In 2021, when this article is written, we are solidly into the digital age. The Internet and World Wide Web are ubiquitous. Most of us carry smartphones that are considerably more capable than we could have perceived even 20 years ago, and we can contact people on the other side of the world in real-time using video software. Yet we still use and need the radio.
How Radio Invention Impacted the World
At first thought, radio is an old hat. It should be a defunct medium by now, surely? We can broadcast over the Internet, after all! Broadcast radio remains a popular form of entertainment, but more than anything, it remains a lifesaver for many people across the world. There are some locations so distant and remote that radio is the only way to contact the rest of the world.
In the following article, we will look at the evolution of radio in time from its origins to the present day and explain why radio is still the main form of communication for many people.
The Beginnings of Radio
Think of the invention of the radio, and the name Marconi immediately springs to mind. We’ll talk about the genius behind radio as we know it today in a moment, as well as others who were working on the same theory at the time. But to find the very origins of radio, we need to go back a little further.
To call the radio, an invention is perhaps incorrect. Radio waves have always existed. The invention was in harnessing them to use productively. In 1864 a brilliant man named James Clerk Maxwell produced a scientific paper proposing a theory that ‘electromagnetic waves’ could move through free space. Such a bold claim led to many scientists putting their time and effort into proving the theory.
It took until 1888 that Heinrich Hertz proved the theory of ‘Maxwellian electromagnetism.’ What Maxwell and then Hertz – whose name is now the SI unit of frequency – had effectively done was discover the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS).
Indeed, Maxwell had proposed that visible light, x-rays, and what we now know as radio waves were all part of the same spectrum: he was correct. We now understand that the EMS consists of microwaves, ultra-violet light, infra-red light, and more, each with its wavelength and frequency.
It is unfair to credit Marconi solely here; Aleksandr Popov, a Russian, was also working on the same theories and made a breakthrough at a similar time, while Sir Oliver Lodge and William Crookes were other names in the field. One famous name, Nikolai Tesla, proposed that Hertzian waves would not make a good communication system as light could only travel in the line of sight. His point was it could only be used for short distances, aforethought that would prove important as we are about to see.
So, what did Marconi do that changed the face of radio?
Marconi and Broadcasting
Guglielmo Marconi – an Italian working in London, UK – took an interest in the concept of radio transmission in the 1890s. He read all the literature from the scientific community and set about creating his first transmitter. Marconi aimed to overcome the problem of the limited distance (which Sir Oliver Lodge had predicted, correctly as Marconi discovered when testing, would be about half a mile).
Marconi experimented widely with raised antenna, recognizing the problem Tesla had also predicted – line of sight. With such improvements, he managed transmissions of two miles. However, he was set upon distances far greater than that. Basic radio in the early days was, therefore, mainly a laboratory experiment, one that Marconi was pushing to extremes.
We are talking about what is known as ‘long wave’ radio, using wavelengths that are among the longest in the spectrum. The problem was that to reach any form of distance required a huge antenna and powerful, expensive transmitters that few could afford.
Even then, longwave had its problems in terms of being broadcast directionally, with massive power loss. What Marconi discovered next was truly ground-breaking.
Shortwave Radio Comes of Age
While experimenting with shortwave frequencies – previously considered only suitable for amateur use – Marconi and his team discovered something extraordinary: when aimed at the ionosphere – a layer of Earth’s upper atmosphere that is highly charged with solar radiation – the shortwave transmissions bounced off the ionosphere.
Marconi and his team had discovered the key to worldwide transmissions – shortwaves bounced across the world, overcoming the line-of-sight problems in one simple discovery. If there was one truly revolutionary discovery in the history of broadcasting, it was this.
Shortwave made radio transmissions to anywhere in the world possible with the right equipment.
Today, of course, the radio show you listen to in the car is usually on FM or even DAB – digital radio – which are the ideal mediums for radio broadcasts.
However, you may be surprised to hear that shortwave is still very much alive, not only in the hands of the many amateur radio enthusiasts – or hams as they are known – across the world. Let’s look at some uses of shortwave radio.
Modern-Day Use of Shortwave
Did you know that the BBC still broadcasts on shortwave? The World Service is accessed across the world by millions of listeners – especially those in third world countries and remote locations – and is, for many people, the way to keep up with world news.
China and the USA have shortwave broadcasts too, and it’s important to recognize the necessity of shortwave radio and emergency services throughout the world that use it for communications.
Shortwave is used in aviation, maritime broadcasts, and other such practices where long-distance broadcasts that are reliable and clear are required. Military worldwide use shortwave for communications, and it is often used clandestinely by groups wishing to stir up trouble, perhaps stage a coup or a rebellion.
How else is radio important in the 21st Century?
Radio in the 21st Century
The wireless connection between your home computer and your router is a radio frequency connection. If you pay using a contactless card, you activate a chip that sends out a radio frequency signal to confirm the transaction.
Radio waves are all around us, all the time, and are not going anywhere soon. In third-world countries, radio is essential, and it is the only form of communication that can reach the most remote locations on the planet.
While the Internet is often cited as the most important invention of all time, is perhaps the discovery of radio waves and shortwaves in particular that comes closest.