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RADIO HISTORY: BEGINNINGS

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Practical radio begins

The someone to put the work of the early experimenters to practical use was Guglielmo Marconi, pictured below left. This young Italian experimenter demonstrated genuine radio transmission in the form of wireless telegraphy, i.e. morse code during the closing years of the 19th Century, though there is evidence to suggest that a British scientist, David Hughes, first transmitted by radio a decade or more earlier but was persuaded that what he claimed wasn’t possible and that it was simply an effect of electromagnetic induction. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the unfortunate Hughes case and despite the fact that others had also demonstrated wireless transmission before him, it is Marconi with his financial 'clout' and his flair for self-publicity who gains the credit for making radio transmission a reality and also for his undoubted far-sightedness regarding the revolution in communication that radio was to bring about, at least as far a radio telegraphy was concerned. To make radio more than a simple code communication device, in other words to enable speech and music to be transmitted and received, required the development of a new form of device although the amazing Canadian scientist Reginald Fessenden achieved speech and music transmission in the early years of the 20th century.

The greatest limitation that held back the development of radio in the early years was the lack of an amplifying method – the feeble signals were too weak to be of great practical use and some way had to be found to increase their strength. Fleming’s diode valve, though a very interesting development, could not amplify, but simply ‘detect’ (convert signals from their AC form to DC). Despite this, early sound transmission was successfully achieved by the brilliant Canadian experimenter Reginald Fessenden.

Fleming thermionic diode, 1905

The big breakthrough occurred when Lee DeForest invented the triode valve by fitting a grid to the Fleming diode. This led to the development of practical amplifying valves and by the end of WWI, the technology was in place to make true ‘speech’ based wireless communication a commercial reality. As usual, America was first and went radio crazy, with the numbers of transmitters soon climbing to the hundreds across the continent - all unregulated!

The BBC (British Broadcasting Company) was formed in May 1920 at the behest of the government by the creation of a cartel of interested and large firms (with the director of one smaller firm, Burndept, co-opted onto the board). Their brief was to set up a nationwide network of transmitters and to provide regular broadcast entertainment. Their licence was limited to the end of 1926 at which time the company was succeeded by the corporation. Now with Broadcasting House (1932, pictured right - an Art deco extravaganza of a building) as the main base, the BBC was both witness to and cause of a phenomenal growth in licences to receive (British radio licences, issued by the Postmaster General). From virtually zero in 1922, almost two and a quarter million licences were applied for in 1926.

In 1922, there were hundreds of small firms producing component parts and self-build kits for a market probably not exceeding a few thousand enthusiasts but by 1926, major league players had ousted lots of the small fry and large scale ‘wireless’ manufacturing had begun in earnest. Kits continued to be marketed, from simple ‘crystal’ receivers to complex multi-valve designs. This situation continued for many years, waning slowly in the post-war years. 

By the end of the 1920s, the presentation of wireless receiving sets had changed from a visually complex assembly of separate units, linked by wires, to a more acceptable and user-friendly single box: integrated chassis, inbuilt loudspeaker, space within cabinet for batteries. The range of controls needed to be fiddled with had also been reduced, making the radio receiver less tricky to operate and therefore more inviting to the less technically minded person - usually, in the 1920s and 30s, this meant the lady of the house! Concurrent with the working simplification with it's aim of user-friendliness, styling in various forms had begun to make inroads on what had hitherto been plain functionality. 

 

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De FOREST 'AUDION' c. 1906

 

VINTAGE RADIO world: SIXTEEN YEARS OF WEB PRESENCE