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RADIO HISTORY: THE STORY OF WIRELESS IN BRITAIN

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Communication in one form or another could be seen as the foundation of society. For countless centuries, mankind struggled to communicate their needs, thoughts and aspirations. Speech - the spoken language - developed slowly and suffered from the limitation of short distance. 

Beyond comfortable hearing range, shouting was essential. Beyond that, waving and gesticulating was all that was left, the sender unsure that his message was understood. 

Over centuries, men of science and technology continued to speculate - and to dream - about mass communication in both visual and aural terms. Fire beacons, then heliographs, became the first visual distance communication, with drums their audible equivalent. 

Although better than nothing, severe limitations restricted the value of the communication systems mentioned above. Always, some kind of code was needed, for example Morse. Even the first system to use electricity, the telegraph, still needed code. The printed word in book form had already revolutionised communication but although an amazing and incredibly valuable development in the progress of mankind, it lacked immediacy and was really an accessible long-term storage system. 

In 1877 Edison (and others) showed that sound could be recorded and was no longer ephemeral: the audio storage equivalent of the book had been invented.  

Alongside Fox Talbot’s (and others!) photography, mankind now held means for the storage of both the written and the spoken word and, of course, music. Both recording methods were essentially mechanical, printing via the press, with wooden or metal type, paper and ink: sound, at first, by means of the physical indentations in a rotating wax cylinder caused by the sound waves created by the ‘artiste’ speaking or singing loudly into a ‘backwards’ megaphone vibrating a cutting stylus. 

The invention of the telephone created a leap forward in on-to-one communication and was the first truly instant speech-based communication system but one that required a wire link between the telephones. A new and at that time undeveloped technology was needed for further advancement in mass communication, free from the constraints of linking wires - a 'wireless' system. The foundations of this technology can be traced back to 1820, when the Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted made observations on the link between electricity and magnetism. This was followed in practical terms by Michael Faraday in 1831. 

It was from Oersted’s initial observations and the experiments of Faraday that James Clerk Maxwell (top right), a brilliant Scottish mathematician working in Cambridge in 1864, was able to calculate the virtual inevitability of the existence of ‘radio’ waves. In a further step forward, the German scientist Heinrich Hertz proved their existence beyond all doubt in 1888. 

Maxwell's important achievement was the mathematical formulation of Michael Faraday's theories of electricity and magnetic lines of force. He predicted that electromagnetism moved through space in waves which could be generated in the laboratory. His calculations indicated that their velocity was the same as the speed of light, therefore light was an electromagnetic phenomenon: He stated "We can scarcely avoid the conclusion that light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena."

His paper on Faraday's lines of force was read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in two parts, 1855 and 1856. He also showed showed that basic equations were inadequate to express the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields. Maxwell died in Cambridge on the fifth of November in 1879, before his theorising was successfully tested.  

Maxwell

Although not our main concern here, it is interesting to note that the outstanding mind of Maxwell contributed also to the study of colour blindness and colour vision and from his studies of colour theory came the first colour photograph, which was produced by photographing one subject through filters of the three primary colours of light (red, yellow, and blue) and then recombining the images.

Still, in those decades preceding the turn of the century, the discovery of 'radio waves' remained unused and undeveloped, staying in the realm of pure science - and some might say, science fiction - and untainted by technological intervention. What was needed was someone far-sighted enough to realise that the electromagnetic waves could be harnessed for communication purposes.

 

 

James Clerk Maxwell

Hans Christian Oersted

Heinrich Hertz

VINTAGE RADIO world: SIXTEEN YEARS OF WEB PRESENCE