The exact start of the history of radio is impossible to pinpoint. While a lot of early inventors in history took part in radio technology and broadcasting, like Reginald Fessenden, Fleming, and Armstrong, the debate is mostly between Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi.
And while we’ll most likely never know who put together the first radio device, we do know, that these two scientists both demonstrated historical breakthroughs in about the same 5-year span. Ultimately, it is Marconi who became the first person to achieve transatlantic broadcast, therefore is viewed as the father of the radio technology we know today.
EM Waves – 1865
EM (or electromagnetic) waves are the foundation of radio technology. James Clerk Maxwell was the first to prove its existence in theory. This experiment proved that magnetic and electric forces are not separate, but actually different manifestations of the same thing: electromagnetic force.
Radio Waves – 1887
Using the theories of Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of radio waves in 1887. His transmitter consisted of a simple spark gap across an induction coil with a loop of wire that acted as an antenna, and the receiver consisted of a smaller gap in a loop of the same size as the one in the transmitter. Simply put, where waves were detected – or picked up – a spark would jump.
Hertz’s experiments solved two problems. First and foremost, he physically demonstrated what Maxwell only theorized, that the velocity of a radio wave was equal to the velocity of light! Secondly, he found a way to detach the electric and magnetic fields from wires and go free as “Maxwell’s waves” (as called in radio’s early days). The unit of frequency of a radio wave (one cycle per second) is named the hertz, in honor of the great physicist who launched in practice the radio we know now.
Guglielmo Marconi – early 1900s
Guglielmo Marconi was not only the first person to achieve distances of a few meters, but also the first to slowly increase that range to more than 2 kilometers! He presented his findings to the Italian authorities. Unfortunately, they weren’t as interested in the idea, so the inventor moved to England.
Abroad a lot of people were interested in his discoveries, and within a year, he was actively broadcasting in long-distance and had registered for his patent. In 1901 he broadcasted the first transatlantic radio signal, and in 1909 he received his well-deserved Nobel Prize in Physics. Most of the biggest discoveries and inventions that truly launched the history of the radio are linked to Marconi’s name. The first experimentations with short wave radio are also linked to his name.
Nikola Tesla – early 1900s
Tesla and Marconi went head-to-head, as they both found amazing breakthroughs in radio technology in roughly the same 5 years in the late 1800s. In 1893 he introduced wireless telegraphy in Missouri and was awarded his patent in 1900. The first wireless telegraph that he introduced had a system that most said could not transmit overseas, but Marconi proved them wrong by achieving broadcasts across the Atlantic using the Tesla oscillator.
The inventor also attempted to build a worldwide wireless system that would use the Earth itself (by injecting very large amounts of electrical current into the ground) to have radio signals reach across the Earth, challenging the limitations of other systems. He implemented this idea by creating the sadly unsuccessful Wardenclyffe Tower project.
Fleming Valve – 1904
John Ambrose Fleming was an electrical engineer and physicist who designed the transmitter used by Marconi in the first transatlantic radio transmission from England to Canada.
Although the morse code for “S” reached its destination, the signal was very weak, and Fleming had to make the radio receivers more sensitive, so he looked for an alternative to the coherer. Ultimately, in 1904 he tried an Edison effect bulb and realized that it worked well to rectify high-frequency oscillations and make the receiver more sensitive. In the same year, he applied for an American patent for the oscillation valve. The Fleming valve was used by the Marconi company until it was replaced by the triode.
World War I – from 1914 to 1918
When the war started, radio technology was still in its infancy. In 1913 an aircraft equipped with a radio was considered cutting-edge technology, although it only had a maximum range of around 2000 yards. Furthermore, the military’s primary mode of transportation was mules and horses, and so toting around these heavy radio equipment was a struggle.
Radio communication was also less reliable than telegraphs or wired telephones, mostly due to the instability of the radio receiver. Radio’s involvement in the war quickly changed when in 1914, President Wilson’s Executive Order allowed radio censorship for the Navy. Many organizations, including the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, challenged this censorship ban, but it didn’t budge, therefore began the Navy’s involvement in wartime radio.
The First Commercial Radio Station – 1920
The first commercial broadcasting station covered the results of the Harding-Cox presidential race, and a way to beat newspapers to the punch. This radio broadcast was made possible by station KDKA on November 2nd, 1920. It was a huge hit, inspiring over 600 radio stations to go live within 4 years. To keep up with finances, in August 1922, a series of radio stations turned to the first radio ad, which was a real estate developer in NYC.
Television – 1926
WRGB (later W2XB) was established in 1926 as the very first television station. It broadcast from the General Electric (GE) facility in NYC and was popularly known as WGY Television. The first transmission of moving images over a radio system used mechanical rotating disks to scan a scene and reconstruct it through the receiver. While the development of the television broadcast was interrupted by WW2, later the methods of scanning and displaying images, music, and audio came to be the standard. Such television network broadcasts and stations can be distributed over the air, or by wired transmission via cable TV.
Edwin Armstrong – 1933
Edwin H. Armstrong was an American inventor who laid the foundation for the most modern radio and electronic circuitry, including the frequency modulation (FM radio) system. While teaching at Columbia, he worked alongside Pupin on the yet unsolved problem of eliminating static (an amplitude phenomenon created by electrical storms) from the radio.
In 1933 he managed to secure four patents on advanced circuits that were to solve this problem. These solutions introduced an entirely new radio system, as instead of varying the amplitude of the radio wave to carry voice and music, this system modulated the wave frequency. This created a carrier wave that static could not break into. FM radio made the first clear method of high-end radio broadcasting possible.
American Radio 1919 – 1935
Owen D. Young, through GE, founded the RCA (Radio Corporation of America) in 1919, as the first radio corporation of America. RCA was mostly responsible for international and marine communication. Not long after, the still well-known NBC (National Broadcasting Company) was established in 1926. Alongside the NBC Blue Network, it was the first nationwide network established in the United States.
At about the same time, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was introduced as a government agency that regulated the radio communications of the United States. It operated until 1934 when it was succeeded by the Federal Communications Commission. The Federal Communications Commission operates to this day, with the purpose of regulating all communication by radio and television throughout more than 15 thousand radio stations.
World War II – 1939
By the time World War II rolled in, radio stations were not only used as a way of communication, but it has become the primary form of entertainment covering speech, music, and even shows. This opened possibilities to use this medium as a way of broadcasting propaganda, raise panic, and reach a large number of citizens, encouraging them to join the war.
90% of American families owned home radios, and the government attempted to assure citizens that the radio station serves as a safe way to reach important information rather than censorship and propaganda. Nazi Germany was also using radio as a medium for propagandists to spread their beliefs and encourage citizens to act with over 11-hour broadcast sessions. Governments all around the world used broadcast radio and even advertisements to their advantage, leading to what we now call Radio Propaganda.
In addition, the first modern hand-held radio transceivers were used by army forces to communicate between the units and larger military groups to coordinate movements.