Monday, May 25, 2015 2:56 PM
The rise of the digital age has many markers: the first PCs, the first off-the-shelf software suites, LANs, the Internet—but nothing singled out such a tectonic shift in society as the I-Phone. Hell, it even started a revolution in Egypt, not to mention the slew of new businesses, of whole new industries, it spawned.
In many ways, we can draw parallels in the rise of the Electric Age—it started with light-bulbs, phonographs, silent films, electromagnets, and dynamos—but nothing pulled the populace into the new age like the radio. Today, we view the radio as archaic and primitive. But it was really the first time that we used our burgeoning understanding of physics in a way which affected the whole population.
But what is radio? Pierre Gassendi proposed a theory of light as particles in the 1660s. Newton agreed with him. Robert Hooke proposed a “pulse theory” of light as waves in 1665. The argument over whether light was made of particles or waves would continue until the mid-19th century.
In 1845, Michael Faraday discovered that light was related to electromagnetism. James Clerk Maxwell’s studies of electromagnetic radiation and light helped him conclude that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation and in 1873 he published A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Heinrich Hertz confirmed Maxwell’s theory by generating and detecting radio waves that behaved exactly like visible light, with properties like reflection, refraction, diffraction, and interference. Maxwell’s theory and Hertz’s experiments led directly to the development of modern radio.
Marconi’s Law, concerning the relation between the transmission distance and the square of the height of an antenna, was tested in experiments made on Salisbury Plain in 1897. Guglielmo Marconi did pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission. His development of Marconi’s law and a radio telegraph system has him credited as the ‘inventor of radio’. He shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy”. Braun also invented the first Cathode Ray Tube and the first Oscilloscope—but we are talking about the birth of radio, not television.
Einstein published his “Theory of General Relativity” in 1915, so we can see that ‘scientific’ progress has always been far ahead of commercial applications. But commercial applications are always the ‘stamp of approval’ that humanity gives to the occasional geek working in a back-room laboratory. For more than a century, great scientists had worked on these mysteries of physics while being dismissed as loonies by their more-practical peers. There’s a wonderful song by Gershwin, “They All Laughed”, which catalogs in its lyrics the many innovators who were laughed at until they literally changed the world. It includes the line: “They told Marconi wireless was a phony—it’s the same way now.” And boy, is that true.
Radio-telegraphy, i.e. early radio, had only maritime and military uses, the most notable being its use during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. But World War I ‘goosed’ the development of military-communications radio, and the first vacuum tubes were used in radio transmitters and receivers. Electronic amplification was key in changing radio from an experts-only practice into a home appliance.
Commercial radio broadcasting began in the 1920s and exploded across American society, so that by the 1930s it had become ubiquitous–the first mass media, the first location-independent human interaction, and a characteristic that not only defined modern society, but had enormous power to change it.
Radio then spurred unstoppable growth in the new ‘broadcasting’ industry and the electric-manufacturing industry, which in turn gave rise to a variety of new entertainments—news broadcasts, radio serials, classical music for the masses—even an end-of-the-world, alien-invasion panic that swept the country on Halloween in 1938, following the infamous Orson Welles broadcast of a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. Seven years later, scientific research into the same physics of electromagnetism would lead to mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It is strange beyond words how our understanding of electromagnetism has two lives—one of quiet, focused scientists working in anonymity, and the other a crazy story about what the mainstream of humanity does with specific applications that eventually catch our eye. And I think ‘crazy’ may be understating the case. Sometimes I think it might be better if we had mandatory inclusion in science—if the majority of humanity has no clue about the inner workings of our tools and machines, maybe we shouldn’t use them. Okay, idealism overload—never mind!
When television came along, in the 1950s, everyone imagined that it would supplant radio and the movies. Now, we can see that early TV, while wonderful, couldn’t quite replace the experience of a panoramic, full-color movie screen. Radio, too, had a quality that TV couldn’t quite replace—variety. The wealth of radio stations, and the diversity of radio programming, provided a wealth of audio-only entertainment that left radio in command of most of our attention, except for what came to be known as Prime Time, that work-is-done, after-dinner period when people naturally enjoyed a reason to sit around the family room and stare at the screen.
I can still remember when the time of day made a difference. At midnight, the TV stations would run the National Anthem and sign off “’til tomorrow” and if I woke up too early and switched on the TV, that test pattern would still be there, waiting for a decent hour before sending entertainment over the airwaves. Radio stations, too, designed their programming with the assumption that people slept at night—and that anyone in their broadcast range was in the same time zone. As the evening wore on, even in the 1960s, the number of entertainment options slowly dwindled down to zero.
Also, radios had become a part of the automobile dashboard by the 1930s—something TV would never do, since driving requires one to look where they’re going. By the sixties, radio had been transistorized, as well, and tiny, hand-held radios were everywhere. I remember Jones Beach, on Long Island in summer, would be blanketed with sun-bathing families and friends—each with their own radio, but all tuned to Cousin Brucie—I could walk along the beach and hear “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…” from a hundred tiny speakers.
By the 1970s, radio had matured from Amplitude Modulation (AM radio, with that annoying ‘carrier signal’ whine) to Frequency Modulation (FM radio, noiseless—and capable of stereo). Radio had finally equaled the sound fidelity of vinyl. TV wouldn’t match that sound quality until the 1980s, when retailers began to market ‘Entertainment Systems’ that re-routed the TV’s sound through multiple speakers using the Dolby system.
Even XM radio, which broadcasts not through the air, but over the Internet, has yet to overthrow broadcast radio, though it may be nearing that point, out of sheer market pressure—I don’t think anyone is building new radio transmitter stations anymore. But I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the original “Wireless”.
Thanks for posting this!