Radio has been an invaluable factor in spreading music to fans across the globe, but the technology didn’t just pop up overnight. Here’s some key facts you might not know about radio technology and the journey to our airwaves:
‘Airborne Hertzian waves’
The discovery of radio waves is attributed to a vast array of people who all uncovered various pieces of this wireless telegraphy puzzle, but one of the more significant earlier developments was made first by James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell proposed the theory that light and other phenomenon i.e. sound were types of electromagnetic waves, propelling themselves through free space. In the 1880’s, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz went further by producing experiments which proved Maxwell’s theory. Thus, this technology was called ‘Hertzian Waves’ for a good 20 years before the term radio waves came into play. (Imagine if the first name had stuck and we now casually referred to having heard a good song on the Hertzian the other day…?)
Dot dot dot
In 1894, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi decided to take these early experiments with Hertzian waves and see if he could use them to create a system for communication. He developed a transmitter and a receiver and through experimentation improved the distance over which these devices could communicate. On the 12th December 1901, Marconi succceded in making the first trans-atlantic transmission from Cornwall, England to Newfoundland in Canada. This transmission was simply the letter (S) in morse code: dot dot dot. Over the next few years this technology was fitted to many large ships to enable them to communicate with the shore.
O Holy Night
Canadian inventor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden improved on Marconi’s work by developing a system that would transmit voice rather than morse code communications. He succeeded on 24th December 1906 and took this opportunity of DJ-ing the first ever voice broadcast to read a bit from the Bible and play O Holy Night on his violin. We’ve come a long way from there to end up with the likes of Kanye on our radio waves (although he probably thinks the bible was written about him anyway)
A Titanic Broadcast
Most of what we hear about the tragic sinking of The Titanic focuses on the scale of loss of human life, but without radio, this loss would have been even more devastating. The Titanic had on board one of Marconi’s very same transmitters that he first sent morse code over, and it was used to send out distress calls when the ship started to sink. One of these calls was picked up by nearby ship – The Carpathia - which managed to rescue over 700 passengers. Big up Marconi!
Birth of the BBC
The first ever public broadcast was transmitted from the Marconi Factory in Chelmsford in June 1920. It featured the famous Australian Soprano Dame Nellie Melba and was picked up as far away as New York. This first broadcast entranced the nation and soon hundreds of broadcast license requests were flooding in.
To control the expansion of broadcasters, it was agreed that there would be only one official broadcasting license in Britain which was held by a company made up of a multitude of wireless set manufacturers. The idea being that for every set sold, a royalty from this purchase would go into the funding of the radio station. This collection of manufacturers was known as the British Broadcasting Company, and what we now know as, The BBC.
The royalty system introduced in 1922 did not last as a range of unlicensed rival wireless sets hit the market and amateurs learnt to make their own. So in 1923 they introduced the license fee system instead which came in at a total of 10 shillings.
The Boat that Rocked the BBC
The Richard Curtis film ‘The Boat That Rocked’ is based on Radio Caroline, one of the most successful pirate radio stations in the 60’s, which broadcast from a ship moored in International waters. Stations took to the seas as a reaction to the bland programs issued by the BBC and British laws which banned all commercial radio stations. These ships broadcast the likes of The Rolling Stones out to 20 million Brits a week.
In 1967, still believing that this rock’n’roll ‘nonsense’ was something that would fade out eventually, the British Government made it illegal to supply these pirate stations with fuel, food, water and advertising which ultimately did the trick. The ships were put out of action. But the public demand for music was not and finally the BBC had to pay attention and introduced their first pop station - Radio 1 - a month later. Ironically, most of the DJs from Radio Caroline landed themselves jobs DJ-ing for their former enemy. It was going to be another 6 years before commercial radio stations would be made legal in the UK after all… You can listen to broadcasts from Radio Caroline online, this one in particular was broadcast the night the law was passed to stop people supplying the ship.
Have any amazing radio facts that’ll wow us? Make sure you share them with us in the comments below.