We live in an automated world. Almost everything around us is done by machines. These machines make our lives easier and better. They do energy-consuming tasks and chores and save us time to dedicate to more important things.
Not only that, but automated machines also drive cars, ships, and planes. They circulate our planet, land on Mars and the Moon, travel far into outer space, and send us back huge data about the universe.
Having said that, we have grown to take machines for granted. Does anyone, for real, ever take a minute to think how life would be if these inventions disappeared all of a sudden?
It surely is an unimaginable situation. Though, if it did happen, we would immediately be struck by the indispensability of machines. We would also feel extreme gratitude for the people who worked so hard for years and years to bring them into existence.
In this article, we are going to introduce you to one of the most marvellous inventions of the 20th century: the radio. We will take you through the stories behind its development and how it inspired the advanced communication systems we cannot live without now.
But before we get started, we must clarify that the radio did not burst out of nohwere. It emerged from ideas and questions that scientists of the past had. These ideas were followed by extreme hard work, research, and lots and lots of experiments that developed into something over time.
What is radio?
Though evolutionary, not many youngsters are quite familiar with the radio. That is mostly attributed to the widespread use of other broadcast media such as films, television, YouTube, or even podcasts. All of that and more made the use of radio rather limited. Ironically, all these media would not exist if it were not for radio technology.
Simply put, radio broadcasting is the wireless transmission of audio to a large public audience. The word ‘radio’ refers to the type of electromagnetic waves that carry the audio.
Most of the time, the radio is used to air news and entertainment shows. However, it was also used in many different fields to exchange messages. Most notably, it was used to communicate with ships that were out at sea in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. As we will see later on, the famous Titanic ship used a radio system to ask for help from nearby ships.
In addition, the radio was also used in secret broadcasting. This is the kind of message transmission that was not intended to feed a large audience. It was often used in the military or during wartime to exchange secret information through encrypted messages.
Unlike mobile phones, audio transmitted by radio is rather limited. We know it is possible to phone others in remote areas; even on other continents. However, it is difficult to pick up a radio signal broadcasted in another country and sometimes even in another city unless other means of signal amplification are used.
The invention of the radio both as a technology and equipment made the transmission of information ridiculously easy. It also paved the way for every other form of remote communication we have nowadays. That said, the radio was developed for a reason.
The need for radio
People in the past used to communicate by exchanging letters. They would write them and send them with a person who was travelling to the same destination as the letter. Then they would wait in vain for months to receive a reply. After that, the postal service arrived on the scene. Thanks to it, the exchange of letters became a lot easier and much more organised.
But such the transmission and reception of written messages still took time. So the telegraph was developed. A telegraph is a small device that was used to send and receive short messages using electric signals. It was developed in the 19th century by the American inventor Samuel F. B. Morse.
The idea behind the telegraph is so simple. Every letter of the alphabet was represented by a different electric signal. Based on that, a written message could be broken into a set of signals. These signals were transmitted through power lines to another telegraph at the receiver side. Once received, the process was inverted. The electric signals were converted back to words. This method of encoding messages was called Morse Code.
Using telegraphy allowed messages to be transmitted in mere minutes. Soon enough, it was implemented everywhere. Power lines and cables were extended to connect towns, cities, and countries. There were even telegraph cables beneath the Atlantic Ocean that connected the US to Europe.
The telegraph grew to be far-reaching. However, the technology still comprised some limitations. Since it was centred on fast transmission, messages had to be short. However, when the messages got bigger, they took longer to be received.
For example, the longest message ever transmitted by Morse Code was the 16,543-word Nevada State Constitution sent by Governor James W. Nye in 1864 from Nevada to Washington. The text took seven hours to encode and two days to be received as the two states were 1404 km apart.
That made telegraphs mostly exclusive to important and emergency messages. That is why the average length of a telegraph message was found to be about 15 words only. In other words, telegraphs were not suitable for sending longer messages fast. That meant another great development was just around the corner.
Heinrich Hertz: Discovering radio waves
Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic waves. They were first predicted by Scottish Mathematician James Clerk Maxwell in 1864. He developed mathematical equations that proposed the existence of electromagnetic waves. Such waves could travel through space at the speed of light; 300,000 km/s. However, neither Maxwell nor anyone else at the time was actually able to confirm that claim.
In the 1880s, German Physicist Heinrich Hertz could successfully generate radio waves for the first time. Such an achievement hence proved Maxwell’s equations correct. Sadly, Maxwell himself had been long dead by that time. He did not know how much his work was that of a genius.
On the other hand, Hertz ironically did not know what to do with these radio waves he discovered. He had absolutely no practical application for them. But as an appreciation for his great contribution to the field, radio waves were named after him: Hertzian waves. That term remained in use in the scientific community up until 1910. Afterwards, the waves were referred to as radio waves.
Guglielmo Marconi: The technology of radio
After the discovery of the radio waves, numerous scientists started working on building systems that would transmit wireless signals. But none of these systems was successful. It was not until an Italian genius called Guglielmo Marconi foresaw great possibilities with radio waves.
Guglielmo Marconi was bright as a kid. He showed huge interest in science from a young age. So his father, who was a wealthy man, took good care of his son’s education. He hired the finest teachers to help develop Guglielmo Marconi’s extraordinary mental skills even more.
In 1894, at the age of 20, Marconi had the idea of developing a wireless telegraphy system. Given that these electromagnetic waves can travel incredibly fast, Marconi thought of transmitting messages as radio waves instead of electric signals. That would allow messages to be received instantly.
At the time, no other inventor was actually pursuing such an application of radio waves. This fired up Marconi to go on with his findings, pioneer radio technology, and take credit for the invention of radiotelegraphy as we will see later on.
So Marconi began conducting laboratory experiments that took place in his father’s home attic. He was able to come up with an apparatus that could generate radio waves. He then used the same Morse Code to encode letters to radio wave pulses. And with an antenna that he put together, Marconi could transmit those radio waves between the rooms.
In 1895, Marconi moved his experiments outdoors, placing the antenna in the air. After some changes in its position, Marconi was able to transmit a radio wave over a distance of 800 metres. Although British Physicist Oliver Lodge, who also had his own experiments with radio waves, had claimed earlier that radio waves could never travel farther than one kilometre, Marconi went on to prove him wrong.
Little did Lodge know, when Marconi made some key improvements to his radio transmitter invention, he was able to extend the distance a radio wave could travel. For instance, he increased the height of the antenna and grounded the transmitter and receiver. That successfully resulted in a radio wave travelling a distance of 3.5 km.
Such success gave more room for improving the radio transmitter. So Marconi wrote to the Ministry of Post and Telegraph in Italy, demonstrating his radiotelegraph machine and requesting funds to further develop it. Unfortunately, no one seemed interested enough in Marconi’s invention. They did not even bother to reject his appeal.
Marconi knew that he needed to find support elsewhere if he was to continue his experiments. So in 1896, Marconi, only aged 21 and accompanied by his mom, set off for Great Britain. There, he found more interest and aid. He also received the necessary funds to develop his extraordinary experiments.
With enough determination and encouragement, Marconi continued to develop his wireless radiotelegraph. Every time he was able to send messages over longer distances. In 1899, Marconi could send radio messages over the English channel. That is a distance of around 34 km.
The accelerated progress Marconi made was very promising. And he himself saw the potential of his radiotelegraph. So he decided to put it into practice. In 1898, Marconi established the first radio factory in the world. He hired excellent engineers and technicians to manufacture radio operators that ships could use.
A year later, Marconi thought about taking the challenge to the next level by making his debut in the US. So he equipped two American ships with wireless radio systems from his factory. The point was to allow these ships to instantly report to the New York Herald newspaper about the progress of the America’s Cup Yacht Race.
This successful endeavour allowed greater interest in Marconi’s wireless radio system. Soon after, ships started to implement wireless radiotelegraph systems to facilitate communication with each other in the open waters and with onshore stations. Such practice proved highly important, especially after the role it played during the sinking of the Titanic—we will see how in a few paragraphs.
But despite his great achievements in radiotelegraphy, Marconi felt he did not fully surpass the regular telegraph system. He was still unable to transmit radio signals between far-flung places, for example, continents. But he did become capable of that.
At the turn of the 20th century, Marconi could transmit the first transatlantic radio signal—that is more than 2800 km! Interestingly, and due to the curvature of the Earth, the radio wave sent from England was headed to space and then reflected by the ionosphere back to the Earth, precisely to its destination in Newfoundland, Canada.
As we have just mentioned, many ships started to adopt Marconi’s wireless systems to better navigate and communicate with other ships. Every system used to have a radio transmitter and receiver as well as a small telegraph apparatus and a headset.
When messages were received, short and long beeps were heard through the headset. These represented the dots and dashes of the Morse Code. The beeps were then translated into messages. When messages were transmitted, someone would use the telegraph apparatus to encode the letters to radio waves. These were also heard as beeps at the receiver station.
So the Titanic was equipped with the finest and most advanced wireless radio system from Marconi’s company. In addition, two employees from the same company were hired onboard to be in charge of communication. However, they were not considered part of the ship’s crew.
The primary responsibility of those two employees or radio operators was to send private messages from passengers onboard to their family and friends on land. Weather reports then came as a secondary concern.
What really happened on the Titanic shows how highly important radiography was at the time. It did play a crucial role in saving the lives of 706 people. It even could have prevented the sinking of the ship altogether should the circumstances had been a little different. So here is how the story goes.
One day before the Titanic tragedy, the wireless radio system on the ship had failed. In such a case, employees were advised to ‘leave everything as is’ and rest until they got to shore so experienced engineers would take care of the problem.
But onboard radio telegraphist Jack Phillips broke the rules and decided to repair the operator himself. After a while, Phillips was able to bring the machine back to life. Yet, he had a mountain of delayed private passenger messages accumulated when the operator was down. So he kept busy sending these messages.
Since the afternoon of the Titanic’s last day, the ship had received messages from nearby ships, warning her about many icebergs and ice fields ahead. Philips acknowledged all those warnings. But he did not pass them to the bridge. The bridge is the room from which the ship was commanded. As a result, the Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith never knew of these warnings beforehand.
Only an hour before the Titanic struck the iceberg, Philips received the sixth and last message from the nearby ship the Californian. It was warning the Titanic about an iceberg just a few miles ahead.
The Californian herself had encountered a large iceberg so her captain decided to stop and wait till the morning. He saw lights from a ship that was approaching and knew from his wireless operator Cyril Furmstone Evans it was the Titanic. So the Californian’s captain asked Evans to warn her and all the other ships in the area.
Philips received this final warning from the Californians but again decided to ignore it. He, later on, justified his act. He said that the messages were not prefixed ‘MSG’, or Master Service Gram, which usually referred to messages intended for the bridge.
Philips even replied to Evans, shouting ‘Shut up! Shut up! I am working Cape Rock’ and went back to sending the passenger messages. Evans was frustrated at Philips’s rude reaction. So he turned off his radio system and went to bed.
It was not only the rejection of the warnings that got the Titanic to eventually hit the iceberg. It was also the fact that the ship was going full speed. So by the time the officers were able to view the iceberg, it was already too late for the Titanic to change course.
Philips never understood how disastrous his rejection of the warnings was until Captain Smith a few minutes after the collision rushed into the wireless room and urged Philips to send a distress call to all nearby ships. He also gave Philips the position of the Titanic to send with the message.
For the next few hours and before the Titanic sank in the Atlantic, Philips kept sending distress messages, hoping that any ship would pick them up and come to the rescue.
Unfortunately, the Californian, which was the closest ship to the Titanic, received none of these messages since its receiver was turned off by Evans.
Even though the Titanic was in the sight of the Californian and its flares were spotted by the Californian’s captain, he did not attempt to help the Titanic. And that was not because the man was evil. First, the Californian itself was stuck in an ice field. Second, the captain, for some reason, did not think the rockets were a desperate call for help.
Carpathia was a ship that was in the waters that night. Unfortunately, it was four hours away from the Titanic. But when it received one of those distress messages, it headed to where the Titanic was.
It was not too late for Carpathia to save lives. Though it already arrived a few hours after the Titanic had sunk, Carpathia could save the 706 survivors who made it to the lifeboats. If it had not been for that ship, those poor people may have frozen to death. That said, Operator Jack Phillips unfortunately was not among the survivors.
In a twist of fate, Marconi received a free ticket to travel on the Titanic. But he preferred to board the Lusitania. That was another British ship that set off three days before the Titanic’s first and last voyage.
After that tragedy, it was clear how significant wireless radio transmission was, having saved the lives of hundreds of people. As a result, Marconi gained even more popularity and recognition for his achievements in that field.
Reginald Fessenden: Radio broadcasting
Up until that point, all the messages transmitted through Marconi’s radiotelegraph systems were text messages encoded using the Morse Code. However, there was no way to transfer audio.
In fact, Marconi did find these encoded messages pretty adequate. Some people even claimed he was entirely uninterested in transmitting voice messages. Such huge development in the audio transmission is attributed to the Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden.
While Marconi was grabbing the world’s attention, travelling everywhere, and giving demonstrations of his wireless radiotelegraph, Fessenden was wondering if he could transfer audio over radio waves instead of using Morse Code to encode text messages. So he started experimenting with that.
Fessenden’s idea was to overlay an audio signal with a radio signal which in that case would play the role of a carrier. With some changes in the frequency, the resultant paired signal would have the shape of a sound wave that was able to travel remotely way faster thanks to the radio wave that carried it. On the other side, the receiver would then separate the radio wave and reproduce the original sound signal.
After some trial and error, Fessenden succeeded in transmitting audio between two stations that were 1.6 km apart. That was in late 1900.
This technology was called radiotelephony at the time. Fascinated by the promising start he had, Fessenden kept working on his invention. Every time, he made some changes to improve the performance of the audio transmitters and receivers. That allowed him to send audio signals over longer distances.
In 1902, Fessenden received an offer from an American company to manufacture his invention. If ships were equipped with those wireless radio telephony operators, it would be much easier and faster for them to communicate and take action during an emergency. That American company also wanted to compete with Marconi whose wireless radiotelegraphy system was already booming at the time.
In December 1906, ships that were sailing off the coast of New England in the northeast United States picked up a strange signal. Instead of hearing the regular beeps of Morse Code, they heard someone reading the Bible and playing the violin. The signal ended with the voice wishing them a merry Christmas. Then the sailors heard the normal beeping again.
That was Fessenden’s breakthrough. He could successfully send human voice over a long distance in the form of radio waves.
A year later, in 1907, American Inventor Lee de Forest came to the fore. Through his experiments, he could make the transmission of audio much more efficient. He also came up with the radio as equipment, a device that people could buy.
George Westinghouse: The first radio channel
For the next decade, more and more inventors and engineers continued to develop the radio, as a technology and a device. It was introduced to the people and they did find it amusing.
Radio also gained more popularity after World War I. During the war, it was used to send war updates, news, and orders. So after the war had ended, many companies started to manufacture and sell radio devices to the public.
However, the spread of radio did encounter a few setbacks. One of them was that the public was not very convinced of why they should buy a radio device in the first place. It sure was fun to listen to others speaking from remote places. But that had no direct benefit to them.
However, necessity is the mother of invention. And it was necessary for the American Manufacturer George Westinghouse to sell radios. So he had the idea of programmes. If he wanted people to buy radios, he had to offer them content to consume with them.
Westinghouse was a successful businessman and he had lots of powerful connections. So he used them to establish the first transmitting radio station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was named KDKA—that abbreviation does not stand for anything.
On November 2nd, 1920, the first ever radio broadcast was made which thousands of people listened to. Westinghouse was really smart. He chose that very day because it was the day of the elections. To convince the people with the power of radio, the election results were announced publicly before they were printed out in newspapers. Westinghouse was right. The success that followed this radio debut was unimaginable.
After that, more and more stations were built and radio sales sky-rocketed. Radio programming also took shape. Performers and musicians were hired to sing and play live on air. Advertisers also came in to help spread the word about their products and support stations financially so they could keep going.
And they did.
The evolution of radio was extraordinary. From the mid-19th century, scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and inventors made huge contributions that influenced the development of radio broadcasting. Such development was the base for every sort of remote communication we now have.
In this article, we learned the story behind the radio and how it was an absolute need to enhance communication. From the equations of Maxwell and Hertz’s discovery of the radio waves to Marconi who put them into practice and Fessenden who developed audio transmission.
So every time you listen to your favourite programme on the radio or use your mobile phone to call a friend, remember those great scientists and inventors who dedicated their lives to our mere benefit and the advancement of humanity.