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Period Overview (1896-1927)
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General reviews of the individuals, activities and technical advances which characterized this era.
Terminology -- Radio Development -- United States Government Activities


Radio -- signaling and audio communication using electromagnetic radiation -- was first employed as a "wireless telegraph", for point-to-point links where regular telegraph lines were unreliable or impractical. Next developed was radio's ability to broadcast messages simultaneously to multiple locations, at first using the dots-and-dashes of telegraphic code, and later in full audio.

Although "electromagnetic radiation" is the formal scientific term for what Heinrich Hertz demonstrated with his simple spark transmitter in the 1880s, in addition to "radio" numerous other descriptive phrases were used in the early days, including various permutations of "Hertzian waves", "electric waves", "ether waves", "spark telegraphy", "space telegraphy", "aerography" and "wireless". In the November 30, 1901 Electrical Review, a letter from G. C. Dietz offered "atmography" as the answer to What Shall We Call It?, but the suggestion fell on deaf ears. Spark, Space, Wireless, Etheric, Hertzian Wave or Cableless Telegraphy--Which? by A. Frederick Collins in the August 24, 1901 Western Electrician wondered whether the question might eventually become academic, for "In the distant future when all wire systems, both telegraph and telephone, have been superseded by the so-called wireless, there will be no confusing qualifying adjectives, for there will be no dual systems requiring qualification, and wireless telegraphy and telephony will be spoken of as simply telegraphy and telephony." So, what's the difference between wireless and radio? "There ain't none" -- both refer to the exact same thing -- explains Edward C. Hubert in Radio vs. Wireless, from the January, 1925, Radio News.


The 1901 edition of J. J. Fahie's A History of Wireless Telegraphy reviewed in detail the development of pre-radio wireless technologies, up through Guglielmo Marconi's groundbreaking radio work. In 1917, Donald McNicol wrote about the importance of documenting radio's "historical narrative", noting: "I believe it to be the duty of those acquainted with views and facts of its introduction to set [the most illuminating essentials] down for the inspection of the ultimate historian". McNicol's overview of The Early Days of Radio in America, from the April, 1917 issue of The Electrical Experimenter, covered significant events, articles, books and individuals during the period from 1896 through 1904, this time beginning with Guglielmo Marconi's demonstrations in Great Britain. (Included in this article are links to twenty-four items mentioned in the review.) In the June, 1917 Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, Robert H. Marriott comprehensively reviewed technical advances plus the struggles and character flaws encountered during early United States Radio Development. Five years later, with a "broadcast boom" spreading across the nation, Professor J. H. Morecroft reviewed What Everyone Should Know About Radio History, a two-part series that ran in Radio Broadcast, beginning with its July, 1922 issue.

The transformation of radio, from scientific curiosity to a practical communications technology, was due to incremental improvements in a variety of areas. H. Winfield Secor traced the history of Radio Detector Development in the January, 1917 issue of The Electrical Experimenter, starting with the micrometer spark gap used by Heinrich Hertz, followed by various magnetic, electrolytic, and crystal detectors, and finally the very important improvements in three-electrode vacuum tubes.

One of Marconi's most important discoveries was of "groundwave" radio signals, which resulted from adding a ground connection to the transmitter, and led to greatly increased transmission ranges. One reason this occurred was because "earthing" the transmitter antenna resulted in the radio signals using the ground as a waveguide, meaning the signals followed the earth's plane, and thus spread out in only two dimensions, unlike a free-space transmission like light, which dispersed in three dimensions. This in turn meant that groundwave signal strength tended to drop inversely with the distance covered, instead of the square of the distance, which was the case for free-space signals. However, it was a few years before groundwave radio signals were fully understood. At the 1904 International Electrical Congress in Saint Louis, Missouri, gifted mathematician John Stone Stone presented a paper designed to provide a rigorous mathematical foundation describing radio transmissions. However, he made one significant error, by stating that signal strength tended to fall off with the square of the distance traveled. In the discussion of the paper, Lee DeForest, who had worked extensively with commercial systems, tentatively noted that in his experience signals did not weaken that quickly, although his own lack of precise measurements still left the issue somewhat in doubt -- The Theory of Wireless Telegraphy (groundwave extract).


The U.S. Navy quickly recognized radio's potential. Following successful tests by Great Britain and Italy, the Navy Department's 1899 annual report noted that Marconi equipment would soon be evaluated, "in order to determine its usefulness under service conditions". These tests quickly convinced the Navy of the value of radio, and three years later R. B. Bradford, Chief of the Bureau of Equipment, reported that "There is no navy, so far as the Bureau is aware, which has not given especial attention to this subject". The U.S. Navy began to equip its entire fleet with transmitters, and also set up an extensive chain of coastal stations. Radio was also employed as an aid to civilian and military navigation, beginning with time signals broadcast beginning in 1905: U. S. Navy Department Annual Report Extracts: 1899-1908. The Navy's impact on U.S. radio communications would continue to expand. In 1913, numerous shore stations started to handle commercial traffic in areas where there were no private stations, meanwhile, naval leaders lobbied for a government monopoly of radio transmitters. Finally, in April, 1917, with the entrance of the U.S. into World War One, the government, led by the Navy, took over control of all radio communications for the duration of the conflict: U. S. Navy Department Annual Report Extracts: 1909-1918. (A book published in 1963, History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy by Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN (Retired), is a comprehensive history of activities in the U.S. Navy through 1945).

The United States Department of Agriculture also rapidly foresaw radio's possibilities. Beginning in 1900, the department financed some of Reginald Fessenden's early research, until the two sides had a falling-out. But the department continued to work, at times haltingly, to develop radio applications, at first for gathering reports, and then for distributing them over a broad area. The Agriculture Department was responsible for some of the earliest radio broadcasts, including weather reports in 1912, although the first transmissions were in telegraphic code: U. S. Agriculture Department Annual Report Extracts: 1898-1927

"Homage is due to many rather than to a few. Many radio developers have received little compensation for their work in the past and they are not in a position to collect now. The public owes a debt to many people which it cannot pay. Some of these people need the money, others do not; some are dead while those still alive do not expect to realize anything on their past labors."--"How Radio Grew Up", Robert H. Marriott, Radio Broadcast, December, 1925.