Experiments and Breakthroughs: The Development of Radio

"Guglielmo Marconi." Courtesy The New York Public Library.

The “Father of Radio” and the radio’s first voice

The scientific background that would make radio possible dates back to the early 1800s, when things like electromagnetic waves and magnetic fields were just being discovered. In 1837, Samuel Morse patented his electric telegraph, which showed that it was possible for a telegraphic signal to travel long distances over a wire. By 1864, a physics professor at Cambridge University (England), James Clerk Maxwell, began thinking about electromagnetic waves and distance. He believed that waves could travel fast over long distances and his work set the stage for wireless transmission. Tests were conducted for the next several decades, challenging Maxwell’s theories about distance and speed.

It wasn’t until 1899 that the public got to see this scientific theory in action, when Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi began using the telegraph to wirelessly announce the results of the America’s Cup races, from a ship at sea, back to New York. Though the technology that made this telegraph possible was the result of many scientists’ contributions, Marconi won the Nobel Prize for his work in 1909, and remains known as the “Father of Radio.” While Marconi’s wireless feat certainly made a splash, and helped Marconi establish his own broadcast company in 1901, radios were still used mostly by engineers and hobbyists. Wireless broadcasts didn’t yet convey sound—they were nothing more than coded dots and dashes, interpreted on the other end to convey a message.

All of that changed in 1906, when the first human voice and music recording was sent by Canadian physicist Reginald Fessenden from a station in Massachusetts and heard by listeners as far away as Virginia. The voice and music? Fessenden himself, singing and playing the violin. The radio as we know it had begun to take shape.