Since I started writing this blog, I noticed that one invention often leads to another. For example, the invention of pyro-glycerine led to dynamite. Or the invention of the radio led to the television. I worked on a book about scripted TV once and the beginning of the story was all about radio shows. So, before talking about the invention of the television, I decided to cover:
Who Invented the Radio?
Multiple people claimed to have invented the radio like Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi, Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla, and Russian physicist Alexander Stepanovich Popov. None of them discovered the electromagnetic waves (like radio waves) or even started to explore their physical properties, but they worked on using them to communicate.
Let’s start at the beginning, with the Scottish mathematician and scientist James Clerk Maxwell. In 1865, he demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space as waves moving at the speed of light. His research led him to predict the existence of radio waves. It was a German Physicist named Heinrich Rudolf Hertz who was the first to conclusively prove the existence of electromagnetic waves in 1886—for a little more detail, I already talked about that in my article about electricity.
Hertz didn’t see a lot of practical value for the electromagnetic waves, but others did. In fact, twenty years earlier, American dentist and inventor Mahlon Loomis tried to prove a now-discredited theory and inadvertently produce and receive radio signals. He wanted to create a long-distance wireless telegraph system. Loomis’s work is controversial. Some even say that his demonstration (to communicate between two mountain peaks of the Blue Ridge in Virginia) didn’t work, but he had a good idea—and died (in 1886) before it became a reality.
After Hertz’s discovery, British physicist and writer Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge experimented on the transmission of small electrical charges from waves from an antenna. Inspired by Lodge’s results, Bengali scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose worked on reducing the waves to the millimeter level and successfully ignited gunpowder and rang a bell at a distance.
Bose was not interested in the commercial use of his work in radio microwave optics. In fact, he encouraged others to use his research. In 1896, he met Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi who had a real interest in finding practical applications for radio waves.
Guglielmo Marconi, Father of Radio?
Marconi was also inspired by Lodge’s experiments, but also by French Inventor Édouard Branly’s radio-conductor, and by an article written by an Italian physicist and pioneer in the study of electromagnetism, Augusto Righi. Marconi visited him at his lab and used Righi’s four-ball spark oscillator in his transmitters in order to make his wireless telegraphy system work.
Marconi was young, only 20 when he began to conduct experiments in radio waves with success, but he couldn’t get the funding he needed to complete his work. He then turned to family friends in order to go to England where his ideas were more welcome. There, he patented his system—the first patent for a radio wave-based communication system. By March 1897, Marconi had transmitted Morse code signals over a distance of about 3.2 miles. A few weeks later, he sent the first-ever wireless communication over the open sea. More tests followed.
In 1899, using Marconi’s system, the first SOS message at sea was sent. The same year, the Italian inventor traveled to the United States in order to cover the America’s Cup yacht race from off the coast of New Jersey at the invitation of The New York Herald newspaper. In 1902, the world’s first radio message to cross the Atlantic from North America was sent and successfully received in England.
It took two more years for Marconi to launch a commercial service to communicate with ships at sea, and by 1907 a regular transatlantic radio-telegraph service was established.
The patent war
During that time, others experimented with success. In 1894-95, Russian physicist Alexander Stepanovich Popov developed a radio receiver based on a design by Oliver Lodge. He also designed a lightning detector to help avoid forest fires. In 1898, Nikola Tesla developed his own radio-based remote-controlled boat. But Popov went further, helping the French entrepreneur Eugene Ducretet to work on wireless telegraphy with his lightning detector as a model. He also established a radio station in Finland to help the communication between ships and a Russian naval base.
The Soviet Union later claimed, in 1945, that Popov was the one who invented the radio. As for Tesla, he started a war with Marconi about patents. At first, Tesla was named the inventor of the Radio by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, but the decision was reversed three years later, in 1904, in favor of the Italian inventor. Marconi even won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909 for his work. Tesla sued Marconi without luck, but he finally got what he wanted decades later, a few months after his death. In 1943, Marconi decided to sue the U.S. government for patent infringement during World War I. To solve the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court gave back to Tesla credit for the invention of the Radio.
From the Wireless Telegraphy to the commercial Radio
At first, Marconi and his men worked to improve the quality of the reception, it was about communication, not mass entertainment yet. In fact, transmitting voices was not on the menu, it was still all about Morse code.
The work of Canadian inventor Reginald A. Fessenden with a high-frequency spark transmitter led to real progress and to the use of amplitude modulated (AM) radio signals. His first successful audio transmission using radio signals happened in the fall of 1900, but the quality was horrendous.
American inventor Lee de Forest was ambitious and founded The Radio Telephone Company. Using Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen’s invention, the Poulsen arc transmitter (first continuous-wave radio transmitter), de Forest started transmitting audio across longer and longer distances.
De Forrest’s most famous “invention” was the Audion, the first successful three-element (triode) vacuum tube, and the changes he made to it during the years made it commercially valuable. It was the first device to amplify the strength of received radio signals—like a lot of De Forrest’s inventions, it was inspired by the very similar work of another inventor, in that case, the vacuum tube invented in 1904 by English physicist John Ambrose Fleming.
De Forrest dreamt of “Broadcasting,” but his finances were limited. His Audion was a success, but not his business. He could not compete with American Marconi, General Electric, and Westinghouse. After the war, American Marconi formed the Radio Corporation of America and collected all the important patents in the field, and GE bought enough shares of the company to make it a real American Company. AT&T, United Fruit, and Westinghouse joined them and RCA became the only player in the Radio game.
RCA produced the receivers with components from GE and Westinghouse. AT&T sold the transmitters. In 1922, more than 500 stations were on the air. Everything happened quickly, and the idea of television was even suggested… But this is another story.
In the end, Marconi and De Forrest can probably be named the “Fathers of Radio,” but their work was highly influenced by other inventors—even those who didn’t get patents for their creations.