The First Electronic Church of America
(This piece first appeared in the Winter
1994 issue of MusiCaliformula magazine
and is reprinted with the permission of Califormula Broadcasting)
If this was 1894 instead of 1994, there would be no radio, no FM stations broadcasting your favorite music, no cellular and no cordless phones, no microwave ovens, no radar, no television, no beepers - none of the common things that depend on radio signals to make them work.
In 1894 no one had heard of "radio" although there were some scientists around the world who worked in strange, mysterious laboratories where they made sparks of lightening jump from one side of the room to the other. They noticed strange things: the sparks would make their hair stand on end even though they were several feet from the sparks. Long before then people had noticed the same effects during thunderstorms. What was the strange power that traveled through the air from the great sparks of electricity?
In 1886 the German physicist Heinrich Hertz became the first person to tame these sparks and turn them into controlled "waves" of electrical energy that traveled invisibly through the air. Today, the frequency of a radio station is determined by how many times per second it sends out a wave of energy.
Each one of these cycles of energy is called a "Hertz." For instance, radio station Jammin Z-90 in San Diego, California broadcasts at 90.3 million Hertz per second (megahertz), or as it's often abbreviated "90.3 mHz"
Mr. Hertz knew how to produce radio waves but he didn't use them to send information, not even such basic information as the dots and dashes of Morse Code. But, in the summer of 1894, a young Italian on vacation in the mountains picked up a technical magazine and read Hertz' story about electrical waves. An idea came to him: if these electrical waves were more powerful and better controlled then it would be possible to use them to send signals across space for a considerable distance! Guglielmo Marconi was so excited by this idea that he cut short his vacation and rushed home to begin assembling the kinds of equipment Hertz had used to produce electrical waves.
Several months before Marconi began his experiments, a Russian scientist was experimenting with ways to detect thunderstorms in advance. Was there a way to detect the storm's electrical energy when it was far away? In coming up with an answer to that question, Alexander Popoff (also spelled "Popov") invented what was in effect a radio receiver. From there he proceeded to put together the world's first system for sending and receiving wireless electronic communications.
In early 1895, Popoff sent and received a "wireless" signal across 600 yards. Marconi, who knew nothing of Popoff's work, soon achieved the same kinds of results. Radio was born.
Marconi gets most of the credit for "inventing radio," because much of Popoff's work was for the Russian military and radio communications was such a revolutionary process that the Russians didn't want to share its obvious advantages with the rest of the world.
By 1906 the air waves became busy with the clicking sound of coded messages being sent between the ever-growing network of radio stations on land and at sea. But on Christmas Eve 1906 something different came through the earphones of radio operators from New England to the Gulf of Mexico: voices. For the first time ever, music and voice had been broadcast over the radio thanks to the developments of Canadian-born Reginald Fessenden.
Even though radio stations now had the ability to transmit music and voice, there were no stations broadcasting entertainment programming.
In 1916, David Sarnoff, who had started at the Marconi company as a teenager, suggested development of what he called the "Radio Music Box System." Instead of the complicated radio receiving apparatus then is use, Sarnoff recommended putting the equipment in an attractive box for sale to people who would listen to a new type of radio broadcast featuring concerts, lectures, sports events and other entertainment.
Sarnoff predicted his idea would generate $75 million in sales within three years. When World War One ended, the Radio Corporation of America was founded, and in its first three years of selling Radio Music Boxes, it sold $83 million worth. Sarnoff went on the become the head of RCA and what is now the NBC Network.
Sarnoff was brilliant but ruthless. He tried to kill the development of FM radio. There's no doubt that FM radio is much better than AM radio, but by the 1930's Sarnoff's RCA and its affiliates owned thousands of AM radio stations and had sold millions of radio receivers that could not use the new, superior Frequency Modulation system invented by Edwin Armstrong.
Armstrong's battles to promote FM radio nearly killed his spirit, but in 1994 we have to be grateful for his perseverance. Listen to your favorite music on an AM radio and then on an FM stereo radio. Thank Armstrong for the difference.
As FM radio very slowly began to emerge in the 1940's, other visionaries were looking to take radio beyond Earth, to the heavens.
In a 1946 magazine article, British radio expert Arthur C. Clarke proposed bouncing radio waves off of space stations. It sounded like science fiction! In 1946 there was no way to get anything into outer space, let alone a radio station .
Clarke proposed putting these space stations in orbit 22,300 miles above the earth. That way the station would orbit at the same speed as the Earth and thus stay above the same spot on the Earth's surface and be available as radio relay station. Radio stations were already using relay stations on mountain tops in order to help them broadcast for longer distances.
The first successful radio relay station in space was the Syncom II built by the electronics and aviation company put together by Howard Hughes. It was launched into space in 1965.
Humans have inhabited the Earth for well over 100,000 years, but it's only for less than 100 of those years that they have truly been able to communicate with each other on a worldwide basis.
Because of that, people for the first time ever are beginning to learn about cultures others than their own, about the trials and tribulations of other peoples, about their joys and triumphs.
The electronic era has brought us better communications. Let us continue to learn to use it for better understanding.