Line, they were employed by the Marconi International Marine Communication Company. It was their radio distress signals that were picked up by the RMS Carpathia, and that allowed the 711 onboard to be rescued.

Britain's postmaster-general said of the Titanic disaster: "Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi ... and his marvelous invention."

For Guglielmo Marconi's invention, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909, along with German electrical engineer Karl Braun. Today, a crater on the far side of the Moon is named after Marconi, as is asteroid 1332 Marconia. The Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport is named after him, and so is the bridge that connects Piazza Augusto Righi with Piazza Tommaso Edison in Rome.

American radio history

The first radio broadcast in America occurred on Christmas Eve 1906 when Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden used amplitude modulation, or AM radio, to broadcast from Ocean Bluff-Brant Rock, Massachusetts to ships in the Atlantic. Fessenden's "program" consisted of him playing O Holy Night on the violin, and his reading of a passage from the Bible.

Radio mast at Brant Rock, Massachusetts
Brant Rock, Massachusetts radio station Source: Wikimedia Commons

FM radio, or frequency modulation, was invented by American Edwin Armstrong who spent years fighting for his invention with patent lawsuits before committing suicide.

The first radio news broadcast was on August 31, 1920, by Detroit, Michigan station 8MK, which is still in business today as station WWJ. The first radio sports broadcast was the West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh college football game in 1921.

In 1926, the Federal Radio Commission began regulating radio use within the U.S. It granted or denied radio licenses, and assigned frequencies and power levels. With the passage of the Radio Act of 1927 the Commission began setting controls on who could broadcast, from which location, on what frequency, and at what power.

In 1934, the Federal Radio Commission was replaced by the Federal Communications Commission, which had authority over the radio and the nascent television industry.

First transistor radio
First transistor radio Source: Cmglee/Wikimedia Commons

The invention of the transistor in 1947 allowed the Regency company to introduce their pocket transistor radio, the TR-1, in 1954. Sony soon followed suit with their transistor radios the TR-55 in 1955, and the TR-63 in 1957. The transistor radio ushered in the entire "beach blanket" ethos of the 1960s in the U.S.

The first radio communication satellite, Telstar, was launched in 1963, and it provided the inspiration for the band The Tornados to create their iconic instrumental, "Telstar."  Telstar relayed through space the first television pictures, telephone calls, and telegraph images. It also provided the first live transatlantic television feed.

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