Today is National Radio Day, a day where broadcasters and listeners get together to celebrate the lasting impact that radio has on all aspects of American life. To help honor the occasion, we’ve compiled this list of fascinating facts about the history of radio.
1. The Titanic disaster was a turning point for radio use
Did you know that the use of radio transmission allowed 700 people to be saved from the sinking Titanic? At the time, radio use on the seas was still very new. Until then, believe it or not, carrier pigeons were used to send out long-range distress calls.
Still, many ships in the area didn’t respond to the Titanic’s distress calls because their sole operators were sleeping, or weren’t equipped with radio to begin with. After the Titanic disaster, the Radio Act of 1912 was passed requiring at least 2 radio operators aboard all ships.
2. Original consumer radios required no power
“Crystal set” radios, which are still popular among hobbyists today, use a crystalline mineral to receive radio waves. Those receivers are powered by the wave alone, but declined in popularity with the advent of radio receivers that use amplifiers.
Sold and homemade by the millions, the inexpensive and reliable crystal radio was a major driving force in the introduction of radio to the public, contributing to the development of radio as an entertainment medium around 1920
3. Nikola Tesla should have received credit for radio, but didn’t
Guglielmo Marconi is widely considered the inventor of the radio. In 1896, he filed a patent for his radio telegraph in England, though the design wasn’t very powerful or commercial viable. Nikola Tesla filed his own patent in America in 1897. In America, Marconi’s later patents were routinely denied because of his use of many components invented by Nikola Tesla.
After a hugely successful company was formed on American soil, the American patent office reversed its decision, naming Marconi as the inventor of the radio. As a matter of fact, Tesla famously said, “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.” It wasn’t until 1943 that the Supreme Court upheld Tesla’s patent, but Marconi’s legacy was already cemented.
4. Radio’s whiskey connection
The not-quite inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi, is a direct descent of John Jameson. Marconi was born in Bologna on April 25, 1874, the son of Giuseppe Marconi and his Irish wife Annie Jameson. Her grandfather, John Jameson, founded the whiskey distillers Jameson & Sons in Dublin in the 1780s. Annie’s father, John Jameson’s son Andrew, was a famous distiller in his own right. He founded a Jameson distillery in Ennicorthy, Co. Wexford, and settled with his wife Margaret Millar in Daphne Castle, on the outskirts of Wexford, Ireland.
5. The first radio station started in a garage
The world’s first commercial radio station originated outside Pittsburgh. Frank Conrad, who worked producing radio received during World War I, installed a radio station on the top floor of a two-story garage adjacent to his home. (Turns out that it’s not just Silicon Valley pioneers who invented things in garages.) Shortly after, in 1920, this station live broadcasted the results of the US presidential election.
We love the fascinating history of radio, but if you think this medium only lives in the past you’d be dead wrong. According to the Pew Research Trust 91% of Americans ages 12 and older listened to radio in the week before they were surveyed in 2014. “Five years ago critics were writing off radio and TV as yesterday’s technology,” said National Association of Broadcasters CEO Gordon Smith. “Fast-forward five years, and I can now say with great certainty: Broadcast radio and television are more important today than they have ever been.”
On National Radio Day, we remember the medium’s amazing past and look forward to it’s great future!