This is the Broadcast History section of
The Broadcast Archive

Maintained by:
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Last Update 8/23/06

How and when did "Broadcasting" begin?

Most people think "Broadcasting" began with Guglielmo Marconi in 1895. However, there were several antecedents to Marconi, and, yes, even "broadcasts" before Marconi's experiments. Indeed, if you go to the origin of the term, some would suggest it comes from "broadcasting" seeds on a farm ... in that the seeds would be spread in all directions. The newspaper "broadside" comes from a similar direction, where a topic is exposed for all to see. (I think we can dismiss the naval broadside from this discussion, although it was rumored Farragut Jones became famous for rescuing many thousands of navals.)


In order to discuss the beginnings of the broadcast industry, we need to define our terms. It is very easy to get hung up with some of the oft repeated definitions that really don't take into account what happened so much as what the Public Relations Departments of early corporations wanted us to believe.

By the 1880s, it was possible to send both code and sound through wires, using electricity. Examples are the telegraph and telephone.

For the purposes of this FAQ, I believe we need to define some terms:

  1. Wireless - As the name indicates, this would involve transmission of information without the use of wires. Any number of various means could be used to "send" information, including magnetic induction, conduction, and electrostatic coupling. While these were indeed wireless, they were extremely limited in the distance they were capable of covering, usually less than 5 km..
  2. Radio - The eventual "breakthrough" in wireless transmission came with the successful harnessing of ultrasonic "electromagnetic radiation", which proved much more practical for distant signaling than the other methods tried. The term "radio" was coined as a shortened name for "electromagnetic radiation". The "radio frequencies" that made this possible are also referred to as RF. Hence, it is possible to be "wireless" without being "radio" transmission.
  3. Broadcasting - Because radio (RF) signals can radiate over a relatively large area, in a sense all radio is "broadcast". However, broadcasting usually refers to transmissions intended to be received by a wide group of listeners. (This excludes transmissions meant for selected listeners that just happen to be overheard by others.) Furthermore, although most of the earliest broadcasts used telegraphic dots and dashes for sending out things like weather forecasts to farmers and seagoing vessels, broadcasting is generally considered to be a form of radiotelephony (essentially voice), hence the transmission of information and entertainment in a readily understandable audio and/or visual form to the general public.
  4. Broadcast Station - Conflicts in defining a broadcast station occur due to differing interpretations of what constitutes broadcasting. Today, "broadcast" is a distinct station classification. However, during the early years, experimental broadcasts were conducted by a wide variety of stations, and often were just a sideline for the station's normal use in developmental or other activities.

    When you factor in such variables as the original use of the station, the percentage of time a station was broadcasting, as opposed to other activities; whether the broadcasts were a one-time effort, on a sporadic schedule, or on a regular basis; the intended audience, whether radio hobbyists or the general public; and the different licence classifications utilized in the early days (The Department of Commerce - indeed most broadcasters - had no idea what they were starting!), it becomes clear that even with 85 years of hindsight, it can be hard to determine what is as broadcast station.

    I would then suggest a definition of a broadcast station as one that transmits radiotelephony to a "mass" audience on a regular schedule.
  5. Commercial broadcast station - Many accounts would begin the story of broadcasting with the grant of the "First Commercial License" or the "First Limited Commercial License" issued by the Department of Commerce in 1920 and 1921, specifying operation in what was to become the Broadcast Band.

    Nevertheless it seems clear that under the definitions of broadcasting that the Experimental and Amateur licensed stations were also broadcasting. And, the word classification commercial itself did not mean what we consider it today. Commercial stations were those licensed to provide services to customers. Initially, it referred mainly to ship-to-shore or other point-to-point communications, where the station would charge for the transmission of a message. Commercial announcements, as we define them today, were still several years in the future. (Actually, even the experimentals were permitted to operate "commercially" without having to change to a "commercial" license at first.)

Well, is that all clear as mud? <ggg> OK ... let us proceed ... and consider the various early experimenters and activities that led to the broadcast industry today.


The Budapest Connection

In the 1880's and 1890's, the Budapest Telefon-Hirmondo (Cable) system sent out entertainment programs via telephone lines. They hired people with "specially loud voices" to read out the news. A similar system was set up in Newark, NJ in 1912. As much as 14 hours of programming, including stock market reports were featured. Of course, RF wasn't involved, but it was "broadcasting" in the sense of a program going to a variety of people and locations.

Other early operations included Compañia Telefónica del Plata, which served Buenos Aires' few hundred subscribers in 1883.

Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse was actually a professional painter, who in 1843 got a financial grant from the U.S. Congress to build the first long-distance telegraph line. The line, which ran from the nation's capital to Baltimore, Maryland, was a success.

Dr. Mahlon Loomis

Thirty years after Morse, a dentist by the name of Dr. Mahlon Loomis tried to convince Congress to fund another project. Loomis proposed to design and test a wireless system to telegraph signals through the air directly between the United States and Switzerland. Congress refused the requested $50,000 in funding, and there are those today who still claim this kept Loomis from developing a radio system two decades before Marconi.

Loomis was granted U.S. patent number 129,971 on July 30, 1872 for an "a new and Improved Mode of Telegraphing and of Generating Light, Heat, and Motive Power". (In speeches he gave at the time, Loomis claimed his system could be used to melt icebergs, make the seasons milder, eliminate malaria, and provide an inexhaustible source of energy.) Loomis claimed to have transmitted telegraphic messages a distance of 29 kilometers (18 miles) between the tops of Cohocton Mountain and Beorse Deer Mountain, Virginia throughout 1865 and 1866. However, although he is often promoted in the United States as being a wireless pioneer, there is no independent evidence that these claims were actually true. His "transmitter" and "receiver" were a key at one site and a galvanometer at the other, each connected to a metallic wire and a wire-screened kite. As such, there was no "RF" or radio-frequency signals as we know them today. Loomis merely interrupted currents in the antenna resulting from flying an antenna into a cloud, transmitting intelligence between two points using conductive wireless, not electromagnetic effects.

Moreover, there is little in his patent suggesting his system was capable of telegraphing any distance at all. The fatal flaw was his theory that there are electrically conducting layers in the lower atmosphere, which his system was designed to utilize. It turned out his theory was wrong--the electrical channels don't exist, so there was no way his system could have worked as intended. However, some people claim that over time Loomis unknowingly modified his system in such a way that it eventually sent and received radio waves.

Amos Dolbear and Thomas Edison

Professor Amos E. Dolbear of Tufts University received a U.S. patent for a wireless telegraph (used to communicate for up to a quarter mile) in March, 1882, and even Thomas Edison applied for one on May 25, 1885. Edison's patent was finally granted December 29, 1891. Edison was, however, quite fully engaged by work for the Western Union Telegraph Company, and he let his radio work lie fallow, eventually selling his patent to Marconi in 1903. Both systems basically used an induction method, not RF. On the other hand, if either Dolbear or Edison had developed a real useful mechanism, we today might be listening to our favorite stations on "inductos" instead of radios!

Nathan Stubblefield

Nathan B. Stubblefield was reputed to have made the first wireless voice transmissions in 1892 in Murray, Kentucky. His goal was to develop a method of "general transmission of news of every description." For some reason, the business arrangements were unsatisfactory, and Stubblefield went into seclusion, continuing to research until his death in 1928. One major problem: no way to transmit other than very short distances. Another, it is unlikely he used "radio waves" (RF), instead relying on an induction field. The issue is still hotly debated in Kentucky, yet the Kentucky Association of Broadcasters does not recognize Stubblefield's claims.

Maxwell and Hertz

It may be surprising to consider that just over a hundred years ago the existence of radio waves was only a theory, and a fairly controversial one at that. The existence of electromagnetic radiation (RF) was first predicted by James Clerk Maxwell, in 1865. Maxwell developed a series of mathematical equations, which not only predicted that electromagnetic radiation existed, but that visible light itself was merely a form of high frequency radio waves.

It was two decades before Maxwell's prediction of radio waves was confirmed, by a series of experiments conducted by Heinrich Hertz in 1887, in his physics lab in Germany. For a transmitter, Hertz used simple devices to create spark discharges in the VHF region. His receiver was nothing more complicated than a wire rectangle which had a small gap in it -- tiny sparks would appear in the gap whenever the main spark was discharged. Sometimes overlooked is the fact that Hertz's great discovery was not that the tiny sparks could be triggered from across the room. At the time of his tests this was a well-known phenomenon, but it was thought to be due to induction. What Hertz proved, through an ingenious series of experiments, was that radiation sent out by the spark discharges had a wave-like structure, which was not characteristic of induction fields, but did match electromagnetic radiation as predicted by Maxwell's equations.

Guglielmo Marconi

Following shortly after Heinrich Hertz's physics lab demonstrations, Marconi developed what is generally recognized as the first practical "generator" of radio waves in Italy in 1895. (There are several conflicting claims of primacy, including one for a Russian named Aleksander Stepanovich Popov in the same year.) Because the Italian government declined to back his efforts, Marconi moved to England.

During the 1895 to 1901 period, Marconi worked on improving his new "wireless telegraph," attempting to sell it to the British Navy. Also attempting to sell his development to the British Post Office, Marconi demonstrated transmission over several miles in 1897.

Marconi transmitted the results of the International Ocean Yacht Races off Sandy Hook, NJ to the New York Herald Tribune in October, 1899. He finally received British patent 12,039 on July 2, 1897 for "Improvements in Transmitting Electrical Impulses and Signals and in Apparatus therefor." Patent 7,777 (issued April 16, 1900) covered a selective tuning device to resonate the antenna circuit of a spark transmitter.

The first transatlantic transmissions were attempted from a two tower circular array at Poldhu, England. The wooden towers were each 200 feet (61 meters). Transmission was approximately 500 meters or 600 kHz with an input power to a spark transmitter of around 18 kilowatts. Originally, 20 towers were built into the array, however, the towers were toppled by storms in November 1901, and the two replacement towers were hastily built for the transatlantic transmission. (Later, they were replaced with four permanent towers.)

Reception of the letter "S," three dots, was reported by Marconi on December 12, 1901, at Signal Hill, St. Johns, Newfoundland. The transmitter was manned by John Ambrose Fleming, professor of University College in London, later to invent the diode vacuum tube.

In 1909 Marconi shared the Nobel Prize awarded for the field of Physics.

Reginald Fessenden

Despite Marconi's groundbreaking efforts, no one had yet "broadcast" messages other than telegraphic dots and dashes. That changed when, with little warning, on Christmas Eve of 1906, Reginald Fessenden connected a carbon telephone transmitter into the field winding of an Alexanderson alternator he had installed in a shore telegraph station at Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Astonished ship radio operators heard Bible and poetry readings as well as Fessenden's own artistry on the violin. He was demonstrating a new sort of "transmitter," one that generated "continuous waves," as opposed to Marconi's spark gaps and their "discontinuous waves." Many regard this transmission as meeting the criteria of broadcast ...

Charles "Doc" Herrold

Charles David Herrold of San Jose, California is a little known broadcasting pioneer whose most significant work took place between 1912 and 1917. While today most historians believe Herrold's claim, that he was the first to broadcast radio entertainment and information for an audience on a regularly scheduled, pre-announced basis, he is dismissed as a minor figure because he failed to have long lasting impact upon the radio industry. Nevertheless, his early broadcasts show innovation and originality and are of interest because Herrold is symbolic of many of the early broadcast pioneers unknown, under financed and overshadowed by the major corporations that would control broadcasting beginning in 1920. 

Early notice of Herrold's use of the radiotelephone to "broadcast" to an audience is found in this notarized statement by Herrold, published in an ad for wireless equipment in the 1910 catalogue of the Electro-Importing Company "We have been giving wireless phonograph concerts to amateur men in the Santa Clara Valley," a statement prophetic of what broadcasting was to become. And while his 1910 listeners were amateurs and hobbyists, he did broadcast to public audiences daily during the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair. The real significance of Herrold was that between 1912 and 1917 he operated a radio station, programming information and entertainment for an audience on a regular schedule, often pre-announced in the newspapers.

Ernst Alexanderson

A Swedish immigrant, Alexanderson went to work at GE, and developed many technologies, including the Alexanderson Alternator, which finally permitted the higher frequencies necessary for broadcasting. There is a lot more to this story.

Lee DeForest

Within a year after Fessenden's broadcast, Lee DeForest was also demonstrating another form of "continuous waves," transmitting occasional demonstrations from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. DeForest liked to be addressed as the Father of Radio. Although his "Audion" vacuum tubes were a major advance, DeForest was certainly not above taking credit for other's inventions, something he denied. Nevertheless, as they learned of his usurpation of ideas, many engineering societies began to shun DeForest.

Nikola Tesla

On the other hand, many sources feel Nikola Tesla was ahead of DeForest in many areas, certainly in terms of understanding what he was doing.

According to some sources, Tesla's radio was invented in Europe in 1893, and a US patent for the electronic transmission of signals and data was filed in September 1897. Tesla's patent, allowed in March 1900, was his second for radio, the first having been granted in 1898. This predates Marconi's patent application in November 1900.

Did the US Supreme Court rule in 1943 that Tesla invented radio?

In a word, no. While the Supreme Court did review a patent infringement case in 1943, the nature of the ruling has been blown way out of proportion by some of Tesla's admirers.

First, by no stretch of the imagination did the court ever attempt to identify anyone as the "inventor of radio". The 1943 dispute instead centered around a later addition to the original Marconi system, specifically the method Marconi developed for tuning.

No one contested the fact that Marconi's tuning system was based on principles that had originally been developed by Tesla, for use in converting alternating electrical current. The question at hand, however, was whether Marconi's adaptation of the Tesla method, in order to tune radio sending and receiving circuits, was sufficiently different from Tesla's original application to be eligible for a separate patent. The case dragged on for decades--it began in 1916--before the Supreme Court ruled that not only was Marconi's radio adaptation not sufficiently novel to earn a separate patent, but in any event two other persons, Oliver Lodge and John Stone Stone, had already developed the same basic idea for use in radio.

Tesla was an important and visionary electrical inventor, but his ideas often outran his ability to actually build a working device. Tesla often talked about developing wireless systems for transmitting signals and electrical power, but none of his grander schemes ever worked out. Moreover, although most of his ideas involved electrical phenomena, few involved the use of electromagnetic radiation. Tesla's electrical work also made possible a major motor vehicle refinement--starter motors. But that doesn't mean he should get credit for inventing the automobile.

Major Armstrong

Edwin H. Armstrong was a pioneer in many areas of broadcasting, Over the years, Armstrong developed super-regenerative reception and the superhet receiver. It took some court battles with DeForest to vindicate his claim. Armstrong was probably best known as the Father of FM radio, demonstrating and patenting the technology in 1930. Unfortunately for Armstrong, Sarnoff was more interested in the late 1930s in getting TV off the ground, and maneuvered the FCC into moving the FM band from the 40 MHz range to the 90 MHz range, effectively disabling every existing receiver. TV got some "space" and it was another 30 years before FM was to become viable.

Of course, the entire way that information and, yes, audio is being broadcast has been changed over the past few years. Not only have satellites and the Internet made a difference, but even more innovations in getting information from one place to another are developing, often as a combination of more than one technology.

The Internet

Claims to the first Internet broadcasts appear to date to 1993, when the IMS (Internet Multicasting Service) was set up in Washington, D.C., as a non-profit experiment.

Today, literally THOUSANDS of radio stations are on the Internet, broadcasting from all over the world.

Satellite Networks and Programs

Starting in the 1980s, some of the satellite delivery services used subcarriers to send various radio stations to C Band dish users. Some of this was the "radio side" of a television station which was being sent as a "superstation," others were various local stations used to "fill" the bandwidth, and provide 24 hour programming on some transponders.

At this time, most of the major networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, etc,) converted to feeding stations via satellite dishes. Some stations started little "dish farms" in their backyard, with a dish for each network they had.

By 1990, virtually every network and syndicated radio program (from talk to music) had migrated to satellite delivery. Some could be heard on the subcarriers of the C Band dishes. Others were SCPC (Single Carrier Per Channel) feeds at different frequencies, requiring additional receivers. Others were scrambled, and eventually many networks and programs have changed to digital transmission. Most of these are not available to end users.