This is the Broadcast History section of
The Broadcast Archive
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Last Update 8/23/06
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:
- 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..
- 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"
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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
Other early operations included Compañia Telefónica del Plata, which served
Buenos Aires' few hundred subscribers in 1883.
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
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 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.