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Articles and extracts about early radio and related technologies, concentrating on the United States in the period from 1897 to 1927

Thomas H. White

An assortment of highlights -- plus a few lowlifes -- about early U.S. radio history. Over time more articles will be added, to cover additional topics and expand on the existing ones. (This webpage was begun September 30, 1996, and was located at www.ipass.net/~whitetho/index.html until March 11, 2003).

  1. Period Overview (1896-1927) - General reviews of the individuals, activities and technical advances which characterized this era.
  2. The Electric Telegraph (1838-1922) - The electric telegraph revolutionized long-distance communication, replacing earlier semaphore communication lines. In addition to its primary use for point-to-point messages, other applications were developed, including printing telegraphs ("tickers") used for distributing stock quotes and news reports.
  3. News and Entertainment by Telephone (1876-1930) - While the telegraph was mainly limited to transmitting Morse code and printed messages, the invention of the telephone made distant audio communication possible. And although the telephone was mostly used for private conversations, there was also experimentation with providing home entertainment. In 1893 a particularly sophisticated system, the Telefon Hirmondó, began operation in Budapest, Hungary -- one of its off-shoots, the United States Telephone Herald Company and its affiliates, did not meet with the same financial success.
  4. Personal Communication by Wireless (1879-1922) - After Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of radio waves, some were enchanted by the idea that this remarkable scientific advance could be used for personal, mobile communication. But it would take decades before the technology would catch up with the idea.
  5. Radio at Sea (1891-1922) - The first major use of radio was for navigation, where it greatly reduced the isolation of ships, saving thousands of lives, even though for the first couple of decades radio was generally limited to Morse code transmissions. In particular, the 1912 sinking of the Titanic highlighted the value of radio to ocean vessels.
  6. Early Radio Industry Development (1897-1914) - As with most innovations, radio began with a series of incremental scientific discoveries and technical refinements, which eventually led to the development of commercial applications. But profits were slow in coming, and for many years the largest U.S. radio firms were better known for their fraudulent stock selling practices than for their financial viability.
  7. Pioneering U.S. Radio Activities (1897-1917) - Marconi's demonstration of a practical system for generating and receiving long-range radio signals sparked interest worldwide. It also resulted in numerous competing experimenters and companies throughout the industrialized world, including a number of important figures in the United States, led by Reginald Fessenden and Lee DeForest.
  8. Alternator-Transmitter Development (1891-1922) - Radio signals were originally produced by spark transmitters, which were noisy and inefficient. So experimenters worked to develop "continuous-wave" -- also known as "undamped" -- transmitters, whose signals went out on a single frequency, and which could also transmit full-audio signals. One approach used to generate continuous-wave signals was high-speed electrical alternators. By 1919, international control of the Alexanderson alternator-transmitter was considered so important that it triggered the formation of the Radio Corporation of America. However, within just a few years alternator-transmitters would become obsolete.
  9. Arc-Transmitter Development (1904-1928) - A more compact -- although not quite as refined -- method for generating continuous-wave radio signals was the arc-transmitter, initially developed by Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen. Because arc-transmitters were less complicated than alternator-transmitters, a majority of the early experimental audio transmissions would use this device.
  10. Audion and Vacuum-tube Receiver Development (1907-1916) - Lee DeForest invented a three-element vacuum-tube detector which he called an Audion, but initially it was so crude and unreliable that it was little more than a curiosity. After a lull of a few years, more capable scientists and engineers, led by AT&T's Dr. Harold Arnold, improved vacuum-tubes into robust and powerful amplifiers, which would revolutionize radio reception.
  11. Pre-War Vacuum-tube Transmitter Development (1914-1917) - AT&T initially developed vacuum-tubes as amplifiers for long-distance telephone lines. However, this was only the beginning of the device's versatility, as various scientists and inventors would develop numerous innovations, including efficient continuous-wave transmitters, which would eventually replace the earlier spark, arc, and alternator varieties. Vacuum-tube transmitters were also used for an increasing number of broadcasting experiments, however these fledgling efforts came to an abrupt end on April 6, 1917, when the United States entered World War One. At that time, all radio stations not needed by the government were closed, and it became illegal, for the duration of the war, for the general population to listen to any radio transmissions, from any source.
  12. Pioneering Amateurs (1900-1917) - Radio captured the imagination of thousands of ordinary persons who wanted to experiment with this amazing new technology. Until late 1912 there was no licencing or regulation of radio transmitters in the United States, so amateurs -- known informally as "hams" -- were free to set up stations wherever they wished. But with the adoption of licencing, amateur operators faced a crisis, as most were now restricted to transmitting on a wavelength of 200 meters (1500 kilohertz), which had a limited sending range. They successfully organized to overcome this limitation, only to face a second hurdle in April, 1917, when the U.S. government shut down all amateur stations, as the country entered World War One.
  13. Radio During World War One (1914-1919) - Civilian radio activities were suspended during the war, as the radio industry was taken over by the government. Numerous military applications were developed, including direct communication with airplanes. The war also exposed thousands of service personnel to the on-going advances in radio technology, and even saw a few experiments with broadcasting entertainment to the troops.
  14. Expanded Audion and Vacuum-tube Development (1917-1930) - The wartime consolidation of the radio industry under government control led to important advances in radio equipment engineering and manufacturing, especially vacuum-tube technology, with receiver design seeing the introduction of superheterodyne, super-regenerative and neutrodyne circuits. Still, some would look toward the day when vacuum-tubes would be supplanted by something more efficient and compact, although this was another development which would take decades to be realized.
  15. Amateur Radio After World War One (1919-1925) - Although there was concern that amateur radio stations would not be allowed to return to the airwaves after the war, in 1919 the wartime restrictions were ended. And the next few years would see tremendous strides, as amateurs adopted vacuum-tube technology and began to explore transmitting on shortwave frequencies, which resulted in significant increases in range and reliability. However, although they had laid much of the groundwork that led to the development of broadcasting, in early 1922 amateur radio stations were explicitly banned from making entertainment broadcasts.
  16. Broadcasting After World War One (1918-1921) - Although still unfocused, scattered broadcasting activities, taking advantage of improvements in vacuum-tube technology, accelerated after the end of the Great War. Initially there was a shortage of equipment, especially vacuum-tubes, due to ongoing patent disputes, and many of the early efforts were government related or by persons who had access to surplus military equipment. But the experiments continued to expand, as the radio industry returned to civilian control.
  17. Big Business and Radio (1915-1922) - Once the radio industry finally became profitable, major corporations -- including the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, General Electric, and Westinghouse -- moved into the field. Meanwhile, in 1919, due to pressure from the U.S. government, American Marconi's assets were sold to General Electric, which used them to form the Radio Corporation of America.
  18. Broadcasting Becomes Widespread (1922-1923) - Led by Westinghouse's 1920 and 1921 establishment of four well-financed stations -- located in or near Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago and New York City -- there was a growing sense of excitement as broadcasting activities became more organized. In December, 1921, the Department of Commerce issued regulations formally establishing a broadcast service. Then, in early 1922, a "broadcasting boom" occurred, as a sometimes chaotic mix of stations, sponsored by a wide range of businesses, organizations and individuals, sprang up, numbering over 500 by the end of the year.
  19. The Development of Radio Networks (1916-1941) - The introduction of vacuum-tube amplification for telephone lines allowed AT&T to experiment with sending speeches to distant audiences that listened over loudspeakers. The next step would be to use the lines to interconnect radio stations, and in December, 1921 a memo written by two AT&T engineers, John F. Bratney and Harley C. Lauderback, outlined the establishment of a national radio network, financially supported by advertising. General Electric, Westinghouse and RCA responded by forming their own radio network, however, unable to match AT&T's progress, in 1926 they bought out AT&T's network operations, which were reorganized to form the National Broadcasting Company. Creating competing national networks proved difficult, and over the next decade only two others would be established: the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1927, and the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1934.
  20. Financing Radio Broadcasting (1898-1927) - Soon after Marconi's groundbreaking demonstrations, there was speculation about transmitting radio signals to paying customers. However, there was no practical way to limit broadcasts to specific receivers, so for a couple decades broadcasting activities were largely limited to experiments, plus a limited number of public service transmissions by government stations. During the 1922 "broadcasting boom", most programming was commercial-free, and entertainers, caught up in the excitement of this revolutionary new invention, performed for free. Meanwhile, a few people wondered how to pay for all this. In early 1922, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company began promoting the controversial idea of using advertising to finance programming. Initially AT&T claimed that its patent rights gave it a monopoly over U.S. radio advertising, but a 1923 industry settlement paved the way for other stations to begin to sell time. And eventually advertising-supported private stations became the standard for U.S. broadcasting stations.
  21. Fakes, Frauds, and Cranks (1866-1922) - Unfortunately, some "misunderstood geniuses" are actually crazy, or dishonest, or both.
  22. Word Origins - Reviews of the history of the words "radio", "broadcast" and "ham".
  23. Early Government Regulation (1903-1941) - Compared to most other nations, the United States was slow to regulate radio communication. International issues were dealt with by conferences held in Berlin, Germany in 1903 and 1906, followed by a London convention in 1912. The U.S. issued limited shipboard regulations in 1910, but did not implement comprehensive regulations and station licencing until 1912. The development of broadcasting in the early 1920s would bring significant challenges and changes, which resulted in passage of the Radio Act of 1927, and the formation of the Federal Radio Commission.
  24. Original Articles - Writings about United States radio history, emphasizing the early AM broadcast band (mediumwave).

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E-mail: whitetho@earlyradiohistory.us
David Sarnoff, 1964: "The computer will become the hub of a vast network of remote data stations and information banks feeding into the machine at a transmission rate of a billion or more bits of information a second. Laser channels will vastly increase both data capacity and the speeds with which it will be transmitted. Eventually, a global communications network handling voice, data and facsimile will instantly link man to machine--or machine to machine--by land, air, underwater, and space circuits. [The computer] will affect man's ways of thinking, his means of education, his relationship to his physical and social environment, and it will alter his ways of living... [Before the end of this century, these forces] will coalesce into what unquestionably will become the greatest adventure of the human mind."--from David Sarnoff by Eugene Lyons, 1966.