The Radio Century

By Dave Finley

Appeared in The Albuquerque Journal on 26 November 1999.

As we finish a century that almost certainly will enter history as mankind's greatest period of technological and scientific advancement, we often take for granted and even forget the one technology that started much of that progress -- radio. Indeed, the Twentieth Century could well be called The Radio Century, because, when you look closely, you find that radio stands in some way behind nearly all of this century's magnificent technological achievements.

While it's become fashionable in some circles to dismiss radio as "old technology," we need only look at the revival of a single, venerable word to see how radio remains on the cutting edge. In 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi first spanned the Atlantic with a radio signal, "wireless" was the hot technical topic. For much of the subsequent century, at least on this side of the Atlantic, the word "wireless" soon gave way to "radio" in common conversation. However, as 2000 approaches, "wireless" is back, and with a vengeance. "Wireless telecommunications" is a hot phrase both in technical journals and on Wall Street. Wireless telephones and wireless computer networks are multiplying. Everything seems to be going wireless. And radio lies behind it all.

Indeed, radio is a vital part of almost everything that makes daily life at the end of the Twentieth Century so vastly different from life 100 years ago. Throughout the century, radio has served as a foundation technology, an enabling technology, and a transforming technology. In these roles, it remains at the forefront of the rapid changes facing us in the new millennium.

Foundation Technology

The wireless telegraph of 1900 was a crude assemblage that could barely be called an electronic device by today's standards. However, with the invention of the triode vacuum tube -- capable of amplifying, or boosting, signals -- in 1906, the foundation for modern electronics was laid. The triode, then called the audion, was invented specifically for radio by Lee DeForest, and found its first use in radio.

Edwin H. Armstrong, with a pair of important inventions in 1912 and 1918, showed that the vacuum tube could do far more than just amplify, revealing a power and versatility that would form the basis of a rapidly mushrooming electronics industry. In the following years, vacuum-tube technology would improve telephone service, make movies talk, and revolutionize fields that the radio pioneers could little have imagined.

By the 1930s, the applications of electronic technology, based on the vacuum tube, became so widespread that the technical barrier between electronics and "traditional" electrical engineering was nearly indistinguishable. In a strictly formal sense, that barrier fell in 1963, when the Institute of Radio Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers merged to form the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).

Many of the Twentieth Century's greatest technical achievements were directly dependent upon electronics, and built upon its foundation. Both the research that led to the atomic bomb in 1945 and the actual building of the weapons could not have been done without a wide range of electronic devices. Today's computers, and the ever-expanding Internet are an obvious outgrowth of the electronic technology first produced for radio. In fact, one financially-strapped computer pioneer "borrowed" vacuum tubes from radios brought to his shop for repair to build an early electronic counting machine. ENIAC, the landmark machine that launched the computer age in the mid-1940s, used 17,468 vacuum tubes.

When the transistor -- smaller, lighter, cheaper, more reliable and more power-efficient -- came along, it simply did better what the vacuum tube already had shown could be done. The foundation had been built by radio. Microprocessors, that today control everything from our automobile engines to microwave ovens (another radio device) to robots on assembly lines, are thus descendants of radio. As such, they now have come full circle, rejoining the radio lineage as ubiquitous components of our modern stereos, car radios and televisions.

Enabling Technology

Radio and its outgrowths, including radar and electronic navigation systems, enabled the development, maturation and application of other technologies such as aviation and space technology. Many long-established fields, such as maritime commerce, also were greatly affected -- beneficially -- by the application of radio and its offspring.

Passengers, crews and cargo today travel the world's oceans with vastly improved safety because of communications and navigation systems based on radio.

It is impossible to imagine modern aviation without the radar, all-weather navigation systems, and air traffic control systems that are dependent upon radio. Indeed, radio and aviation practically grew up together. As early as 1919, at least one radio textbook covered aircraft radio installations thoroughly and matter-of-factly. Today's airliners are packed with electronic gear that does everything from monitor the engines to alert gate crews that an incoming passenger needs a wheelchair at the ramp.

The Space Age was ushered in by the "beeps" of Sputnik's radio transmitter, heard around the world in the Fall of 1957. Radio communications, telemetry and radar tracking are vital parts of the daily operation of spacecraft, manned and unmanned. The commercial space industry is dominated by communications companies. An imaginary ring 22,500 miles above Earth's equator is crowded with geosynchronous satellites providing world-wide communications. Our weather forecasts are vastly improved over those of just a couple of decades ago because of satellites that send -- by radio links -- real-time pictures of our planet's cloud patterns.

Many of these technologies that have been "enabled" by radio also are dependent upon the electronics for which radio laid the foundation.

Transforming Technology

In 1901, when President William McKinley was assassinated, the word traveled to the nation's newsrooms by telegraph, and most Americans learned about it over the following day or so by reading their newspapers, much as their parents had learned of Abraham Lincoln's death in the previous century. On December 7, 1941, however, radio brought Americans the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with a gut-wrenching immediacy that seared itself into the memories of all who heard it. The following day, 60 million Americans -- nearly half the nation's population -- heard the live broadcast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's address to Congress.

Radio broadcasting, begun haltingly in 1920, had grown in a mere two decades to become a major industry and an integral part of the social life of America and other nations. By the mid-1930s, Americans told pollsters they would sooner part with their refrigerators, bathtubs or telephones than give up their radios. In the years prior to and during World War II, radio brought peoples together as nothing ever had in the past. "We interrupt this program..." became a riveting phrase that made people stop whatever they were doing.

Radio also changed the face of entertainment -- and daily life -- forever, and radio's roaring child, television, is perhaps the most all-pervasive force society has ever seen. As we are bombarded by hundreds of channels of 24-hour news and entertainment, and watch the television industry grow by billions of additional dollars every year, we should remember that this all is based on radio technology. The "global village" began with the mass-market, plug-into-the-wall radio receivers introduced in 1927. The pace of civilization has been increasing ever since.

In addition to mass communications, radio also has revolutionized personal communications. Cellular telephones, personal pagers and personal satellite-communications systems are one of the fastest-growing businesses in the world. It now is possible to make a telephone call from virtually anywhere on the globe, via wireless telephone systems. All these wireless communication devices, that can keep you "in touch" everywhere you go, are fueling a tremendous demand for operating frequencies. As we enter the new millennium, radio spectrum is one of the most sought-after and expensive commodities around.

Finally, when journalists and historians recently were asked to identify the biggest events of the Twentieth Century, the top two were the development and use of the atomic bombs in 1945 and the first moon landing in 1969. Without radio communications and the electronic technology that came from radio, neither of these could have been achieved. And on that epochal day in 1969 when Neil Armstrong placed man's first footprint on the moon, 600 million of his fellow humans -- one-fifth of the world's population -- were watching from 250,000 miles away, thanks to the technology Marconi pioneered.

Yes, let's call it The Radio Century.