Today, music is everywhere. Invisible signals fly through the air carrying every possible genre and style that a person could ever want. We can access them from our homes, cars and phones enjoying content from around the world. In the 19th century this type of technology was just a dream in the minds of scientists and inventors, but the 20th century saw an explosion of communication and the rise of a device we call the radio.
The idea of wireless transmission began in the laboratories of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz and Nikola Tesla in the late 1800s. They established the theory of Hertzian or radio waves and demonstrated their properties. However it was believed that these signals had a very limited range. Oxford professor, Oliver Lodge estimated that radio waves would only be able to travel, at the most, a mile or so.
That didn’t stop Italian scientist and inventor Guglielmo Marconi from experimenting with commercial applications of this technology. In the 1890s, he experimented with various transmitters and receivers boosting their range with each breakthrough. At the end of 1901 his team successfully sent a signal from Cornwall, England to Newfoundland crossing the Atlantic and proving the true potential of the technology. For his work he received a Nobel Prize. In 1912, a sinking Titanic used Marconi’s wireless telegraph to send a distress signal and 700 lives were saved.
In the teens, radio signals were merely the “dit – dahs” of Morse code used for navigation and communication, especially at sea.
Then on Christmas Eve 1906, a signal was sent from Brant Rock, Massachusetts, boats all across the Atlantic heard the carol “O Holy Night” played on the violin and a human voice singing and reading from the bible. Many believe that this was the first audio broadcast.
In the 1920s, technology improved from crystal receivers to vacuum tubes and the ability to focus the frequency of a signal. In just two short years, 600 radio stations appeared across the United States alone offering a wide variety of programming, from news to information and of course music. These “wireless concerts”, as they were called, allowed anyone with a receiver to listen. You didn’t have to buy the recording or go the performance; you just had to flip the switch.
Radio signals flew through geographical and cultural boundaries, exposing a generation of listeners to sounds, songs and expression beyond their reach. This communication technology helped shape the culture of the 20th century.
For an in-depth look at the development of radio in the United States, check out this documentary from American Public Media entitled "Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio."