National Radio Day

20 August marks National Radio Day, a celebration on the calendar since the early 1990s. Its organizers enjoin us to savour to the full this overlooked everyday miracle of science.

Many readers of this blog will have their favourite programme(s). I certainly do; I wake up every morning to the strains of the BBC’s Radio Three. I have it tuned to 91.5 MHz (megahertz) on FM, which, stands for ‘frequency modulation’ and gives superior sound to AM (amplitude modulation).

‘Radio Ga Ga’

I call it a ‘scientific miracle’ advisedly. Just imagine, wherever you are, you hear the announcer saying words into a microphone – in London, Washington, Kabul, etc. – that are transmitted to your radio with – all being well – perfect clarity. 

How on earth does radio, with its power to enhance our lives, happen?

It’s a classic example of scientific steps in different countries and at different times leading snailwise to a game-changing invention. To receive those tones, dulcet or otherwise, we need a transmitter with an antenna, a receiver with an antenna, electromagnetic waves and ‘information’ carried along those waves.

First up in our story of scientific discovery is the short-lived German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857–1894), who proved the existence of the electromagnetic radio waves predicted by that Scots scientific genius James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879).

Those ‘waves’ explain why people might talk of long-wave (LW), medium-wave (MW) and short-wave (SW) wavelengths in the radio spectrum. Some radio stations still broadcast via long wave, which means they use waves over 1,000 metres in length. In fact, radio waves range from one millimetre in length to 30,000 metres, aka 300 kilometres.

The unit used to measure radio frequencies, the hertz, abbreviated Hz, is of course an eponym to honour the said Hertz. And talking of miracles, the 91.5 megahertz my radio is tuned to denotes a frequency of 91,500,000 cycles per second, ‘mega’ denoting 106 of the relevant unit, just as in megabytes in computing.

If radio waves are hertz, why aren’t radios Marconis?

Next in our story appears the aristocratic Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937). Home-schooled throughout childhood, he early developed an interest in electricity. Though many scientists were investigating the properties of electromagnetic radio waves, it was Marconi who (fore)saw their commercial and military potential. Building on the experience of telegraphy, which transmitted messages by means of electrical currents along wires, Marconi was determined to find a wireless telegraphy method of achieving the same result, which he eventually managed in 1895.

The technique was later known as radiotelegraphy, and our modern word radio is an abbreviation. Scroll down to the foot of the online Collins entries and you will hear that the word ‘radio’, with slight variants thereof, is the name in every European language listed, not to mention Arabic, Korean, and Japanese, where the letter r becomes an l. The three characters used in Chinese 无线电 are literally ‘without-wires-electricity’.

And for a long time, the word wireless was also used in Britain for the radio apparatus, but is now, as the hyperlinked dictionary entry shows, old-fashioned. The wireless we speak of nowadays usually refers to things like a wireless connection to the internet, text messaging or satnav.

It is to Marconi that we also owe the use of antenna (1902) for an aerial. Before then, antenna had been limited to zoology.

‘I heard it on my radio’

In 1912 distress signals were transmitted from the Titanic by radio operators, who were Marconi’s employees, and picked up by radio operators on the Carpathia. This liner was 58 nautical miles (107 km) away from the Titanic when the distress call was picked up and promptly headed at full speed to the aid of the stricken liner. Arriving three hours later, the Carpathia’s crew were able to rescue 705 Titanic passengers. The British Postmaster-General stated that ‘those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi … and his marvellous invention.’

Although amateur radio hams had already been privately transmitting music, it was only on 15 June 1920 that there was a British advertised public broadcast, featuring the robust-lunged Dame Nellie Melba (she, eponymously, of the peach Melba). This was from the Marconi company’s headquarters in Chelmsford. Two years later, a consortium, the British Broadcasting Company Ltd, was formed, under the ultra-puritan chairmanship of John (later Lord) Reith, to whom we owe the threefold BBC mission statement, still incorporated in its renewable charter: “…through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.”

‘On the radio’

In the United States, a broadcast from the Met(ropolitan Opera House) has been claimed as the earliest public broadcast, in January 1910. However, it was in the 1920s that radio broadcasting really took off in the U.S. In contrast to Britain, where the BBC has been a public corporation since 1927, NPR, National Public Radio, was incorporated in 1970.

As for the verb to broadcast (1921 in its modern sense), it was not invented for the sake of radio. It originally referred to the agricultural practice of scattering seed over the whole planting surface rather than planting in neat rows or drills. In a case of nouning, it became a noun the following year.

As I retune my radio to the right FM frequency, which will be assigned a given bandwidth, I am reminded of a metaphor we owe to radio: a friend and fellow writer was recently told by his agent that she didn’t have ‘the bandwidth’ to deal with his latest book. It proved a useful metaphor in this case, because it enabled her to be unclear whether she meant beyond the scope of her time or her knowledge.

Anyway, dear radio, in the immortal words of Queen: ‘someone still loves you.’ And I’m sure I’m not alone.

By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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