Thank you, Mr. Marconi
June 2, 2020
There is a saying that he who gets to the patent office first matters more than who invented it. This is likely true for the invention of radio. Guglielmo Marconi – first to the patent office – filed on June 2, 1896, eclipsing others also working on the budding technology.
The story begins decades earlier and, as is often the case, the Infallible Wikipedia sums it up:
“The idea of wireless communication predates the discovery of ‘radio’ with experiments in ‘wireless telegraphy’ via inductive and capacitive induction and transmission through the ground, water, and even train tracks from the 1830s on. James Clerk Maxwell showed in theoretical and mathematical form in 1864 that electromagnetic waves could propagate through free space. It is likely that the first intentional transmission of a signal by means of electromagnetic waves was performed in an experiment by David Edward Hughes around 1880, although this was considered to be induction at the time. In 1888 Heinrich Rudolf Hertz was able to conclusively prove transmitted airborne electromagnetic waves in an experiment confirming Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism.”
Fascinated by the possibility of transmitting sounds via Hertzian (as radio waves were called at the time) waves, Marconi began experiments building the equipment needed in the attic of his home. He was only 20 years old.
“A breakthrough came in the summer of 1895, when Marconi found that much greater range could be achieved after he raised the height of his antenna and, borrowing from a technique used in wired telegraphy, grounded his transmitter and receiver. With these improvements, the system was capable of transmitting signals up to 2 miles (3.2 km) and over hills. The monopole antenna reduced the frequency of the waves compared to the dipole antennas used by Hertz, and radiated vertically polarized radio waves which could travel longer distances. By this point, he concluded that a device could become capable of spanning greater distances, with additional funding and research, and would prove valuable both commercially and militarily. Marconi’s experimental apparatus proved to be the first engineering-complete, commercially successful radio transmission system.”
Encouraged by his parents, he left Italy for England – his mother accompanied him – and was able to gain the interest of the British Government and, eventually, financial backing. While Marconi’s system was used primarily for short distance maritime communications at first, his company continued to experiment and expand the distance the radio waves traveled. It was Marconi’s system which made it possible for 700 passengers aboard the Titanic to be rescued.
Innovation in radio proceeded at an amazing pace with the commercial side of it soon eclipsing the more mundane maritime uses. By 1938 four of every five homes had a radio. Families gathered around for favorite programs, whether they were music, ‘theater,’ or the news of the day. The radio became an essential part of society.
All of today’s wireless digital communications via phones, pads, and portable computers, began with the invention of the radio.
Marconi – along with Karl Braun – shared the 1909 Nobel Prize “for their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.”
By the 1960’s, despite the fairly recent addition of commercial television, radio was still king. Especially for teenagers. It was radio which helped foment the rock and roll revolution; it was radio which unified the baby boom generation. Every town seemed to have at least one radio station and the wise ones were spinning the popular teen records of the day.
In Yakima – where I grew up – there were three stations of note in the later 1960’s and early 1970’s. I remember my dad always wanting to listen to KIT. At 1280 on the dial it featured news and WWII era music. As a card-carrying teen that was not on my list of cool radio stations. There were, however, two stations I listened to: KMWX and KQOT.
Being that I kept a diary (note to my younger self – what you wrote about was mostly ridiculous) and that listening to the radio was so important, I recorded this gem from April 25, 1971:
“Today was Pete’s Birthday. He liked the Grippu Sue and I gave him.* We went on Daylight Savings, so it stays light till almost 8:30. That means KQOT stays on the air until 7:45 and on May 1st, they will stay on until 8:30. That means I get to hear Neal Gray all through the ‘Sommer.’ (Sommer? Get it? Bob Sommers D.J.) YEA!”
Three days later, I posted this entry:
“Today was an interesting day, you see, today was Patty Hooper’s dog’s birthday, so I told her I would dedicate “Me and You and a Dog named Boo” to her dog, Sairy, if I could get through… well I got through and dedicated it but it is really weird to hear Bob Sommer’s voice on the radio and telephone, then your own. Patty was listening and called right after the song was over. Command Performance is kind of fun.”
It was, apparently, about this time that I became radio obsessed, even going so far (Two days after that!) to try to figure out the trick for getting through to the D.J.’s. For one of my dialing adventures, it took me… 292 times to get through.
The rest of the 1971 diary has occasional references to the two radio stations. What I do recall during those years is sitting on the bed in my room, listening to the radio and waiting for my favorite songs. I cannot recall what sort of radio it was, but it was my daily companion. I was given a cassette tape recorder for my 13th birthday, and a new clock radio for my 14th. Together they afforded me the opportunity to ‘record’ songs when they came on the air. Many a tape was filled with badly recorded favorite songs AND, often, the D.J.’s playing the live requests. Those tapes were played over and over.
In today’s world, the importance of radio for young people has faded. Kids pop in their earbuds and open their Spotify or Pandora** apps on their phones; in an instant their favorite songs begin to play. Somehow I think they are missing out on the experience of calling the radio station, requesting ‘the’ song, and then listening for hours to hear it.
I’ve included a video of Al Stewart’s ‘Song on the Radio’ as it seems to capture the spirit of the 1970’s
For those of us who grew up during AM radio’s golden age of rock and roll we did not realize at the time that it wouldn’t always be that way. No doubt there will be more amazing innovations for wireless digital communications and, one day, I imagine the teens of today will pine for the good ole days. It’s the way of the world.
*I have no idea what this thing was… in another entry I write that the gripper is ‘a big blow up plastic hand.’ Who knew?
**It’s highly likely that Spotify and Pandora are ‘last year’s’ hot apps. I await correction from those in the know.
A couple of links:
KQOT operated as a ‘rock’ station from 1962 until 1979 and is now Christian station KYAK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KYAK