Radio ushered in the modern age of instantaneous mass communication. But its euphonious name originates from a type of electromagnetic radiation discovered by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz.
Originally, scientists used the prefix radio to indicate radiant or radiation—hence the designation of "radio-activity" for the alpha, beta, gamma and x-rays emitted by decaying atoms. Between 1886 and 1888, Hertz demonstrated how electromagnetic, or radio, waves radiated across the "ether" at the speed of light. Today we measure them in units bearing his name. At the time of his discovery, however, Hertz declared the findings to be "of no use whatsoever."
During the 1890s, Nicola Tesla, followed by Guglielmo Marconi, and several others developed radio-conductors, transmitters, and receivers, making it possible to send Morse code messages across long distances without the physical limitations of wires, cables, or poles. This led to the terms wireless or radio-telegraphy. Telegrams sent across the wireless were radio-grams, or "radios" for short. Such terms may help explain why Marconi (and more rightly Tesla) were often erroneously described as the inventors of radio rather than the midwives to the wireless telegraph. Around 1900, several scientists, including Reginald Fessenden and Charles Steinmetz of General Electric, figured out how to send continuous high frequency radio waves that could carry the sounds of voices and even music.
As great as these advances were, they were technologies used to send private communications between two individuals. What eventually came to be known as "the radio," on the other hand, was based upon a series of inventions that allowed one source to instantly and clearly broadcast its message to millions of people across long distances. The word broadcasting, incidentally, was originally an agricultural term referring to spreading seed across a large field.
Most striking about broadcast radio’s history are the many men who demanded credit for its creation. Three in particular stand out.
In 1906, Lee De Forest, the self-proclaimed "father of radio," invented the audion, a glass vacuum tube containing a three-pronged, transmitting filament. Unclear as to how it detected and amplified distant radio signals, De Forest spent the remaining decades of his long life trying to make a fortune off of his creation and pursuing acrimonious lawsuits. He died broke, at the age of 87, in Hollywood in 1961.
Between 1912 and 1927, the American genius, Edwin Howard Armstrong, discovered the regeneration circuit, which allowed the audion tube to amplify even more distant radio signals, the super-heterodyne, which facilitated the precise tuning of radios (and later televisions), and wideband frequency modulation, or FM, radio, which eliminated the annoying static once so common on amplitude modulated, or AM, radio. Frustrated by corporate America’s thwarting of his research visions and years of patent lawsuits, Armstrong jumped to his death in 1954 at the age of 63.
Then there was David Sarnoff, a ruthless businessman who emigrated from Russia to America as a boy. Sarnoff began work as an errand boy for the Marconi Telegraph Company in 1906. In 1912, after being promoted to telegraph operator, he claimed to have recorded the initial distress signals from the sinking Titanic. He ended up leading the behemoth Radio Corporation of America. Sarnoff’s manufacturing empire produced millions of what he initially called the "radio music box" or "radiola." And to provide the type of entertainment desired by all these radio owners, he created the National Broadcasting Company. An electronic visionary, David Sarnoff seized on all of the electronic discoveries of his day to make the radio—and later television—household commodities.
Their battles over primacy and profits are the stuff of history but their dream creation, the radio, continues to inform, shape, and enhance our daily lives.