A Brief History of Radio

Like telephony, the origins of radio are embedded in a desire to improve the technology of telegraphy, specifically, a desire to free telegraphy from the wire that permitted the transmission of signals. One of the practical uses for this envisioned process would be to enable connections between geographical barriers. This would allow the connection of the English and French telegraph systems as well as allow users the ability to contact shipping. This embeddedness in telegraphy resulted in a paradigm of point-to-point communications, or a telegraphy paradigm.

Towards the end of the 19th century, there were various experiments with using radio waves to achieve wireless telegraphy. Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian electrical engineer, managed to develop a working model. Much of the initial usage of radio occurred within the telegraphy paradigm, and was point-to-point, with the communication taking the form of morse code. Some of the early applications were contacting lighthouses, press reporting, military communications, and contacting shipping. Towards the early part of the 20th century, there were efforts made to transmit voice wirelessly. This movement was influenced by the development that were occurring with telephony. There were also early experiments with radio broadcasting, influenced by a broadcasting paradigm.

The broadcasting paradigm was urged along by amateur enthusiasts during a period of time when there was relatively little corporate interest in the technology. Accompanying the adoption and appropriation by everday users was a great deal of discourse on the potential social implications of the technology. Radio as a cutting-edge technology continued to be adopted by enthusiasts, and the buzz was taken up by hobbyist magazines.

The growing popularity of radio gradually lead to technical issues associated with radio wave congestion, and regulators assigned them to short wave bandwidth. Before World War I, there were a number of amateur radio broadcasts in both voice and morse code. These broadcasts grew followings, showing the demand for content relayed through this technology.

After the War, a US company, Westinghouse, began producing radio sets for a commercial market. A crop of new radio stations rose up and many were staffed and run by former hobbyists. By the 1920s, radio had become firmly entrenched in a broadcast paradigm.

As the technology became further commodified, its general design changed, to ease appropriation into domestic spaces. At the same time, coverage of the medium began focusing on the content instead of the technology. Radio began to have various cultural attributes associated with it, such as a source of comfort in difficult times; an activity for families to collectively enjoy; a recreational pastime, etc.


Haddon, L (2006), ‘History of ICTs’, Media Technology and Everday Life MC409′, London School of Economics, London, week 4.

Marvin, C. (1988) When Old Technologies were New: Thinking about Communications in the Late Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, Oxford. (especially the introduction and pp.63-108)