Radio is based on the studies of James Clerk Maxwell, who developed the mathematical theory of electromagnetic waves, and Heinrich Hertz, who devised an apparatus for generating and detecting them. Guglielmo Marconi, recognizing the possibility of using these waves for a wireless communication system, gave a demonstration (1895) of the wireless telegraph, using Hertz's spark coil as a transmitter and Edouard Branly's coherer (a radio detector in which the conductance between two conductors is improved by the passage of a high-frequency current) as the first radio receiver. The effective operating distance of this system increased as the equipment was improved, and in 1901, Marconi succeeded in sending the letter S across the Atlantic Ocean using Morse code. In 1904, Sir John A. Fleming developed the first vacuum electron tube, which was able to detect radio waves electronically. Two years later, Lee de Forest invented the audion, a type of triode, or three-element tube, which not only detected radio waves but also amplified them.
Radio telephony—the transmission of music and speech—also began in 1906 with the work of Reginald Fessiden and Ernst F. W. Alexanderson, but it was not until Edwin H. Armstrong patented (1913) the circuit for the regenerative receiver that long-range radio reception became practicable. The major developments in radio initially were for ship-to-shore communications. Following the establishment (1920) of station KDKA at Pittsburgh, Pa., the first commercial broadcasting station in the United States, technical improvements in the industry increased, as did radio's popularity. In 1926 the first broadcasting network was formed, ushering in the golden age of radio. Generally credited with creating the first modern broadband FM system, Armstrong built and operated the first FM radio station, KE2XCC, in 1938 at Alpine, N.J. The least expensive form of entertainment during the Great Depression, the radio receiver became a standard household fixture, particularly in the United States. Subsequent research gave rise to countless technical improvements and to such applications as radio facsimile, radar, and television. The latter changed radio programming drastically, and the 1940s and 50s witnessed the migration of the most popular comedy and drama shows from radio to television. Radio programming became mostly music and news and, to a lesser extent, talk shows. The turn of the century saw a potential rebirth for radio as mobile digital radio entered the market with a satellite-based subscription service in Europe (1998) and in the United States (2000). Two years later, a land-based digital radio subscription service was inaugurated in the United States.
Radios that combine transmitters and receivers are now widely used for communications. Police and military forces and various businesses commonly use such radios to maintain contact with dispersed individuals or groups. Citizens band (CB) radios, two-way radios operating at frequencies near 27 megahertz, most typically used in vehicles for communication while traveling, became popular in the 1970s. Cellular telephones, despite the name, are another popular form of radio used for communication.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.