Everything from television to smartphones, wireless connectivity and even the Internet of Things all exist because of radio technology.
Yet there are still countless people out there wondering: “When was the first radio made?” and who was responsible for this innovation?
The history of radio is an intriguing snapshot into our evolution as human beings. Today, radios are something that we interact with daily, whether you’re listening to tunes on the way to work or keeping an eye on your baby monitor.
Since the birth of the very first radio system, these incredible devices have evolved drastically. Today, they come in all shapes and sizes, from the “retro” AM/FM Walkman to the highly-sophisticated sound systems from companies like Ruark.
In this article, I’ll answer the question, “When was the first radio made?” You’ll also know the pioneers of radio invention and the technological advancements in radio sound systems to what we have today. Keep reading!
When was radio created? Early history of Radio
The radio was invented in 1895 by Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian Physicist. Marconi relied on the radio waves technology by Heinrich Hertz to make the radio. He applied for and was granted the first patent in wireless telegraphy in 1896.
In the early 20th century, people would sit on the floor in front of their radio and listen to shows for hours on end. However, before all that, the science behind radio transmissions had to come to life.
Often, when you search for “when was the first radio made,” the first name you’ll come across is Heinrich Hertz.
This German physicist demonstrated the existence of radio waves back in 1888, long before anything like the Ruark radios we know today could be created.
Radio waves have some of the longest wavelengths and lowest frequency of any stream in the electromagnetic spectrum.
During an experiment, Hertz created a condenser that was capable of producing these electromagnetic waves. At first, he didn’t realize the value of his invention.
Guglielmo Marconi saw radio waves for what they were – an opportunity.
As the first man to patent radio technology, Marconi is usually the name you’ll see when you search for “Who made the radio.” He is also credited for making the first radio station.
Guglielmo tapped into the technology discovered by Heinrich Hertz and used it as a way of sending Morse code – often to armed forces and ships at sea through wireless telegraphy.
Although the ability to transmit Morse code was useful, it was only the beginning of what radio could accomplish. People began to wonder whether the same technology could be used to send sounds like voice and music broadcast.
In 1906, Reginald Fessenden produced the first voice and music program in Massachusetts, and the true power of the tech became obvious.
While many inventors considered the radio to be a replacement for the telephone or the telegraph, others saw it as an opportunity for entertainment. People with receivers for radio waves could listen to other conversations.
This lack of privacy in radio communications sparked the idea for broadcasts and shows transmitted through more advanced handsets.
Key Names in Radio Invention
It’s worth noting that radio creation leveraged various technologies designed by different people. Therefore, although Guglielmo Marconi is credited as the radio inventor, he relied upon other people’s inventions to achieve his success.
That said, it’s important to discuss other stakeholders who played a role in radio invention. These people include:
- James Clerk Maxwell: This was a Scottish Physicist who demonstrated the existence of radio waves in the 1860s.
- Heinrich Rudholph Hertz: He demonstrated the projection of rapid variations of electric currents into space in the form of radio waves. He proved that these electromagnetic waves could be transmitted like those of heat and light.
- Mahlon Loomis: He demonstrated wireless telegraphy technology in 1866. Loomis created movement through wireless telegraphy by connecting a meter to a kite, demonstrating the possibility of aerial radio communications. Marconi relied on this technology to create the first radio in 1895.
From crystal sets to vacuum tubes
The question: “When was the first radio made?” is complicated, because it depends on how you define the radio. For instance, the person responsible for making the first portable radio is different from the person who made the initial radio receiver.
Marconi is the obvious answer to “who made the radio,” as he was the first man to use spark gap technology to create machines that could send Morse code over a distance.
However, the truth is that answering the question of “when was the radio created” means looking at various points in history. It took a number of years and a range of inventors to develop the radio we know today.
In the early days, the most common type of radio was the “crystal set radio.” Some people still study the art and science of “un-amplified” radios today.
In fact, in many Boy Scout groups across the United States, young children are introduced to crystal wireless radios that can work without amplifiers and modern radio signals.
Crystal wireless radios allowed many people to get involved with the radio craze because you could make them easily from home. Many magazines at the time encouraged people to make their own system using a piece of lead galena crystal and a cat whisker.
In the years between 1904 and 1915, the wireless radio began to evolve at a more dramatic pace, thanks to the triode and diode tubes. John Ambrose Fleming was responsible for creating something known as the vacuum tube diode.
On the other hand, Lee De Forest was the man responsible for adding a grid electrode to the system, which created the “triode.”
These pieces of technology enabled better transmission for wireless radio shows and helped customers to hear voices and music on their devices more clearly.
Taking advantage of one of the first radios invented, a Dutch company, Nederlandsche Radio-Industry made the first wireless entertainment broadcast in 1919.
The business also manufactured transmitters and receivers that people could use to listen to radio broadcasts and shows.
Vacuum tube radios sparked the commercial life of the radio as a product that could be sold. After all, you couldn’t make this technology yourself at home. If you wanted better quality in your broadcast, then you needed to be able to pay for it.
When was the first radio invented? The sperheterodyne design
As radio continued to thrive, growing in popularity, inventors struggled to find the next best technology for the radio receiver.
We needed equipment that converts the information carried by radio waves into audio for listeners in a more consistent and cohesive way.
When it comes to answering the question: “When was the first radio made,” it’s worth looking at the early 19th century, and the contributions of Edwin Armstrong.
Although Armstrong may not be known as the man who made the radio, he was responsible for creating the design that’s used in almost all modern receivers today.
Though the thermionic tubes and valves mentioned above offered greater performance in radio receivers than we could get from spark systems and crystal devices, the results were still poor.
Many receivers at the start of the 19th century struggled from insensitivity issues. During the first world war, when the need for radio technology was more significant, a considerable amount of time and investment was put into solving these problems.
In 1918, Edwin Armstrong invented the superheterodyne receiver.
Regarded by many to be the first radio invented that matched the potential of modern devices, the machine was capable of converting radio signals into a fixed intermediate frequency.
Unfortunately, though the idea was successful, it didn’t get the acceptance it deserved at first, because the war ended, and superhet receivers were very expensive to create and buy.
It wasn’t until the 1920s when the number of transmitting stations grew that the performance of superheterodyne receivers began to improve.
At a similar time, Reginald Fessenden was developing a technology known as amplitude modulation, or “AM.” This gave us a better way to broadcast music and voice than the techniques that we had known before. However, AM radio had its issues.
For instance, the main problem with AM was that the receiver often collected a lot of noise with each broadcast.
Eventually, the same man responsible for superheterodyne receivers, Edwin Armstrong, discovered a different kind of system for radio technology.
However, through extensive research and testing, Armstrong discovered Frequency modulation or “FM”. This technology made it possible to improve the sound quality in radio transmissions significantly. However, there was still a long time to go before people would start listening in.
By the 1940s, we had already come a long way from the first radio invented. However, there was about to be another significant evolution.
In 1948, the first transistor was successfully demonstrated at Bell Laboratories, allowing radios to become more compact. Finally, we were entering a world where radios could be small enough to carry with us in our pockets.
In 1959, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby made their way into the history of radio. They received the patent for the first integrated circuit on the market – something that would transform the development of radio devices forever.
Thanks to Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, the radio system could fit within virtually any box or shape a designer chose. The age of the radio device as we know it today had begun.
When was the first radio invented: The receiver timeline
The radio as we know it has changed drastically since the first radio invention.
As mentioned above, when the idea of radio first took off in the 1920s, people were tuning into programs using their own homemade sets. Anyone could learn how to create a basic radio using a few homemade ingredients.
By the 1930s, more than 40% of American households owned some sort of radio. Here are some of the initial kinds of radio system to appear on the market:
Tuned radio frequency sets
The most popular class of initial radio on the market, TRF sets, were an alternative to the superheterodyne circuit patterns mentioned above.
The RCA (Radio Corporation of America) had a monopoly on this system, and in the early 1990s, it was cheaper for manufacturers to create TRF tech at relatively low cost.
Superhet radios rose to popularity after the 1930s, when the RCA began to loosen their grip on their patent and allow other people to create new radio systems based on the attractive new frequency solution.
In the early 1930s, a new range of low-cost superheterodyne receivers arrived on the market.
Farm radios arrived before the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, when farms in America didn’t have access to electricity. Special radios were designed to run on DC power, and some of these devices ended up making their way into cities too.
Farm radios were often designed to run on tractor batteries, and they could be built at home.
World War 2 created a widespread need for radio communication around the world. Foxhole sets were developed by people who didn’t have access to typical radio parts.
Foxhole radios were usually the same as crystal radio sets, and they were made from any equipment a person could find – including pencil led, safety razor blades and more.
Wooden console radios
The console radio was the center of household entertainment in the radio era – and it’s also responsible for much of the radio technology we see today. These devices were large, expensive and highly desirable.
In the late 1930s, they were often coupled with a phonograph, and cost hundreds of dollars to acquire. Early console radios were narrow and tall, but they gradually began to take on the principles of art deco design.
Consumer console radios were picked up and made by brands like RCA, Philco, General Electric, Motorola, Zenith, Westinghouse and many more.
Early transistor radios
The invention of the transistor radio made it possible to produce small and portable systems that could operate on smaller batteries. Transistor radios were convenient, but the sound quality wasn’t perfect.
The prices were also pretty high too. The technology responsible for transistor radio is still in use today. Although, integrated circuits have surpassed the use of single-packed transistors for the most part.
Back when the first radio invented hit the marketplace, no-one could have imagined that they would eventually become a standard part of our car journeys. The earliest car radios appeared as an experimental concept, not long after commercial radio first began.
However, these first radios were expensive and impractical. In the early 1930s, the introduction of superheterodyne meant that car transmissions were more accessible. Major motoring companies began to experiment with the possibilities of in-car entertainment.
The arrival of the first digital radio
As mentioned above, when it comes to answering, “When was the first radio made,” there’s a lot of exploration to be done. The radios that we know and love today are a world apart from the ones that first came to life with the help of men like Guglielmo Marconi.
The invention of the transistor in 1947 changed radio technology forever by making portable receivers a real possibility.
Before transistors were around, tube-based technology was bulky and inefficient. They required multiple batteries to function, and vast amounts of power.
Transistors reduced the need for power consumption significantly, and they were much less fragile than vacuum tubes.
The creation of Integrated Circuit technology in the 1970s led to yet another revolution. Integrated circuits meant that manufacturers could place an entire radio receiver into a single tiny chip. ICs reversed the economics of radio.
The cost of adding amplification devices to chips was close to nothing, meaning that the cost and size of a receiver depended on passive components like capacitors and inductors, rather than active components.
The development of Integrated Circuits technology meant that digital technology could begin to overtake analog radios. Manufacturers started using digital circuitry on a chip to perform functions previously performed by analog circuits.
Digital processing changed the answer to the question “When was the radio created?” by separating the life of radio into pre and post-digital.
Today, digital radio technology has transformed the world as we know it. Not only do we have digital radio signal processing in our standard radio devices, but you can also find it in your smartphone, your monitors, and various other components around your home.
The future of radio design
So, now you have a basic answer to the question “When was the first radio invented?” you may be wondering what the future holds for this technology.
The good news is that radio isn’t going anywhere. The ongoing evolution of internet radio combined with the rising demand for stunning radio sets as statement pieces in homes means that these devices are still incredibly popular.
We’re even entering a world in which internet technology means that radio broadcasts can be streamed directly to our homes and cars through Wi-Fi and other wireless connections.
The history of radio helps build the technology’s future. In the past, radios were invented to help connect people at a time when communication was crucial. Now, we have the internet to transform those radio communications even further.
Today, you can connect your smartphone to your car and tune into a radio station wherever you are. Your standard home radio can play FM frequencies, or it can scan the internet for your favorite podcasts.
The possibilities are endless. As we move into the years ahead, radios will continue to find their way into new devices and solutions. The consoles, televisions, and watches that we use each day will be yet another way to tap into radio entertainment.
In the era of IoT, we may even end up with refrigerators and showers that play radio stations for us.
Since its creation, radio has evolved drastically with the times. The tale of this technology is an incredible insight into how sometimes it takes more than one person to create a truly revolutionary concept.
If you’d like to learn more about the beginnings of radio and broadcasting, check out our article on The History of Radio Advertising.
And if you’d like to check out an article for today’s modern radio, we have a good one on the History of Internet Radio.
Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.