A History of Radio Communication
In the late 19th-century, German physicist Heinrich Hertz proved that energy could be transmitted by electromagnetic waves. Creating a simple dipole antenna, Hertz produced the first radio waves, sending a signal back and forth between the device's twin poles.
At the time, Hertz saw little practical use to his discovery, although, as we know it today, his scientific invention and observations would lay the groundwork for a telecommunications revolution that would forever change the course of human history.
Flashing forward several years to 1894, the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, working out of his parent’s attic, began experimenting with “Hertzian waves”–later to be known as radio waves. Up until that point, Hertz’s discovery was mainly considered a scientific curiosity. Marconi, however, paved the way for modern radio communication by designing a contrivance that allowed radio waves to pass from one end of his attic room to the other.
Much to the amazement of his mother, Marconi was able to transmit an electromagnetic signal across a distance. His device (pictured on the left) transmitted radio waves, ringing a bell on the other side of the room with the push of a telegraphic button.
Marconi developed a monopole antenna, whose height enabled a maximization of power in horizontal directions. Initially, when Marconi demonstrated his monopole radio antenna to the British government, he was able to transmit radio waves up to 6 kilometers–a major feat at the turn of the century.
As the technology and infrastructure advanced, Marconi began to transmit messages from the British coastline to ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Marconi Co. would eventually rise to national prominence during the Titanic sinking on April 15th, 1912.
Notably, although the RMS Titanic was operated by the White Star Line, the vessel’s radio operators were employed by the recently formed Marconi International Marine Communication Company. When the infamous ocean liner sank into the Atlantic, 700 passengers were rescued by the RMS Carpathia thanks to an SOS radio signal sent by Marconi’s company. From that moment forward, radio communication and maritime travel were forever intertwined.
Radio Communications Comes of Age
In the intervening years, radio technology advanced exponentially. From communicating with ships, better infrastructure enabled the widespread use of radios from the battlefields to serving as a tool for law enforcement.
In the early days, police relied on call booths, private boxes that officers and other “reputable citizens” could access with a key. Inside these “call booths” was a telegraph in the shape of a clock that the police could direct to one of eleven specific crimes–arson, drunkards, and forgers among them. A message would then be delivered to headquarters, alerting other officers of a crime in progress.
Mobile radios preceded portable two-way radios: the Detroit Police Department utilized the first “on-air” voice communication in 1928. Problematically, however, only one vehicle was outfitted with a mobile radio, and it was one-way communication. Officers in the field still relied on call booths to talk to headquarters.
The development of portable two-way radios, as distinct from mobile radios, owes a huge debt to Donald Lewis Hings, a name largely forgotten from history. Hings was the first to create a portable two-way radio, called a “Walkie-Talkie,” in 1938.
Hings’ invention would save countless lives on the battlefield in WWII, allowing commanders in the European theatre to transmit messages to platoons at the push of a button.
The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. Two-way radio communication became the standard for innumerable industries, organizations, and institutions in the postwar period.
Soon after the two-way portable radio communications became a reality, the idea of a voice signal unencumbered by the confines of proximity, a communication device that could travel across international borders, was soon to follow.
Bell Laboratories began working on the first “cell phone” as early as 1947. Martin Cooper, a pioneer in radio spectrum management, is largely credited with inventing the first cell phone in 1973.
Cooper worked at Motorola in the late 1970s, and by 1983 his efforts in cellular technology would come to fruition with the introduction of the first cell phone for commercial use.
While known for his cell phones, Cooper’s most important insight may very well have been Cooper’s Law, which states that the number of voice and data transactions in a radio spectrum doubles roughly every 30 months.
Martin Cooper was surrounded by his invention.
Today’s smartphones serve as proof positive to Cooper’s Law: our ability to communicate over vast geographical distances, and our continual increase in the radio spectrum, or for you young’uns, network capacity, expands every day. From 1G to 5G, it’s remarkable that most of us in the first-world walk around every day with computers in our pockets.
At the same time, and call me old-fashioned, but there’s still something great about your basic analog walkie-talkie. Great for communicating with you and your buds on a hunting trip, the perfect technology for a kid’s sleepover.
We’ve come a long way since Heinrich Hertz demonstrated that electromagnetic waves could travel through the air, but we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. After all, without old Heinrich, your fancy new iPhone 12 would be nothing more than an overpriced paperweight.