Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Golden Age of Wireless

Great jumping snails!* It's hard to imagine, but radio as we know it is only 100 years old--and its anniversary is today, January 12.

American inventor Lee De Forest was born in 1873 in Council Bluffs, IA, where his parents often said that they couldn't see De Forest for the trees, although it was unknown if young Lee was skilled at hide-and-seek. He went to Yale and, as an inveterate tinkerer, tapped into the school's electrical system and blacked out the campus. He was, needless to say, suspended. So they would have to wait for many more years before getting a college radio station. They eventually relented and let him back in, and De Forest earned his Ph.D. in 1899 with a dissertation on radio waves.

De Forest invented the audion, an electronic amplifier, followed by an improved wireless telegraph receiver. De Forest's subsequent triode was three-electrode vacuum tube that could be used as an amplifier of electrical signals, such as radio reception. It would much later be used in computers, as well.

Wikipedia takes up the story:
On July 18, 1907, De Forest broadcast the first ship-to-shore message from the steam yacht Thelma. The communication provided quick, accurate race results of the Annual Inter-Lakes Yachting Association (I-LYA) Regatta. The message was received by his assistant, Frank E. Butler of Monroeville, Ohio, in the Pavilion at Fox's Dock located on South Bass Island on Lake Erie.
DeForest apparently hated the term "wireless" and preferred instead "radio." It might catch on.

Anyway, what is claimed to be the first "true" public radio broadcast was made on January 12 (and 13), 1910, when De Forest broadcast part of a live performance of Puccini's opera Tosca --featuring Italian tenor Enrico Caruso--from New York's Metropolitan Opera House. (Odd; there is no record of any intellectual property disputes or disclaimers that the broadcast was owned by the Metropolitan Opera Company.) De Forest used two mono microphones and a 500-watt transmitter. Of course, not too many people had radio sets at the time and the quality of the sound left much to be desired. Still, you have to imagine that to suddenly hear voices coming out of a box in your home had to be akin to receiving messages from space. (Which they kind of were...)

By the way, the first actual wireless transmissions dated from four years earlier. Reginald Fessenden had invented a continuous-wave voice transmitter 1905 and made a voice broadcast over the North Atlantic on Christmas Eve 1906. It was only heard by the wireless operators on banana boats owned by the United Fruit Company. There's a demographic that broadcasters lost over the years...

So when everyone told Lee De Forest that he was bananas for trying to create radio, they could very well have been right.

And then video killed the radio star, The Buggles joined Yes, and it was all downhill from there.

So let's turn on the radio, get appalled at how it has devolved since its heyday, turn it off again almost immediately, then go find an old radio drama on MP3.

*An actual exclamation from a character on an episode of Dimension X, a great radio science-fiction series from the 1950s.

No comments: