In 1864, James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish scientist, laid the groundwork for the invention of the radio. He demonstrated that electromagnetic waves could travel through space. It took another 24 years for German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz to provide conclusive evidence of Maxwell’s theory. In honor of his contribution, the unit of frequency, which measures the number of cycles per second, was named the “hertz.” It is commonly abbreviated as “Hz.”
After Hertz’s breakthrough in 1888, many scientists started discussing the potential of using radio waves to transmit information. However, it wasn’t until 1894 that Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor, successfully built the first wireless telegraphy system.
Marconi in 1909
In Bologna, Italy, at the age of 18, Marconi started working on his own wave-generating equipment using radio waves. He quickly made progress and managed to send signals to locations that were a mile away.
Excited about his invention, Marconi decided to share his achievement with the director of the Italian Ministry of Post and Telegraphs. Much to his surprise, not only did the director respond, but he also left a peculiar note on Marconi’s letter. The note read: “to the Longara,” referring to the local insane asylum.
In 1896, undeterred, Marconi traveled to England. Within a year, he started broadcasting up to 12 miles and applied for his first patents. Setting up a wireless station on the Isle of Wight, he enabled Queen Victoria to send messages to her son Prince Edward aboard the royal yacht.
By 1899, Marconi’s signals successfully crossed the English Channel, from Britain to France. During that year, he journeyed to the United States, where he gained attention by providing wireless coverage of the America’s Cup yacht race off the coast of New Jersey.
Marconi demonstrating apparatus he used in his first long-distance radio transmissions in the 1890s. The transmitter is at right, the receiver with paper tape recorder at left.
Marconi was determined to improve his wireless technology for a transatlantic broadcast. Many physicists doubted the possibility, arguing that radio waves traveled in straight lines and couldn’t reach beyond the horizon. However, Marconi believed that the waves would follow the curve of the Earth, though they actually travel in straight lines and bounce off the ionosphere, creating the illusion of a curve. On December 12, 1901, Marconi received the letter “S,” telegraphed all the way from England to Newfoundland, 2,100 miles (~3,400 kilometers) away. This was the first successful radio transmission across the Atlantic Ocean.
On April 15, 1912, when the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg, the ship’s radio operators were employed by the Marconi International Marine Communication Company. It was their distress signals sent via radio that were received by the RMS Carpathia, leading to the rescue of the 711 people on board.
Reflecting on the Titanic disaster, Britain’s postmaster-general expressed, “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi…and his marvelous invention.”
Postcard of Reginald Fessenden's Brant Rock, Massachusetts radio tower, 1910
In 1909, Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with the German physicist Karl F. Braun, who invented the cathode ray tube. However, Marconi’s achievements were not without controversy, as several others laid claim to the title of the “Father of Radio.”
As early as 1895, Russian physicist Alexander Popov was conducting broadcasts between buildings, while in India, Jagdish Chandra Bose was utilizing radio waves to ring bells and trigger explosions. In 1901, Serbian-American electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla asserted that he had developed a wireless telegraph in 1893. Years later, in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated four of Marconi’s radio patents, acknowledging Tesla’s prior work.
The birth of broadcast radio captivated and thrilled the public, offering an unprecedented immediacy in delivering news and entertainment. From approximately 1920 to 1945, radio emerged as the pioneering electronic mass medium, dominating the “airwaves” and alongside newspapers, magazines, and motion pictures, shaping an entire generation of mass culture.
Words of Wisdom
“In the new era, thought itself will be transmitted by radio.” —Guglielmo Marconi
“I don’t care that they stole my idea…I care that they don’t have any of their own” —Nikola Tesla
“Of all things, I liked books best.” —Nikola Tesla
“I do not think that the radio waves I have discovered will have any practical application.” —Heinrich Hertz
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