Geekhistory explores who invented radio

Who invented radioAnswering the question of "who invented radio" is another example of the complexities of defining inventors of inventions. There is no one "eureka" moment where a lone inventor in a lab created something totally new that changed everything.  Radio was an ongoing evolution of an idea over time. It is not as simple as picking out a single individual, or even a single point in time, that was the turning point in the creation of radio.

I started my career in technology in the 1970s working on military communications and citizens band radios. As I studied technology I remember Guglielmo Marconi was often mentioned as the "father of radio." Over time I have come to realize that Marconi is one of many contributions to the technology of radio.

What makes that task even more difficult with radio is that the term itself does not define a simple single item.

When I say radio, do you think of music broadcast over the airwaves? When I say wireless do you think of voice communications?

The concept of radio continues to evolve. In the early half of the 21st century the term wireless could be used to describe a short-range computer networking system, with technologies such as Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN), Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. The term wireless is also applied to a mobile telephone system.

The concept of radio started as  the transmission of telegraph messages without connecting wires.  The etymology of "radio" or "radiotelegraphy" reveals that it was called "wireless telegraphy" which was later shortened to "wireless."   

Radio visionaries

Michael Faraday is best known for his work regarding electricity and magnetism. Faraday began his great series of experiments in 1831 on the concepts of electromagnetic induction. 

James Clerk Maxwell introduced the concept of electromagnetic field in the 1860s. Based on the earlier experimental work of Faraday and other scientists and on his own modification to Ampere's law, James Clerk Maxwell developed his theory of electromagnetism, which predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves.

Heinrich Rudolf Hertz conduct a series of experiments between 1886 and 1889 that validated Maxwell's theory.  The unit of frequency, cycle per second, was named the "hertz" in his honor.

Radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi

The son of a wealthy Italian landowner, Guglielmo Marconi used the upper floor of his parents Bologna estate as a laboratory. In the 1890s Marconi duplicated Heinrich Hertz’s experiments and succeeded in sending signals over long distances  Marconi's first experiments in wireless telegraphy were aimed at communicating without wires at increasing ranges.

By 1899 Marconi was constructing wireless stations on both sides of the English Channel and in 1901 he installed transmitters powerful enough to send messages across the Atlantic. The often cited reason that Marconi is considered the "father of radio" that he allegedly sent the first wireless signal across Atlantic in 1901.

Guglielmo Marconi and his assistant, George Kemp, heard the faint clicks of Morse code for the letter "s" transmitted without wires across the Atlantic Ocean on December 12, 1901. His claim to have successfully completed the transmission is disputed by some scientists of his day because the only witness was George Kemp, and the signals were too weak to operate an automatic recorder.

Although skeptics take issue with Marconi's initial claim of sending a signal across the Atlantic in 1901, Marconi would conduct additional tests in 1902, which were witnessed by others and recorded. Marconi began to build high-powered stations on both sides of the Atlantic to communicate with ships at sea in the years that followed his initial testing.

Some people say that Marconi was credited with the invention of radio because he had the financial backing of Andrew Carnegie, a great money man of the period. Marconi lived a transatlantic existence, working in both Europe and the United States to promote radio. But naming the father of radio is a complex issue of many inventors from various parts of the world working on experiments over many decades.

Nikola Tesla

The supporters of Tesla will tell you that Marconi used Tesla's patents to invent the radio.

The science of electromagnetic fields and radio waves encompasses many things. For instance, in the case of Nikola Tesla, one of his patents was for a "Method of an Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vehicle or Vehicles." In 1898, Tesla demonstrated a radio controlled boat during an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden in New York City. That's pretty cool, and as far as I know, that is the first demonstration of its kind. Tesla's work in the areas of electromagnetic fields and radio waves were part of his grand system of transmission of electric energy, but Tesla had very little interest in the technical development of wireless communications.

Nikola Tesla should not be called the father of radio, nor the sole inventor of radio, but in the context of Nikola Tesla's life work, a lot of his more significant experiments were in the areas of electromagnetic fields and radio waves.

Jagadish Chandra Bose

The supporters of J.C Bose will tell you that Marconi used Bose's design of the coherer to invent the radio.

As far as Jagadish Chandra Bose his contribution to the concept of radio and radio waves was also significant. In 1894 J.C.Bose demonstrated the use of radio waves in Calcutta by igniting gunpowder to ring a bell using electromagnetic waves. His demonstration confirmed that communication signals can be sent without using wires. In 1895 J.C. Bose perfected a component used in early radio receivers called the coherer. Supporters of Jagadish Chandra Bose claim that the coherer designed by Bose was used by Marconi in his radio experiments that followed. Bose had a pretty diverse and extensive career in science and technology, he was similar to Tesla in the sense that his work in the area of radio was something he did along the way to other experiments. Jagadish Chandra Bose is one of many I would mention on the long list of forgotten geeks in the world of technology.

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden

In answer to the question of who invented radio there are some Canadian members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers that will be quick to point out that Canadian inventor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden should be recognized as the "father of radio." Reginald Fessenden demonstrated the first wireless transmission of music and the human voice without wires to a receiver on Christmas Eve 1906 when he transmitted a Christmas concert to ships at sea.

Even the geeks at organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have ongoing debates over who invented radio. You will find a few articles on the Canadian IEEE website on the work of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden.

Fessenden had an interesting career having worked with both Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. In 1886 Fessenden began working directly for Thomas Edison at the laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey as a junior technician. Fessenden helped the Westinghouse Corporation install the lighting for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. George Westinghouse personally recruited Fessenden for the newly created position of chair of the Electrical Engineering department at the Western University of Pennsylvania, which later became the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Mahlon Loomis

From the mid-1860s until his death in 1886, Washington, D.C. dentist, Dr. Mahlon Loomis, explored wireless technology. Loomis claimed he developed a method of transmitting and receiving messages using the earth's atmosphere as a conductor. Loomis sent up kites covered with a copper screen and connected to the ground with copper wires. The kites were 18 miles apart flying from two West Virginia mountaintops.  Loomis made numerous unsubstantiated claims that he had actually used his system for long-distance wireless communication, at first telegraphic, and later by wireless telephone for doing "all his talking with his assistant, 20 miles away, by a telephone, the connection being aerial only."

Patent No. 129,971, dated July 30, 1872, issued to Mahlon Loomis has often been said to be the first to describe an aerial wireless telegraph system.  While some have pointed to Loomis as one of the original "inventors" of radio, his claims are pretty weak. Loomis had not identified the names of independent witnesses to his claims of wireless communications, and his patent contains no schematic diagram of how to build it.

Supreme Court Ruling overturns Marconi patents

The invention of radio seems like it should have been a simple idea, but discussing the concept of radio stirs up some of the most fascination and complex debates over the history of technology. One such debate is over the meaning of the 1943 United States Supreme Court case of Marconi Wireless versus the United States.

Supporters of Nikola Tesla point to the 1943 ruling by the US Supreme Court as "proof" that Tesla should be called the father of radio because Marconi lost the patents to radio. As far as the decision proclaiming Nikola Tesla the inventor of radio, the following two sentences are from the remarks of Mr. Chief Justice Stone in delivering the opinion of the Court are pretty clear.

"Marconi's reputation as the man who first achieved successful radio transmission rests on his original patent, which became reissue No. 11,913, and which is not here in question. That reputation, however well-deserved, does not entitle him to a patent for every later improvement which he claims in the radio field." ... Chief Justice Stone

The Supreme Court declared various Marconi patents invalid, it affirmed prior work and patents by not only Nikola Tesla, but also patents that were held by Sir Oliver Lodge and John Stone Stone. The Tesla argument sounds good on the surface, until you read the court ruling. The syllabus at the beginning of the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision provides a summary of the ruling. You really have to dig into the decision to find references to Tesla.

Sir Oliver Lodge and John Stone Stone

I have often said that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.  The question of "who invented radio" is definitely an example of that thought. After hearing various claims by Tesla fanboys that the 1943 ruling on the Marconi patent proved that Marconi stole his ideas from Tesla, I took the time to read up on the decision. I found two more names that needed to be added to the list of who invented radio, John Stone Stone and Sir Oliver Lodge.

Sir Oliver Lodge demonstrated an early radio wave detector he named the "coherer."  The "coherer" is a component used in early radio receivers as a radio signal detector, and was also mentioned by J.C Bose as something Marconi "borrowed" from other inventors. 

John Stone Stone is a forgotten geek who was an avid inventor in the fields of radio and telephone.  John Stone Stone had over 100 patents in the United States covering telegraph and telephone devices and radio technology.  The 1943 Supreme Court ruling that overturned many Marconi patents was in regards to Stone's 1900 tuning patent having  priority over a similar patent by Marconi. Sadly, the decision came down shortly after Stone's death.

I don't take the patents as the ultimate proof of an invention, but they do serve the purpose of putting a time and date stamp on various accomplishments.

So who invented radio?

The technology of radio is the result of a very long evolution over a period of many years.

The origins of radio can be traced to the theories of Michael Faraday in the 1830s and James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s. Heinrich Rudolf Hertz studied Maxwell's theory and conducted scientific experiments proving the existence of radio waves in the 1880s.  The inventors that followed, Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, Oliver Lodge, and John Stone Stone, all made contributions along the way.

When asked who is the father of radio there can be only one answer, "It's complicated."