1922: The Disruptive Technology Of Radio

This is a wonderful article that is still relevant today:

1) It was the beginning of a disruptive technology

2) Patents were an issue

3) Today we essentially use radio instead of wired telephones

4) It showed that mutual cooperation over single-minded competition is better for everyone, especially for business

5) It deliberately made room for radio “hackers”

6) Innovation being produced by the “young” was noted then, as it is today

7) Radio was cited for its educational possibilities, shades of iTunes U

8) “Freemium” is not a new idea (see Blank Theater Orchestra and newspapers)

9) The timeliness of radio mirrors today’s Internet/Twitter

10) It predicts Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats

11) It predicts people will hate radio ads

12) There were few trolls back then

This post, minus this preface and the original page images — but with the illustrations — is available as an ePub eBook at Google Docs for those who wish to read it on a tablet or store for later.

From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:

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This Magic Called Radio

What will it mean in your home in the next ten years?

by Bruce Barton

It was very quiet that Sunday night. … As I stood on the roof of the big building of the Westinghouse Company in Newark, New Jersey, it seemed that the stars were twinkling a bit too innocently; that the sky, which looked as guileless as a baby’s eyes, was concealing a secret which it could tell if it would.

It was as if the Universe by its very silence were saying, “Examine me closely, sir; see that I have nothing up my sleeve; things are no different in the air to-night than they have been since the creation.”

I knew, of course, that it was not true; that somehow, somewhere in the great expanse between the roofs of the city and the stars, mad spirits were at work. And that men and women in thousands of homes were making preparations for a mysterious festival.

At that very hour, a gray-haired woman, in a little house up the Hudson, sat at her desk and, reaching across to a wooden cabinet, turned a round black knob. … In Pittsburgh, the rector of a fashionable church stepped up to the pulpit and touched an electric switch. … In a certain Western city a man excitedly pressed a telephone receiver to his ear. … In a far-off camp in northern Ontario a group of lumbermen’s wives crowded eagerly, almost fearfully, around a table on which was a queer-looking square box. . . . Human atoms, separated by hundreds of miles, yet acting at that hour as if some invisible bond united them with a common expectation. What seeming madness!

Down-stairs in the big building, one found a scene even more strange. At the end of a long room with whitewashed walls, twelve members of the orchestra of a Broadway theatre sat around a grand piano tuning their instruments. The principal actors and actresses of Ed Wynn’s show, “The Perfect Fool,” were gathered in little groups chatting aimlessly. There was the murmur and bustle of suppressed excitement. As the hands of the clock traveled on toward eight, a sudden hush fell on the company. We had been warned: we sat still in our chairs, watching a young man in shirt sleeves who stood facing that round white disk.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, addressing not us but a cylindrical object hanging in front of him, “this is an important occasion. For the first time in human history, an entire theatrical performance is to be sent out by radio through the air. There are perhaps fifty thousand machines within receiving distance of this broadcasting station. If we may assume five listeners to each machine, our audience to-night consists of a quarter of a million people. I am glad to introduce the first actor whose performance has ever been listened to by such an audience: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ed Wynn.”

“Can you see me?” shouted Ed Wynn, stepping up to the transmitter. A woman sitting in the back of the room tittered, but the expressionless cylinder made no response. Ed seemed just a trifle taken aback by the silence, but recovered himself at once and went on.

“We’re going to st art with the overture,” he announced; “and if there are any invalids listening in, I hope they will go away from the machines; because, after that, the jokes begin.”

The orchestra played for ten minutes and stopped. Again Ed stepped forward and began the long comical dialogue which for weeks had been convulsing his audiences at the theatre. It was hard going. There was no background of scenery, no colored lights, no pretty girls, no fat. men rocking ‘with laughter in the first row — none of the encouragements that are so necessary to the actor’s success. Yet Ed forged courageously ahead; while we, who had been warned that any sound from us would also be picked up and sent broadcast, tried by our smiles to do what we could to help him get his stuff across.

“That’s an awful thing to pull fun out of!” he exclaimed when the first scene ended.

Yet he managed to squeeze a good amount of fun into it, none the less. Several hundred persons from various parts of the United States and Canada wrote him the next day that they had listened to his jokes and songs, and had been royally entertained. Listened in their own homes, in cities and towns and even remote farmhouses as far west as Nebraska and as far south as Cuba!

I slipped out after a while and made my way up-stairs to the sending-room at the top of the building, where with the aid of various complicated and expensive-looking machinery the “stuff” was “going out.” The door was open onto the roof and I looked up again at the stars, thinking how strange a medley of music and words, of fact and jest and friendly talk, was whirling through the ether that night.

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I thought of the little lady up the Hudson. The rector of the fashionable church in Pittsburgh is her son; and every Sunday evening in her front parlor she sits beside that uncanny cabinet and turns the knob until the receiver vibrates with the signing of a far-away choir, and with the sound of his voice — her boy. I thought of the man in the Western city, Ed Wynn’s father-in-law, who never has seen Ed on the stage. What were his feelings, I wondered, as out of the night air came to his ears Ed’s jokes and laughter and songs. My thought was interrupted by a voice from the sending-room; the operator had connected the “loud talker,” the little device by which the sound is magnified so that it can be heard easily throughout a room. One of the comedians down-stairs was speaking:

Comedian: Are you Mr. Wynn?
Ed: Yes, have been for years.
Comedian: Well, I want a job with your show.
Ed: What can you do?
Comedian: I imitate a canary.
Ed (with surprise): Purposely?

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It was hard to remember that more than a hundred thousand people were listening in one this jesting; still harder to realize that through the same either were traveling solemn words like these:

The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.

“Rock of Ages” and Ed Wynn’s song hit, “A Doll House,” flying together through space! And many of the receiving machines so tuned that by a simple turn of the knob one might choose whether he should have jazz or a hymn, a slap-stick jest or a prayer! I thought of the first telegraph message flashed over the Baltimore-Washington line seventy-eight years ago last spring — the pious exclamation of a reverent soul: “What hath God wrought!” And it seemed to me that every program from a broadcasting station might well be prefaced by a modification of that solemn message: “What is God working,” and “What will God work?”

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Radio receiving outfits vary in price from $25 to $200, with a nominal charge for installation. An observer walking through any community can usually pick out the radio homes by the “antennae”; that is to say, the hundred feet of wire stretched over the roof or from some convenient tree or pole near the house; but a census of homes with antennae would be very far from complete. Through a new invention called a “loop antennae,” consisting of a frame which can be hung in a room, or even hidden under the bed, it is possible to receive messages without external wires, provided the circumstances are favorable. Machines have been operated with one wire attached to an ordinary bedspring and the other to the radiator.

The receiving instrument itself consists of a neat cabinet containing certain coils and vacuum tubes, which I do not understand and you do not need to. All that is necessary is to make the proper connections to the antennae and the batteries, and to move the little black knob on the cabinet until it is in tune with the wave lengths which are carrying the message or program you want to receive. The process is a little more complicated than lifting an ordinary telephone receiver off the hook, but considerably less complicated than running an automobile. A child can operate a radio machine — and often does.

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At various central points in the country there are sending, or “broadcasting,” stations from which programs of news, music, entertainment, and instruction go out either daily or two or three times a week. The Eastern territory has more stations than the rest of the country; but there is probably no home in the United States so remote that, with a really good receiving instrument, it cannot hear one or more broadcasting stations.

What such a home receives is almost a liberal education. The science or art of broadcasting is still very new; but already an impressive amount of ingenuity has been expended in keeping the folks at the other end happy and satisfied.

For example, on the Sunday of my visit to Newark there was music at every hour, on the hour. At three o’clock in the afternoon occurred the regular Sunday-afternoon service, with choir singing, prayer, and a sermon by a well-known New York clergyman. Following that, came more music and a talk by a Y. M. C. A. secretary. Then still more music and a ten-minute appeal by the head of an organization seeking funds for European relief. At seven o’clock, Miss Anita Loos, who writes the scenarios for many of Douglas Fairbanks’s feature pictures, talked for fifteen minutes on “How to Write a Scenario.” After her talk there was still more music, and then Ed Wynn.

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On another day, Walter Camp talked on keeping physically fit; Lyman Abbott spoke for fifteen minutes one afternoon on Roosevelt. The fashion editor of one of the big New York papers sends out fashion hints to women listeners at a regular morning hour three times a week; weather reports and market quotations are broadcasted twice daily, so that the farmer in the farthest corner of a nearby state may know at noon, and again at night, just what to expect.

How many homes in the United States are equipped with radio receiving apparatus of some sort, nobody knows. The manufacturers know that they have sold upward of 100,000, but when you add the home-made sets assembled by amateurs you reach a total which may be 500,000 or even 1,000,000, according to the estimates of Mr. Hoover’s department. This much is sure — every manufacturer of receiving sets is behind with his orders. Radio enthusiasm is spreading through the nation like whooping cough through a kindergarten; it has taken the place of prohibition as the foremost topic of dinner-party conversation. Everyone is speculating about the future of the art, and the wildest ideas are abroad in the land as to what radio can and will do.

So it may be worth while, before considering the future of radio, to explain frankly its present limitations. Radio will not wash the dishes, nor project motion pictures onto the dining-room wall. It can sing the baby to sleep — but it won’t rock his cradle. It is useful in keeping Father at home at night — but if Father thinks that it is going to bring up the wood from the cellar, or lock the front door and put the cat out, he would better not buy a receiving machine. In these matters he will be disappointed.

Speaking more seriously, the best way to picture the action of radio is to compare the ether — that strange, unseen, unfelt something which is everywhere — with the surface of a pond. If somewhere in the pond a toy boat is floating and you toss in a stone, the wave which is started by the stone will spread in wider and wider circles until at length it touches and moves the little boat. Of course, it will also move anything else that may be floating on the surface: the direction of your wave cannot be controlled — and that is one of the shortcomings of radio.

Of course, also, if a dozen of your companions throw in stones at the same time there will be a dozen waves crossing and breaking each other and tossing the little boat this way and that. This is a second weakness of radio — that different broadcasting stations, using the same wave length, conflict with one another. On this subject it will be necessary to speak in some detail later.

Your electric wave travels in every direction at once, up and down through the ether, as well as east and west and north and south; and waves from different directions tend to confuse and to counteract each other: these are the first limitations on the effectiveness of radio in its present state of development.

The next difficulty is due to the presence of “static electricity” in the air. Never mind just what static electricity is; I don’t exactly understand it myself. But it is there, and much more so in the hot weather than in the winter months.

Thus, you never can be sure exactly how much power will be required at a broadcasting station to reach a given receiving station. On cold nights, when conditions are favorable, the sending station at Newark has been heard as far west as Spokane. Even amateur stations, using a wave length of 300 meters or thereabouts, have been heard across the ocean, in England (incidentally the waves travel twice as far over water as over land).

Under unfavorable conditions, on the other hand, Newark may have difficulty in being heard just across the river, in New York. Or take another illustration on the Western coast: The telephone company operates a wireless service between Long Beach, California, and Catalina Island, thirty miles off the coast. Under the best conditions, the voice of the operator at the Long Beach station has been heard distinctly in Australia. But when conditions are not good, immense power has to be used to project the messages even across the thirty miles to the island.

Little by little, scientists are finding ways to sift out the static electricity and to minimize its interference with the waves which a machine is tuned to receive. But progress along these lines, while certain, is slow; and our old friend static is likely to be a trouble-maker for some time to come.

It is pretty clear that radio will never take the place of the telephone. A good many wild predictions have been made on this point; and some of the people who have invested their money in telephone bonds — as well as the people who own copper stocks and are, therefore, interested in the continued use of copper wire for the transmission of messages — have been alarmed. But their apprehension seems to be groundless, for a number of reasons:

First, because radio telephone messages never can be secret. They go out in all directions; and anyone with a machine tuned to the proper wave length can hear what you are saying to your partner in New Orleans or your sweetheart in Kenosha.

Second, the cost of a radio sending outfit suitable for effective broadcasting is several thousand dollars.

In the third place, radio will not replace the telephone because it will always be limited by the number of messages that can travel through the ether at any one time.

Every business day more than 63,000,000 telephone calls are made in the United States. In the city of New York 100,000 telephone conversations are traveling over the wires every minute of the business day. With radio, as at present developed, not more than 100 conversations could be carried on in New York City at any one minute, even assuming that the ether was entirely cleared from interference by ships, government stations, and the messages of amateurs. Obviously, no such restricted service will ever supplant the wired telephone service, which is limited only by the number of wires and cables that can be laid under the streets.

Radio will be an adjunct to the telephone and telegraph, therefore, rather than a substitute for it. In messages across the ocean it is already proving its commercial value; and in isolated localities, where wires can be strung only with great difficulty and cost, it will perform a very valuable function. But you, Mr. Businessman, if you have had any thought of putting a broadcasting instrument in each of your branch offices so as to save telegraph tolls, may as well abandon the idea. It would be costly; and at present — and probably always — unsatisfactory.

Having clearly in mind the limitations therefore let us turn the picture around and look at the other side. What is the future of radio? What will it mean in your home and mine?

One might turn to any one of fifty men for an answer to that question; but no man has had a larger, more steadfast vision of the possibilities of radio than Owen D. Young, vice president of the General Electric Company and chairman of the board of directors of the Radio Corporation of America. He saw from the beginning what it might mean to America to take a place of leadership in the development of this great art.

“But you can’t!” said the patent attorneys. “There are scores of patents, each controlling a little part of the radio apparatus. You can’t centralize and guide the progress of radio, because each of these patentees will stand across your path.”

“Then let’s gather them all together,” said Mr. Young. And he did.

His next step was to bring together representatives of the various laboratories in which experimental work was being done, provide an agreement by which they should communicate with one another regarding their experiments, and make available any discovery for the service of all.

With these two important arrangements completed the road to progress was cleared. America was placed in a position to bring all of her resources to bear in the proper competition for international leadership; and in that honorable competition she holds first place to-day.

The next necessary step, as Mr. Young and others realized, was to clear the air of interferences. The number of wave lengths, or paths through the air, is limited. To allow any individual to purchase his own broadcasting machine and to send messages of any wave length, and at any time which he might choose, would be like allowing every man who lives along the New York Central Railroad to own his own handcar and run it up and down the tracks. What chance would the Twentieth Century have to make its schedule under those circumstances? How would the freight traffic ever get through? Obviously, certain regulations are necessary in radio if the air is to be of use to anyone at all.

Accordingly a conference was held in Washington, at the call of Secretary Hoover, to debate the whole situation. Its work is still being carried forward, but in general this is the plan that will prevail:

1. The most vital service of radio is in the protection of life and property at sea. First of all, therefore, a band of wave lengths must be reserved for ship-to-shore communication, and kept forever sacred from trespass by anyone at any time.

2. A certain band of wave lengths — for illustration, say between 200 and 300 meters, will be reserved for amateurs; for it is vital to the progress of the art that the rights of the amateurs should be recognized and protected.

“Most great inventions have been made by men under thirty,” says Mr. Young. “And the constant experiments of these enthusiasts is certain through the years to produce results of very great value to all.”

3. There will be a band of wave lengths reserved for educational purposes. Several Western state universities already have broadcasting stations. Undoubtedly the time is coming when all educational centers will be so equipped, and the little red schoolhouse at the cross-roads can receive the lectures of the greatest teacher of physics, or of history, or of biology in the state, in the lecturer’s own voice.

4. Another band will be set apart for commercial uses. Already the American Telephone and Telegraph Company has erected on top of its building in New York a broadcasting station which may be used by any customer with a legitimate proposition, at rates which will be established and published to all. Here are some of the applications already on file:

One of the principal motion picture theatres in the city wants to have its orchestra play for an hour every night for the entertainment of all radio owners. There will be no advertisement connected with the performance, except the simple statement at the end that this is the orchestra of the Blank Theatre, and the names of the pictures being shown there.

A department store wants to broadcast news of its bargains, at a certain hour in the morning, when women in the suburbs are preparing to leave for town.

The manager of a national magazine had signed contracts with some stars from the Metropolitan Opera House. He proposes that they shall sing for the delight of all who care to listen; and when the performance is concluded he will introduce himself and offer a free radio set to anyone who will send him a certain number of subscriptions for his magazine.

The managers of the political parties have already planned to have their candidates heard by this unseen audience.

Newspapers are prepared to broadcast bulletins. They assume that by giving people a sample of the news in the paper they will excite interest and promote the sale of more copies.

Merchants who have been in the habit of wiring quotations to a long list of customers once or twice a week are figuring that with the radio they can quote prices every day, at no increased cost.

These are only a few of the uses which the ingenuity of business men has already proposed. If this first broadcasting station proves a success, the telephone company will erect similar stations in other cities, joining them all together, and linking them with the telephone system. So that the time may easily come — and soon — when the President of the United States in the White House can sit at his own desk and, talking into an ordinary telephone instrument, be heard by every household in the nation where there is a radio set.

So much for the commercial uses. There must be another band of wave lengths, of course, for the use of the Government; a band for the use of ships at sea; and very probably a band for the police. Imagine what chance of escape a criminal will have when a complete description of him can be carried instantly, by the human voice, into every police station in the country:

Look for a man having a scar under his left ear and one front tooth missing. Five feet five inches tall and walks with a quick, nervous step. Wanted for murder in Paterson, New Jersey.

And half an hour later perhaps La Porte, Indiana, will answer:

Such a man just jumped off a freight train in the yards south of town. We are mailing finger prints to-night and will hold him until we hear from you.

And beyond all these uses there is the great field of radio in international communication. Waves with a length of 16,000 meters or more are used in this work. The amateur with his 200-meter wave does not interfere at all with the high-power sending station, nor do its sendings register on his little machine. The nations have already held conferences to arrange an equitable division of these long wave lengths among themselves, and more conferences will be held. Ultimately each nation will have its fair proportion, and a fair number of hours during the day or night when its message may be sure of getting across the oceans without interference.

So we may begin to picture for ourselves what radio will mean in our homes in the years to come. We shall all have receiving sets — there is little doubt of that. We shall come down in the morning to hear the newspaper headlines read while we eat. A little later, perhaps, a department store will have bargains of interest to announce — sugar-coating the advertisement with some good entertainment, so that we will not be tempted to turn our machines off. After that, the ladies may have a university extension lecture. At lunch time, the chef of a famous hotel may suggest a tasty and economical menu. In the afternoon there may be a matinée; and at six or seven, when the boys and girls have had their supper and are ready for bed, someone like Thornton Burgess may lift the transmitter in his home and broadcast a Bed-Time Story to a million youngsters all over the land.

At present there must be a difference of at least ten per cent between the wave lengths of two nearby stations. If one, for example, is using a wave length of 360 meters, the other must use 400 meters or more, or there will be interference. But it is entirely conceivable that our instruments may some day be refined so that a difference of only one or two meters will be necessary — thus vastly increasing the number of wave lengths available and the number of messages that can be broadcasted at once. Improvement in this direction is already taking place, together with a slow but gradual advance in the control of static electricity.

Radio is here to stay; and the best proof of that fact is not the arguments of the scientists. It is found in the letters that come pouring into the broadcasting stations from men and women all over the nation — lonely men and women, many of them, far off in the remote corners of the land. Read this letter, for example, and then ask yourself whether an art that means so much to human happiness, can possibly be merely a fad:

I am located in the Temagami Forest Reserve, seven miles from the end of steel in northern Ontario. I have no idea how far I am from Newark, N. J., but anyway you come in here swell, just like right in the room with you folks over there, and your operator is an old friend of ours — we know his voice so well.

Last week I took the set back into the bush about twenty miles to a new camp — all mineralized rock for miles, gold and silver mines all through the country — and after scratching around for some soft place for a ground wire, I discovered a place where I could drive an iron pipe in between two huge boulders. Got it down about three feet, and then threw a wire over a tree.

Just as I thought — in you come, and the miners’ wives tore the head-‘phones apart trying to all listen in at once.

I stepped outside the shack for a while, while they were listening to you inside. It was a cold, clear, bright night, stars and moon hanging like jewels from the sky; five feet of snow; forty-two below zero; not a sound but the trees snapping in the frost; and yet if everybody only knew it — the air was full of sweet music.

I remember the time when to be out here was to be out of the world — isolation complete, not a soul to hear or see for months on end; six months of snow and ice, fighting back a frozen death with an ax and stove wood, in a seemingly never-ending battle.

But the long nights are long no longer — you are right here in the shack shortly after sundown, and you come in so plain that the dog used to bark at you, even though I had the head-‘phones clamped tight on my head. He does not bark any more — he knows you, the same as I do, just pricks up his ears at first, then sits blinking at the bulbs and listens.

Long life and prosperity to you, my good old friend.

Three things impressed me very greatly in gathering the facts on which this article is based. First, that radio, the newest art, has proved again one of the oldest truths in the world: that the great majority of human beings are decent, generous, and eager to do the right thing. It is very easy to make trouble in the air. One boorish or selfish radio owner, disregarding the rights and comfort of his fellows, can interrupt a church service in which twenty thousand homes are joined in worship. He can project his unpleasant presence into the midst of a theatrical performance and, wholly unseen and perhaps secure from detection, break up the show.

Yet it isn’t done! On the contrary, while I was at Newark, I heard the operator call two nearby broadcasting stations on the telephone and ask them to stop their programs in order that Ed Wynn might have free right of way through the air. And the request was granted with a hearty good will.

Generally speaking, the average human being is a pretty decent fellow. The preachers who talk to unseen audiences from the broadcasting stations discover that. One of them mentioned casually the fact that copies of his sermon in pamphlet form might be secured by any who cared to write; he was overwhelmed with hundreds of letters. And on the Monday following every Sunday service the mail brings letters with checks and bills. Even an audience to whom the plate cannot be passed insists on contributing!

The second impressive fact which radio illustrates is the folly of ever saying, in this world of infinite ingenuity and brains, “It can’t be done.” Every step in the progress of radio has been a little delayed by the wise old prophets of gloom who stood on the side lines and shook their heads. Yet the steps have been taken. And men who are in a position to look furthest ahead know that only a beginning has been made.

Finally, this fact must impress anyone who studies the history of radio: much of the progress has come from the individual efforts of inventors, but a very great deal of it has grown out of the organized research carried on in the laboratories of such great corporations as the General Electric, the American Telephone, the Westinghouse, the Western Electric, and others.

The General Electric Company, for example, spends more than a million dollars a year on laboratories which are not concerned at all with immediate profits. The scientists in these laboratories are not expected to concern themselves with things as they are; they are encouraged to think, to dream, to ask themselves continually: “What is the next step? What is going to happen one year or five years or ten years from now? And what will be the effect of such future developments on the future business and profits of this company?” In a word, the companies that are greatest in this country have attained and hold that position because they make a systematic business of looking ahead.

All of which leads naturally to this last little personal question: How many people have a department of dreams, in their own minds? A research laboratory where the results that they expect to bring to pass, ten years from now, are being dreamed out and planned out to-day?

* * *

Original page images, click to enlarge:

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  1. Pingback: thanks to @mikecane « womyn making waves

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