Film, Radio and TV - 15
Foundations of Radio
For people in most countries of the world radio represents the number one source of news and information. In the United States where people depend more on TV and the Internet for news, radios still outnumber people by about three-to-one.
But all is not well with this pervasive medium of radio.
But let's not get ahead of our story, a story that has its roots in the little device shown here — the telegraph. On the left of the photo is the telegraph key for tapping out messages. On the right are the magnetic coils that respond to incoming signals by making clicking sounds that are spaced to represent dots and dashes.
This device was the first widely-used electronic form of communication.
Combinations of dots and dashes represent letters of the alphabet. Samuel Morse of Morse code fame invented this system in 1836.
Morse code is still used as a medium of communication — primarily because for long distance communication the dots and dashes survive interference and radio static much better than the human voice.
Morse Code, the First "Language"
of Electronic Communication
Amateur radio licenses used to require Morse code proficiency and some ham radio operators still prefer it over some of the newer technologies. Below, we'll reproduce the alphabet as it would look in International Morse code. Who knows, you may find yourself in an emergency situation some day and have to tap out an S-O-S distress signal. As you can see, an SOS would be: dot, dot, dot, (pronounced dit, dit dit) dash, dash, dash (pronounced da-da-da), and then dot, dot, dot. )
There are a few additional elements and characters in international code, but the ones listed above are the most used.
Of course, the telegraph was just the first of a string of inventions throughout history that threatened the existing order of things. As we will soon see, newspapers were threatened by radio, and films were threatened by both radio and television.
The Telephone Is Invented
Not too long after the telegraph was invented, Alexander Graham Bell was credited with inventing an even better way of communicating: the telephone.
Although Bell has been commonly associated with this invention, at this point in the history of technology it appears that Bell didn't actually invent the telephone -- or for that matter Guglielmo Marconi didn't actually invent the radio and Thomas Edison didn't invent the electric light.
In each case another person has been found who demonstrated these inventions first. The fame. however, went to the person who most effectively publicized their work. (Effective PR triumphed over technological expertise.)
In the case of the telephone, the 107th Congress of the United States of America passed House Resolution 269 in 2001 that acknowledged that an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci actually invented the telephone and Bell stole the idea. Even so, Bell became rich and Meucci died penniless without being generally recognized for his invention..
Bell, who capitalized on Meucci's idea, transmitted the human voice over his own device in 1876. (See illustration on the right.)
Soon, Bell's device moved from the laboratory to the home — and life hasn't been the same since. The version of the telephone shown below was seen in hundreds of thousands of U.S. homes — even up to the mid-1900s.
Among other inconveniences, its two rather large dry cell batteries that had to be regularly replaced.
Most of these telephones were wired in a "party line" configuration, which means that, especially in rural areas, anyone in your neighborhood could listen to your phone conversations.
All the phones on the party line rang at the same time, no matter who the call was for. Each home had its own ring pattern. Two short rings followed by two long rings might be for the Smith home, while three short rings and one long one might be for the Jones' family.
If you were sitting at home bored, or liked to collect gossip, you could just sit and listen to everyone's telephone conversations. It was pretty hard to keep a good secret in those days.
There were no dials or pushbuttons on telephones; you had to place every call thorough an operator at the town's central switchboard. (See drawing above.)
The operator asked the same question, "Number please," a few thousand times a day. A cord was plugged into a jack connecting two lines and the operator would push a button to ring the phone. Before leaving the line, the operator would wait until someone picked up — or inform you that there was no answer.
Given the ability of any number of people to listen in on interesting conversations, the medium actually ended up being a limited form of "broadcasting" in some communities. This fact not withstanding, the telegraph and telephone were still considered point-to-point communication devices; that is, the messages that were sent were not intended for mass audiences (as in mass communication).
In fact, initially, radio wasn't even intended for a mass audience. In the beginning the U.S. Navy tried to reserve the invention solely for its own use — for ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship type communications.
But we're getting ahead of our story again.
The telegraph and the telephone laid the foundation for radio.
In 1887, Heinrich Hertz demonstrated that electromagnetic waves could be transmitted through the air. His device for doing this is shown on the left.
In recognition of his achievement the term "Hertz" is now used as a term for cycles per second, a common unit for the frequency of both sound and radio waves.
Marconi Transmits Signals
By Radio Waves
An Irish-Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, (on the right) is commonly credited for inventing radio in 1895. But, whether he was actually the first to send signals through the air is open to debate. Some eleven years earlier a dentist named Mahlon Loomis had actually gotten a patent for wireless telegraphy (Morse code by radio).
Further clouding Marconi's claim to fame is the electrical genius Nikola Tesla, who, according research done for a 1943 Supreme Court decision over patent rights, transmitted electrical energy though the electromagnetic spectrum before Marconi.
Even so, Marconi was much more PR-oriented and he was able to get himself associated with the invention of radio. (Again, it never hurts to have a good PR agent!)
Other countries also have some impressive evidence that some of their citizens transmitted radio signals before Marconi. Even so, if you asked the question on an American quiz show, you'd probably be safest with the name, "Guglielmo Marconi."
Once he proved that wireless transmissions (radio to you and me) could work, Marconi patented the invention in England and set up the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company.
His next step was to sell the idea to the marine industry. Soon, the majority of oceangoing ships were all equipped with Marconi's equipment — which, incidentally, made him very rich.
Although the concept worked, Marconi's system of generating radio waves was based on rather inelegant electrical "brute force," which, in itself, created problems. What was needed was a way of electrically amplifying signals — including the human voice.
The Vacuum Tube Amplifier Is Invented
In 1906, Lee de Forest, created (or "borrowed" the idea for) the audion tube, a vacuum tube that amplified signals. It is widely believed that a Canadian inventor, Reginald Fessenden, actually came up with the idea, but Fessenden didn't seem to make it into the history books for that invention. Maybe another case of weak PR.
But, being a bright young man, Fessenden went on to get his name in the history books in another way — by transmitting the first radio program from Massachusetts in 1906.
Ship radio operators, who had never heard anything but boring Morse code beeps through their radios, had a Twilight Zone experience at sea when they heard Christmas carols on their radios! Fessenden had succeeded in sending music and even the human voice via radio.
Not to be outdone, De Forest then staged some broadcasts of his own. Several were from the Eiffel Tower in Paris (a nice setting to generate some good PR). He then went on to broadcast a performance by the famous tenor, Enrico Caruso, from the New York Metropolitan Opera House.
Not only did he put himself "on the map" with these broadcasts but De Forest proved that radio could be an entertainment medium with the potential for mass appeal.
The Titanic Makes "Radio"
A Household Word
Meanwhile, out at sea, something happened that shook the nation. The "unsinkable" luxury liner, the Titanic, the world's largest ship, set out on its maiden voyage in April, 1912. It hit an iceberg — and sank.
As everyone knows who has seen the movie, Titanic, about 2,200 people were on board, and most of them perished that night in the icy waters of North Atlantic.
But, it could have been worse. Thanks to the new invention of radio, about 800 were saved. David Sarnoff, a young radio operator, who was later to become a key person in radio and TV, was involved in monitoring oceanic radio transmissions that night.
It was Sarnoff's first night on the job. Although it was widely reported that he handled the Titanic crisis alone, in truth there were several men involved in using radio transmissions to get help for the Titanic. This new and unfamiliar invention was at the center of subsequent newspaper stories, and as a result radio suddenly became a household word.*
Audio Recording Developed
In the early days of radio there was no way to record sound. Everything had to be done "live."
Although the first sound recording device can be traced back to Leon Scott de Martinville, in 1855, it was some time before the concept came out of the laboratory and developed to the point of being a practical way to record and playback sound.
In 1877, Thomas Edison designed the "tinfoil phonograph," which is credited with being the first practical device to record and playback sound. Edison's phonograph (shown here) consisted of a cylindrical drum wrapped in tinfoil and mounted on a threaded axle. He recited "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into the mouthpiece (horn) for the first demonstration. The horn served as both a microphone and a speaker.
Today, it's difficult to appreciate the impact that this recording device had. Despite the questionable quality, for the first time people could hear their own voice and could even hear music that wasn't being played live. In 1877, an amazed editor of the "The Scientific American," wrote:
It has been said that Science is never sensational; that it is intellectual, not emotional; but certainly nothing that can be conceived would be more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the dead. Yet Science now announces that this is possible, and can be done.... Speech has become, as it were, immortal.
Since there were no vacuum tube or transistor amplifiers the direct audio waves (note photo above) had to be relied upon to imprint the sound on the recording media. The first recordings were made on strips of tinfoil and on wax cylinders, both of which had a very limited life.
On December 1, 1898, Danish electrical engineer and inventor Valdemar Poulsen patented the telegraphone, the first practical magnetic sound recorder. Poulsen's recorder used magnetized steel piano wire as the recording medium.
Soon, wire recorders begin to appear on the American market. They were sold as dictation machines and general purpose sound recorders. One of the best selling brands was the Webcor wire recorder shown on the left.
It was not until World War II that magnetic tape, common to tape recorders, was developed in Germany. Of course, today, even magnetic tape for audio recording is being replaced by newer technology.
Was KDKA the First
U.S. Broadcast Station?
Although 8XK (now KDKA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is widely credited with being the first radio station in the United States, this has been disputed by some radio historians who say it may be the first commercially licensed station, but not the first U.S. radio station to feature regular programming.
Once again, we appear to be looking at a case of
superior PR (public relations). KDKA, which was owned by Westinghouse, used their corporate
resources to convince journalists and historians that they were the first
commercial radio station.
Despite this claim, newspaper articles of that era mention at least eight other stations that featured regular programming.
Or Maybe It's KCBS Radio
To complicate things further, KCBS in San Francisco, California with its roots in the experiments of San Jose engineer Charles Herrold and station KQW (originally only 14 watts) go back as far as 1909 -- roughly ten years before KDKA was officially licensed.
This would make KCBS AM radio a leading contender for the title of oldest continuously broadcasting station in the United States and possibly the world. In fact, KCBS boasts on its web site that it's, the world's first broadcasting station.
This being said, it might be safe to say (in case you are asked on a test) that KDKA represents the first radio station to be officially licensed by the Department of Commerce in the United States. Although KCBS / KQW may have been on the air first, it wasn't officially licensed until after KDKA.
In trying to hold onto its claim to fame KDKA uses the slogan,
Frank Conrad and 8XK
Despite the conflicting data, history books commonly list Frank Conrad, a Westinghouse engineer, with starting the first radio station to feature regular programming.
The station's call sign was 8XK, and, as we've noted, it was the same station that was later licensed as KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Conrad initially played music on 8XK by holding a microphone up to a phonograph. In a short while people were regularly trying to tune in, and Conrad became a mini-celebrity.
Westinghouse, who employed Conrad, took notice and decided they could sell a lot more radios (like the one shown here) at $10 each if they expanded Conrad's operations into KDKA. KDKA is now a maximum-power (50,000-watt) AM radio station.
We'll let the historians argue the "who was first issue," and just say that by 1920, radio was officially on the scene in the United States.
But, it was not going to be smooth sailing for this new medium, as we'll see in the next module.
* A much more detailed account of the history of radio and one that differs somewhat from the above is contained in the hour and 54 minute PBS video, Ken Burns America: Empire of the Air.