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When I ask the most of you about what MAJOR invention comes to your mind when I say the letter “R”, you would probably answer with one of these two brilliant inventions: Radio or Radar, right? We will go for the radio as it is more directly affecting people’s life more than the radar, especially that Radar (Radio Detection And Ranging) is a result of Radio.
People were always looking for the best ways to communicate and exchange messages with each other. People invented different ways such as the Greek Hydraulic telegraph, Drums in communication, Beacon, Smoke signal, Heliograph, Morse Code, …. etc, until we got the radio. Well, the radio story is not short, it is really a very long one, so I’ll try to be as brief as possible. And I’ll mention resources in the post if you want to read about the whole story.
If you ask who invented the radio, probably you will get the name Marconi. But, was it really Marconi who invented the radio? Well, you have to determine for yourself after going through the journey of the invention history of the radio. Radio owes its development to two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone, all three technologies are closely related. Radio technology began as “wireless telegraphy”. Actually, it all started with the discovery of “radio waves” – electromagnetic waves that have the capacity to transmit music, speech, pictures and other data invisibly through the air. Many devices work by using electromagnetic waves including: radio, microwaves, cordless phones, remote controlled toys, television broadcasts, and more.
There are a lot of knots to be untangled if you want to arrive at an answer as to who invented the radio. Was the inventor of radio the person who discovered that electromagnetic waves can be sent through air? Was it the person who sent signals to the farthest distance? Was it the person who sent the first signals with voice? Well, the answers are in fact not easy.
The actual roots of radio can be traced back to the early 1800’s when Michael Faraday who was in England and Joseph Henry who was in America developed the theory of inductance. This theory said that an electrical current flowing through one wire could create or induce a current to flow in a separate wire. Henry was always slow in publishing his results and he was unaware of Faraday’s work. Ultimately Faraday was recognized as the discoverer of mutual inductance (the basis of transformers), while Henry is credited with the discovery of self-inductance. The unit of inductance, called “the henry” immortalizes his name to this day.
In 1866, Mahlon Loomis, an American dentist, successfully demonstrated “wireless telegraphy.” Loomis was able to make a meter connected to one kite cause another one to move, marking the first known instance of wireless aerial communication.
During 1860s, James Maxwell, a Scottish physicist forecasted presence of radio waves. And in year 1886, Heinrich Hertz showcased projection of swift variation of the electric current into space in form of radio waves. In 1887 a German physicist named Heinrich Hertz came up with the first reasonable explanation for what was going on with his demonstration of the existence of electromagnetic waves of energy. The standard unit of frequency is named Hertz after the man who discovered the waves of energy. A frequency of 1 complete cycle per second is a frequency of 1 Hz. In radio communication, signals are typically thousands, millions or billions of hertz in frequency.
In 1892, a French physicist named Edouard Branley invented the first receiver of electromagnetic waves called a “Coherer” Branley found that a nearby electromagnetic disturbance such as a spark or a radio wave known as a Hertzian wave caused by a spark would lower the resistance of a thin layer of platinum deposited on a glass, thus the coherer wireless detector. Branley took the experiment one step further and discovered that the variations in the resistance of metals in a finely divided state such as metal filings were even more responsive to electromagnetic energy. Marconi followed these developments and in 1895 created his first successful wireless system.
So, It is probably more accurate to say that Guglielmo Marconi discovered a way to manipulate and exploit radio frequency energy. Marconi was actually one of many experimenters who were trying to send signals through the air thus the name wireless.
Now, we will tell the story of one of the most famous patent fights in history of inventions. In the race to invent the radio, two men, a Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla and an Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi went head to head. However, even today or a hundred years later, ask any two people about who invented the radio and I bet you – you will probably get two different answers. The story is perhaps a foggy one that is a mixture of scientific discovery with lawsuits and some old-fashioned marketing.
Tesla invented the induction coil or the Tesla coil after he came to the US in the year 1884. A Tesla coil is a device required to send and receive radio waves (it is said that Marconi relied on this coil for his experiments). In about 1895, unfortunately, Tesla’s laboratory was completely destroyed by fire when he was preparing to send a radio signal about 50 miles to the West Point, New York.
Now, we will head to the Marconi part of the story. Twenty years after the telephone was invented, music was set down on telephone line and Marconi was the one responsible for the radio signals. The Italian discoverer showcased radio communication’s feasibility. He was fascinated by Hertz’s discovery of the radio waves that he realized it
could be employed for receiving and sending telegraph messages; he referred to it as wireless telegraphs. Marconi’s earliest radio transmissions transmitted coded signals to only a mile far in the year 1896. Later Marconi recognized the huge potential of these waves and offered the discovery to the Italian government. Unluckily, the government turned it down. Marconi then realized a patent and started experimenting further after he moved to England. In 1896, Marconi sent and received Morse code-based radio signals at distances spanning approximately four miles. The same year, he applied for and was granted the world’s first patent in wireless telegraphy. It was in England that he received the first patent. In 1898, he made the first ever public broadcast of a sports event – he flashed the results of Kingstown Regatta to Dublin Newspaper office.
Tesla applied for his first patents for his radio work in 1897 in the US. He also constructed and demonstrated a radio-controlled boat at the Madison Square Garden in the year 1898. And, this was where things started getting sticky.
In 1900, the US Patent Office granted Tesla with patents for the fundamental design of the Tesla coil. The radio patents offered to Tesla gave him the ownership over one of the major necessities in radio communications. Towards the end of the same year, Marconi filed a patent for tuned telegraphy. The patent office first denied Marconi’s applications saying that his work relied on the use of Tesla coils. Not getting discouraged, Marconi made use of his father’s contacts and wealth to lead a lucrative business based on his telegraph technology; meanwhile, he continued to pursue his radio patents. In the year 1901, he transmitted the first transatlantic telegraph. Marconi continuously applied for the patent for three years while he also gained financial support from company investors like Thomas Edison (a fierce rival with Tesla) and Andrew Carnegie. Finally, in 1904, the US Patent Office strangely reversed its earlier decision and gave Marconi the patent for the invention of the radio. Marconi also won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909. This further fueled the rivalry with Tesla.
After a lot of lawsuits, the US Supreme Court restored Tesla (who had died a few months earlier) as the inventor of radio!! However, many people still believe that Marconi is the father of the radio.
There other claims from other researchers to claim the invention of the radio such as JC Bose and Nathan Stubblefield (who demonstrated wireless technology in public in 1892 – even before Tesla and Marconi’s works and fights). Now, who is the inventor of Radio? The US Supreme Court ruled that Tesla is the father of Radio and Marconi is not. The question still remains whether the honor should really go to Stubblefield or rather Bose.
Here is a general timeline of radio invention history:
I have just told you the SHORT version of Radio’s story, but do I have to tell you its importance and impact on our world? We have multiple uses of radio like Audio and Video transmission, Telephony, Navigation, Radar, Heating, …. etc. Just close your eyes and let your imagination tell you how would it look like if we didn’t have radio technology. Well, thanks to Tesla, Marconi, Faraday, Bose, Stubblefield and all other researchers who contributed to Radio (as it is not a fight for me), our world is better than ever.