Monday, March 3, 2014

Before Radio Ruled the Airways - A Short History

Can you imagine a world without radio? In these technologically saturated times, envisage yourself if you will, living in the 18th and 19th Centuries. There were no newspapers and whatever broadsheets that were available, couldn't be read by most of the population. Only the clergy or those from a privileged background were afforded an education and able to read.

The very idea that sound could be carried via electric or electromagnetic waves was probably unthinkable, until various inventors and scientists working in the fields of sound transmittal paved the way for Guglieirno Marconi, an Italian inventor, who demonstrated the possibility of radio communication. He transmitted and received his first radio signal in Italy in 1895. By 1899 he flashed the first wireless signal across the English Channel and two years later, received the letter “S” telegraphed from England to Newfoundland. Marconi, originally credited with inventing this new means of communication lost that title in a decision of the Supreme Court who overturned his patent in 1943, awarding credit to Nikola Tesla. Ships made prolific use of the “Morse-code” format of messages, with the 'dot-dot-dash' formula, where messages wee tapped out over a device from ship to shore and enabled communication between ships. This system of radio communication was adapted b the United States Army who established a wireless base off Fire Island in New York. The Navy also adopted the wireless system some two years later, but before then, they had been communicating using visual signals or even employing homing pigeons.1

This primitive form of communication was opened up to the masses with the input provided by Lee DeForest, who developed and coined the word “radio”. DeForest was able to reach a much wider audience with his use of the triode amplifier. In fact, the word “AM” means amplitude-modulated radio. The volume of radio frequencies were expanded and many more sound waves were audible as a result of this amplification.

It is not clear who has the distinction of being the first person to lend their voice to radio, there are contentions that this honor goes to one Nathan B. Stubbelfield in 1892, while there is another school that attributes that feat to Canadian Reginald A. Fessenden in 1906. In 1915, the first transatlantic speech was transmitted from a naval base in Ohio to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The development of radio continued to evolve and in 1933 Edwin Howard Armstrong took it to the next level of refinement with his invention of frequency-modulated or the more popularly known FM radio. FM improved the audio signal of radio by controlling the noise static caused by electrical equipment and the earth's atmosphere. To illustrate how the growth of transatlantic telephones and radio signals were linked, until 1936, all American transatlantic telephone communication had to be routed through England. In that year, a direct radiotelephone circuit was opened to Paris. Telephone connection by radio and cable is now accessible through 1987 foreign points.

Radio continues to break new barriers and boundaries, from the early heady days of the transistor radio – introduced to the world by the Japanese electronics giant – Sony, to the proliferation of radio stations that can be accessed on the World Wide Web. Factored into that equation we must not discount pirate stations. In London, the most famous was Radio Caroline, which started life on a shop off the South East coast of England in 1964. Since then pirate radio stations have sprung like mushrooms up and down the AM and FM bands all over the world. In North America, some of these pirate stations have even attained a level of legality and have been afforded “community radio station” status. Certainly, pirate stations are not as constrained as legitimate radio stations in terms of the content and financial support they need to stay afloat.

So when next you approach your radio and press the 'on' button (or as the case may be, reach for the remote control) stop, pause and think about just how far the development of that first invention of sound transmission has come to the point that radio rules and you can now find anything you want to hear over the airways in this modern society.