When we think of radio, we naturally think of the set that plays your favorite station in the car, or perhaps the kitchen radio at home. But there is much more to radio than the broadcast element. Radio waves are all around us. They are what brings television to your home or other premises.
Radio waves form a small part of the ‘electromagnetic spectrum.’ All elements of the EM spectrum travel in waves. Different wavelengths and frequencies – that is, the actual size of the wave and the number of times they pass a given point in a set time – allow for different types of elements.
For example, the EM spectrum includes not only radio waves but also UV light, Infrared light, and visible light, among others.
But we don’t want to get too deep into the EM spectrum here. We’re going to answer the question that forms the title: is radio technology obsolete? Many commentators have proposed that in the digital age – that of the Internet and World Wide Web – radio is no longer necessary. They couldn’t be further from the truth!
Let’s begin with a brief look at how and where radio was first discovered. Invented would be the wrong word as radio waves have always existed. The origins are quite complex, so we’ll try and keep it simple.
How and Where Radio Began
The radio invention timeline begins a long way before Guglielmo Marconi’s famous first use of radio as a communications medium. It perhaps begins solidly with the discovery of – or rather understanding of – electromagnetic waves by Heinrich Hertz, whose name is remembered as it used as the SI unit of frequency. Hertz didn’t take research into what would become radio much further.
Marconi did. In the 1890s, Marconi built equipment that was intended for sending radio waves as communication. In October 1897, he successfully transmitted radio waves a distance of 34 miles.
There were others working in the field; Nikolai Tesla was famously obsessed with wireless power transmission, and his work crossed into radio. Russian Aleksandra Popov was also experimenting with radio at the same time as Marconi.
The ‘invention’ of the radio is therefore contested, but there is no doubt it stems from Hertz’s understanding of electromagnetic waves. We haven’t room to mention others who were working in the field, and we need to move ahead to see how radio technology develops in the next few decades.
Commercial Radio Begins Broadcasting
Up until the early part of the 20th-century, radio was still seen as a form of communication. Widespread broadcasts were part of Marconi’s dream, but it was one-to-one broadcast that the early radio inventions were aimed at. By 1900 Marconi – and others – had demonstrated the possibility of radio with ever-increasing distances covered.
In 1910 an event took place that would change the way radio was viewed. A prolific inventor by the name of Lee de Forest was enthusiastic about his radio equipment.
On January 13th of that year, de Forest arranged for a performance by the New York Metropolitan Opera Company to be broadcast from the Opera House to his laboratory. It was a success. This is credited as the first public radio broadcast.
In theory, anyone with a receiver on the same frequency could pick it up in a reasonable range; but there were very few such devices. It would not take long for the radio landscape to change.
Radio Communications and Shortwave
By the 1930s, radio stations were springing up everywhere. As early as 1920, a station was known as 8MK broadcast a news program on August 31st.
This is regarded as the first commercial news broadcast and set the scene for what was to come. In fact, 8MK also laid the foundations for the massive CBS network and still exists today under a different name.
While broadcast radio was finding its feet and becoming ever-more important to the lives of everyday people – the ‘wireless’ was a feature of many homes by the 1930s, and these were important in keeping up with the news during the Second World War – something else was becoming important; shortwave radio.
The uses of shortwave radio in its early days remain similar to those today: it is used by the military, widely in aviation and marine communications, by emergency services, and by many thousands of amateur radio enthusiasts worldwide. Why was – and is – shortwave so important?
Marconi had experimented with wavelengths and was looking for a method of broadcasting very long distances – to the other side of the world. He found that when transmitting between stations on shortwave, he came upon ‘dead spots.’ However, he did manage many long-distance transmissions.
Other scientists had noticed something odd. An Englishman by the name of Edward Appleton proved that shortwave radio waves were ‘bounced back to earth by the highly charged layer of the atmosphere called the ionosphere.
This was a major breakthrough: by directing waves up and across, they would be bounced back at an angle. Repeat this process, and with the right power of the transmitter, one can reach anywhere in the world.
This is why radio – and specifically shortwave radio – is still in demand today. There are broadband black spots where the Internet cannot reach.
There are places so remote that there is zero option other than shortwave radio for keeping in touch with the world. So, no, radio technology is far from obsolete, and we’ll finish with a few more examples of where it is widely used today.
Expansion of RF Technology
The other uses of RF technology that are in frequent use today – in fact, are ubiquitous – you may find in your wallet or purse. When you pay with a contactless card, for example, you are using radiofrequency technology to transmit the transaction.
Even your home broadband connection uses radiofrequency technology to get from the router to your device. The digital age may have introduced us to highly efficient and effective methods of communication, but for those who do not have access, radio is still very much a lifeline.