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The History Of Radio

In the nineteenth century, in Scotland, James Clerk Maxwell described the theoretical basis for radio transmissions with a set of four equations known ever since as Maxwell's Field Equations. Maxwell was the first scientist to use mechanical analogies and powerful mathematical modeling to create a successful description of the physical basis of the electromagnetic spectrum. His analysis provided the first insight into the phenomena that would eventually become radio. He deduced correctly that the changing magnetic field created by accelerating charge would generate a corresponding changing electric field. The resulting changing electric field would, he predicted, regenerate a changing magnetic field in turn, and so on. Maxwell showed that these interdependent changing electric and magnetic fields would together be a part of a self-sufficient phenomenon required to travel at the speed of light.

Not long after Maxwell's remarkable revelation about electromagnetic radiation, Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of radio waves by transmitting and receiving a microwave radio signal over a considerable distance. Hertz's apparatus was crude by modern standards but it was important because it provided experimental evidence in support of Maxwell's theory.

Guglielmo Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1909 to commemorate his development of wireless telegraphy after he was able to send a long-wave radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean.

The first radio transmitters to send messages, Marconi's equipment included, used high-voltage spark discharges to produce the charge acceleration needed to generate powerful radio signals. Spark transmitters could not carry speech or music information. They could only send coded messages by turning the signal on and off using a telegraphy code similar to the landline Morse code.

Spark transmitters were limited to the generation of radio signals with very-long wavelengths, much longer than those used for the present AM-broadcast band in the United States. The signals produced by a spark transmitter were very broad with each signal spread across a large share of the usable radio spectrum. Only a few radio stations could operate at the same time without interfering with each other. Mechanical generators operating at a higher frequency than those used to produce electrical power were used in an attempt to improve on the signals developed by spark transmitters.

A technological innovation enabling the generation of cleaner, narrower signals was needed. Electron tubes provided that breakthrough, making it possible to generate stable radio frequency signals that could carry speech and music. Broadcast radio quickly became established as source of news and entertainment.

Continual improvements to radio transmitting and receiving equipment opened up the use of successively higher and higher radio frequencies. Short waves, as signals with wavelengths less than 200m are often called, were found to be able to reach distant continents. International broadcasting on shortwave frequencies followed, allowing listeners to hear programming from around the world.

The newer frequency-modulation system, FM, was inaugurated in the late 1930s and for more than 25 years struggled for acceptance until it eventually became the most important mode of domestic broadcast radio. FM offers many technical advantages over AM, including an almost complete immunity to the lightning-caused static that plagues AM broadcasts. The FM system improved the sound quality of broadcasts tremendously, far exceeding the fidelity of the AM radio stations of the time. The FM system was the creation of E. H. Armstrong, perhaps the most prolific inventor of all those who made radio possible.

In the late 1950s, stereo capabilities were added to FM broadcasts along with the ability to transmit additional programs on each station that could not be heard without a special receiver. A very high percentage of FM broadcast stations today carry these hidden programs that serve special audiences or markets. This extra program capability, called SCA for Subsidiary Communications Authorization, can be used for stock market data, pager services, or background music for stores and restaurants.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningRadio - The History Of Radio, Radio And The Electromagnetic Spectrum, How Radio Signals Are Created, Modulation - Demodulation