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When Did That Happen?

On the Radio

by Dan Wohlbruck

Generic image illustrating the article
  In the Golden Era of Radio, people listened to live concerts from New York, soap operas like “Stella Dallas,” the comedy of Amos and Andy, and thrillers like “The Phantom.” Until 1950, all radio broadcasts were live.  

On November 2, 1920, just ninety years ago, station KDKA in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, began broadcasting the first commercial radio signal. Without wires, needing only a relatively inexpensive receiver, radio was an instant success that soon went nationwide. Radio, however, and the waves that were sent into the air, were first considered as a wireless telegraph which was better suited for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication than as a commercial means of entertainment.

Heinrich Hertz first demonstrated the ability to generate radio waves in 1886. Hertz was inspired by Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and his prediction of the existence of electromagnetic waves that would travel at the speed of light. To generate and transmit radio waves, Hertz used a high voltage induction coil, a condenser, and a spark gap. The poles at each end of the spark gap oscillated and sent an electromagnetic wave. To prove the existence of the wave, Hertz invented a receiver made of copper wire molded into a circle with a brass sphere on one end. The sphere was placed close to the wave generator and when the receiver sparked, the existence of radio waves was confirmed.

The person who took radio from an interesting experiment in electricity to a worldwide phenomenon was Guglielmo Marconi. Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy, on April 25, 1874. He was educated by tutors at his father’s estate where he became interested in electricity in general and Hertz’s waves in particular. In 1895, Marconi began his radio experiments, succeeding in sending an electromagnetic signal over a distance of 1.5 miles. In 1896, Marconi was awarded the world’s first patent for wireless telegraphy. In 1897, he founded The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company which was re-named in 1900 to Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company. In 1899 he established wireless communication between France and England across the English Channel. In 1900 Marconi was awarded patent No. 7777 for telegraphy and, on an historic day in December 1901, he proved that wireless waves were not affected by the curvature of the Earth when he used his system to transmit the first wireless signals across the Atlantic Ocean, a distance of 2100 miles.

The world began to find uses for Marconi’s radio waves. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt exchanged greetings with King Edward VII by wireless transmission and in 1905 the battle of Port Arthur was reported in the same way. In 1915, speech was first transmitted across the continent from New York City to San Francisco and across the Atlantic Ocean from Naval radio station NAA at Arlington, Virginia, to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Then came radio station KDKA.

The Westinghouse Company owned KDKA and, within months, launched radio stations in Boston, Chicago, and New York. Corporate stations soon competed with amateurs and experimenters for the airwaves. In response to the proliferation of broadcast signals, in December 1921, the Department of Commerce announced regulations to limit public radio stations to those that met new standards for equipment and signal strength. Standards aside, by the end of 1922 there were more than 500 public radio stations in the United States, operating in every state.

The general public wanted to know how to receive these radio signals and the programs that they carried. In response, radio clubs sprang up and a mini-publishing boom in how-to manuals ensued. But not everyone saw the radio as the road to paradise. The Nation magazine, in an article published in March 1922, lamented this new development:

“Think of the tragic fate of some future Thoreau who goes to his beloved woods in search of solitude only to find the night made suddenly hideous by the ‘famous laughing saxophone’ played at station XYZ and received and amplified by equipment in possession of the Boston Boy Scouts in camp not far away!”

The laughing saxophone of 1922 gave way to the Golden Era of radio, a 30 year period from 1925 to 1955. Everyone caught the radio fever. At its height in 1947, almost 90% of the population of the United States owned and regularly listened to the radio.

On November 15, 1926, just six years after the first commercial broadcast, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was formed. The network had the task of serving daily programming to 13 million radio sets. Their radio stations carried live concerts from New York, soap operas like “Stella Dallas,” the comedy of Amos and Andy, and thrillers like “The Phantom.” Adding to the drama, until 1950, all radio broadcasts were live.

NBC investors wondered how to pay for all this. In early 1922, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company promoted the idea of using advertising to finance programming. Initially AT&T claimed that its patent rights gave it a monopoly over national radio advertising, but a 1923 industry settlement allowed other stations to begin to sell time, as well. And so it was advertising that paid for free, public programs.

Then, in the 1950s, television broadcasting superseded the radio. Radio stations dropped their dramatic programming and became niche carriers of specialized content. Although the golden age of radio was over, the spread of wireless communication devices was about to begin.

The radio era began 90 years ago—and that’s when it happened.

Dan Wohlbruck has over 30 years of experience with computers, with over 25 years of business and project management experience in the life and health insurance industry. He has written articles for a variety of trade magazines and websites. He is currently hard at work on a book on the history of data processing.

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