Today is National Radio Day, a day designed to commemorate the amazing technology that is so ubiquitous it’s hard to conceive of a time that it didn’t exist. As we use our cellphones to surf the internet and watch movies, send text messages with emoticons, and sometimes even make calls, it seems almost incomprehensible that we are benefitting from technology that is less than 100 years old. But the technological advances of the 20th century truly boggle the mind, and today’s posting celebrates the radio, which revolutionized the world as we know it, and has led to the communication we routinely take for granted.
The story of the invention of radio is a complex one, involving dozens of inventors over the years. Beginning with theories of electromagnetism in the first years of the 19th century and ending at the turn of the 20th with Edison, Tesla, and Marconi each making steps toward the successful production of wireless communication, first utilized for the telegraph, which transmitted simple information in code to receivers.
The earliest use for wireless transmission occurred in the first few decades of the 20th century, and consisted mainly of information for ships. After the tragedy of the Titanic sinking in 1912, onboard wireless communication became standard on all ships.
What we think of when we think of “Radio” began in earnest in the 1920s, with radio stations being owned by large city department stores or newspapers (a basic example is the radio station WGN, right here in Chicago, broadcasting live orchestral recordings, and then later in the decade experimenting with dramatized scripts). “Soap Operas” were so named because the sponsors and early creators of such programs were soap companies, who dramatized domestic events and romantic situations that incorporated the sponsor’s product into the storyline. By the end of the 1920s, Radio was the dominant entertainment medium of the country, with national networks, advertising departments, and powerhouse transmitters broadcasting for literally hundreds of miles in any direction. The term “broadcasting” originally referred to the casting of seeds on a farm over a wide expanse of land, before it took on the more common usage of communication technology we associate it with today.
Science and technology went hand-in-hand, and developments in transistors, Frequency modulation (FM), and recording technology changed the way entertainment was broadcasted, received, and consumed by the public. In the early 1950s the new technology of television (which operated on the same principles, but with visual information as opposed to simply audio) began supplanting radio. The Golden Age of Radio was over by the early 1960s, and the rise of popular prerecorded music changed the format to mostly news and talk, or popular music playback.
In 1912, radio transmissions existed, but they were extraordinarily limited to various experimenters working independently of each other, and a few scientists here and there. Within a decade an entire industry would surface, providing innovations in technology, entertainment, advertising, and communication, that lead in a line to computers and the internet and cellular wireless access we enjoy today. Perhaps the next time our Iphones take longer than 5 seconds to load a webpage, we will remember how far we have come, and marvel at how much Americans of 2112 will remember of the technology of today.