Inspired by Heinrich Hertz’s experiments on radio waves, Guglielmo Marconi, a twenty-two year old man in Italy, experimented in his parent’s attic until he created and later patented the first radio, which could transmit radio waves a little more than a mile away. Marconi then traveled to England, where his invention could be more easily funded, and although his radio equipment almost got destroyed by suspicious customs officers in Dover, Marconi was able to create a radio that transmitted Morse code signals almost four miles away.
Many credit Guglielmo Marconi as the inventor of the radio; however, Marconi’s invention would have been successful without Nikola Tesla, an engineer behind the early development of the technology needed to build radios who is many times forgotten. Marconi studied under Tesla’s guidance, and Nikola Tesla himself worked for Thomas Edison, which is when Tesla created the first alternating current when up to this point, the world was using Edison’s invention of a direct current. When an alternating current is paired with an antenna, it can produce the electromagnetic waves needed to transmit a radio signal.
In contrast to a direct current, an alternating current does not need power stations every mile. Instead, alternating current only needs one power station and the strength of the signal does not weaken when farther away from the station. Tesla was on his way to inventing the first radio when he built a boat that was controlled by short range radio signals a few years prior to Marconi’s first radio in 1895. Unfortunately, that same year, Tesla’s laboratory in New York, full of his research and work over the years, burnt down which slowed his efforts considerably.
Some argue that Tesla’s contribution to electricity transmission makes him responsible for inventing radio, and at the same time, some argue that Tesla’s work was just another stepping stone that helped Guglielmo Marconi achieve success (Richter 4-8). Regardless of which inventor is truly responsible for the invention of the radio, the first trans-Atlantic radio communication occurred on December 12, 1901 when Marconi transmitted a signal roughly 2,000 miles from Poldhu, Cornwall in Ireland to St John’s, Newfoundland in Canada.
Marconi successfully sent Morse code for the letter “s” even though Marconi was told that the message would not travel more than 200 miles due to the curvature of the Earth. Though Marconi and other physicist still had to a lot to learn about how radio works, Marconi overcame the difficult feat of sending radio signals over long distances, and he later received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909 along with Ferdinand Braun for both of their contributions to the field of wireless communication technology (Richter 5). Another notable contributor to the first trans-Atlantic wireless radio communication is John Ambrose Fleming.
Fleming became one of Marconi’s consultants for his business, Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, in 1899, and he is the man responsible for creating the transmitter powerful enough to carry a radio signal over long distances. Although Fleming’s transmitter work for Marconi was instrumental in the evolution of long distance communication, Fleming’s most significant invention came in 1904 when he patented the Fleming valve which became the property of Marconi’s company. The Fleming valve is an oscillating valve that allows for the detection of weaker signals when up to this point, a signal had to be quite strong in order to be received.
The invention also made it possible for measurements with higher frequency to be recorded. Unfortunately, Fleming valves were expensive to construct, and cheaper, more convenient thermionic technology became more popular overshadowing Fleming’s invention. Early radio communication consisted of the dot and dash sounds of Morse code until a man named Reginald Fessenden sent what is thought to be the first radio broadcast. Fessenden, a Canadian scientist and inventor, worked for Thomas Edison following Nikola Tesla’s lead, and Fessenden rose in the ranks of Edison’s workers until he was named chief chemist.
Fessenden went on to become a professor at Purdue University as well as the University of Pittsburg, and later, the United States Weather Bureau paid Fessenden to improve how weather reports were communicated to the public. In the December of 1900, Fessenden was able to communicate using his voice, instead of Morse code, on the radio. Fessenden’s voice was heard in a radio station located one mile away from his station, and this was the first time a person’s voice was broadcasted over the radio even though the signal was weak and the distance was short.
On Christmas Eve in 1906, Fessenden broadcasted Christmas songs and bible verses from his station in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Radio operators aboard U. S. Navy and United Fruit Company ships stationed throughout the North and South Atlantic Ocean as well as in the West Indies heard Fessenden’s broadcast, and this marks the first time music and talking were broadcasted on the radio over long distances. With the ability to now broadcast voices and music, Fessenden’s work made it possible for radio to be used for maritime communication, entertainment, and informational purposes going forward (Richter 9-11).
Radio communication, even in its early stages of Morse code, made it possible for ships to communicate with other ships as well as stations on land. For example, a ship from a fishing company could inform the other fishing ships where the best location was to catch fish on that certain day and tell the ships to meet there immediately. Also, in the event of an emergency, a ship could send out a distress signal in hopes of reaching another ship at sea or a station on land that could offer help.
The Republic, a steamship headed for Liverpool in 1909, sent the first “C. Q. D. ” distress call using the Marconi wireless telegraph on board, which is similar to the “S. O. S. ” distress signal used today. The Lloyd Italiano Liner Florida hit the Republic due to heavy fog, and luckily, the transmitter equipment was not damaged during impact. The Republic was able to make contact with several ships in the area who came to rescue the passengers and crew on board, and only six people died as a result of the collision (White 5).
A more famous and more fatal example of the importance of radio communication at sea is the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Because the Titanic had a Marconi radio system, it was able to make contact with Carpathia, an ocean liner 58 miles away. Although 1,503 people died because the Titanic hit the iceberg, 705 people survived due to the Titanic’s radio communication capabilities. There was a ship closer to the Titanic than Carpathia called the Californian, but the one and only radio operator was off duty when the Titanic sent out distress signals.
By the time the Californian got word of the Titanic’s situation, the Carpathia had already picked up some of the passengers and crew members, and the Titanic had sunk. It is probable that many more lives could have been saved if the Californian would have received the distress signal earlier and responded to Titanic sooner. Following the Titanic incident, U. S. congress passed the Radio Act of 1912 which said that all seafaring vessels must maintain contact with surrounding ships and radio stations on the coast as well as making it mandatory for amateur radio operators to have a broadcasting license.
The most important part of the Radio Act of 1912 in regards to what happened to the Titantic is that is required ships to have a 24hour radio watch for distress signals which would help prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. Radio communication at sea still had flaws at this time such as the radio operators not being able to send or receive more than one messages at a time; however, the invention of the radio overall improved maritime communication significantly (Kovarik n. pag. ). Radio technology played an instrumental role in wartime communication especially during World War I.
When the military first started to use the radio, a combination of mules, men on horseback, and wagons had to be used to transport a radio system because the equipment was so bulky and heavy. The radio set’s size and weight made it hard for radios to be hauled around battlefields and limited its use on land; however, the U. S. Navy heavily utilized radio communication because it allowed them to communicate with generals on other ships and troops stationed on shore. Even before the United States formally entered World War I, Woodrow Wilson ordered the U. S. Navy to censor incoming radio messages and monitor the plans of the countries at war.
Once the United States entered World Warl on April 7, 1917, Woodrow Wilson banded the use of radio for amateur or commercial purposes, and the stations had to be either closed down or given to the government for military purposes. Both the Allies and the Central Powers relied on radio technology for to receive and send war updates, to make strategy changes, to warn troops of an attack, and to maintain contact between forces in the air, on land, and in the sea. When soldiers were in the hospital healing or not in combat, music and news were broadcasted over the radio as a source of entertainment.
Radio also made it possible for Woodrow Wilson’s proposal for lasting peace in Europe, his Fourteen Points speech, to be broadcasted from the U. S. congress floor across the Atlantic Ocean and into Western Europe and Russia, which further shows how radio technology made wartime communication more immediate and efficient. Overall, radio technology transformed the way military communicated between air, land, and sea forces, the way troops spent their time when not in battle, and the way political leaders were able to present their ideas to a larger audience (White 13).
After World War I came to a close, the U. S. government lifted the ban of amateur and commercial radio operation, and radio use among the public increased dramatically despite the initial dearth of citizens owning radio receivers in 1919. Westinghouse Company, a top radio manufacturer of the time, realized in 1920 that there was potential for a lucrative market of selling radios if radios were used for entertainment purposes such as broadcasting music or reporting the news instead of strictly as a way to communicate between two locations.
The KDKA radio station, a production of Westinghouse, made the first broadcast of commercial nature on November 2, 1920. KDKA broadcasted the results of the 1920 presidential election between Harding and Cox, and general public knew who won the presidential race before the newspapers hit the stands for the first time in American history. As the overall number of radio stations increased, the number of American families that wanted a radio system in their home increased as well.