From Radio to Television: The History of Electronic Communication

From the Lecture Series: Experiencing America — A Smithsonian Tour through American History

By Richard Kurin, Ph.D., The Smithsonian

In 1900, the invention of the radio was patented allowing news and music to be broadcast to many people simultaneously.  It wasn’t long before inventors figured out how to include picture with the audio and soon the television was born. By 1955, television had made its way into the living rooms of half of the American population.

American family watching TV, 1958
(Image: Evert F. Baumgardner/National Archives and Records Administration)

A New Invention in Communications

Guglielmo Marconi
Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio in 1900 (Image: Pach Brothers/United States Library of Congress)

In 1895, the Italian inventor Marconi became the first person to “cut the cord” of electronic communications, sending wireless signals across the Italian countryside. In 1900 he patented this invention, calling it tuned, or syntonic, telegraphy. We simply call it the radio.

Radio broke new ground for the country. The telegraph had sped up the spread of information from a few days or weeks or months to a few hours. Reporters could receive the news, write it up, send it to print in a newspaper, and people would read about it, perhaps, half a day later. Now, people all over the United States could hear the same news broadcast at the same time, and not only news, music and radio shows as well. Suddenly, we had a medium to develop a nation-wide culture. Radio was, therefore, the most powerful medium yet invented for spreading information and shaping public opinion.

This is a transcript from the video series Experiencing America — A Smithsonian Tour through American History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Presidential Arena

The first U.S. president to take advantage of this, or, I should say, to try to take advantage of this, was Herbert Hoover. Unfortunately, Hoover was not cut out for radio. His speaking style was condescending and stilted. He came across to listeners as a distant and impersonal leader; the inferior quality of broadcast radio and radio reception did not help. He used the medium poorly, and, therefore, rarely.

photo of President Roosevelt giving one of his fireside chats
President Roosevelt giving one of his fireside chats (Image: Harris & Ewing/Public domain)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt fared much, much better. On the evening of Sunday, March 12, 1933, only eight days after his swearing in as the 32nd president of the United States, he took to the airwaves for the first time. The nation was in the throes of its worst economic depression in history. Unemployment was at about 25 percent. Industrial production was down by about a third from pre-crash levels. The banking system was collapsing. No president, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, ever entered the White House facing such a severe crisis.

Roosevelt had to speak to his fellow citizens and reassure the nation. Radio was the means to do this. That broadcast was the first of 31 informal “Fireside Chat” radio addresses that Roosevelt would deliver through a bevy of microphones from different stations and networks to an audience of millions of Americans brought together by the radio. A radioman had the idea of calling them fireside chats, which Roosevelt approved, feeling they captured the informality, and even more the intimacy, of what he thought to convey.

Roosevelt opened the first of these chats with the words, “My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking,” and it was, for the most part, a quite technical economic talk. But then he noted that to solve the crisis something more important than gold, was needed, and that was the confidence of the people themselves. Here’s a particularly powerful excerpt of that historical talk:

Learn more about inventions that radically transformed how people communicate

“Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

Listening to broadcasts such as this one, many Americans felt as if the president were speaking to them personally. One wrote, “last evening as I listened to the President’s broadcast I felt that he walked into my home, sat down and in plain and forceful language explained to me how he was tackling the job.”

photo of microphone used by President Roosevelt
President Roosevelt’s “fireside chat” microphone is part of the Smithsonian collection (Image: Photo: Hugh Talman/ Smithsonian)

The microphone Roosevelt used to deliver his fireside chats is now part of the collection at the National Museum of American History. This particular microphone is special, because it recalls a watershed moment in American politics, a moment that personalized the presidency for a vast number of Americans. It is estimated that by the time of his last address, some two-thirds of American households had listened to Roosevelt’s voice. As family members gathered around a radio in a living room or kitchen and turned a dial, they literally invited the president into their homes.

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Television Makes Its Debut

A few years later, Roosevelt became the first sitting president to appear on another new technology that would revolutionize communications. The occasioning was the opening ceremony of the 1939 World’s Fair. Roosevelt delivered a speech to about 200,000 fair attendees. That speech was also transmitted by RCA to the very few people who owned a TRK-12, the newest television. RCA showcased the TRK-12 at the World’s Fair, displaying it in what they called “the living room of the future.” They could not have been more prescient!

photo of RCA's TRK-12 television for the history of electronic communication article
RCA’s TRK-12 came with a high ticket price of $600 (Image: Col. Frank E. Mason/Smithsonian Archives)

The TRK-12 was developed for very limited commercial service in the New York area. Its experimental nature and high price, about $600, made it a very expensive and exclusive product. Still, RCA began broadcasting some programs, and on May 17 televised a baseball game for the very first time. It was a college match between Princeton and Columbia, viewed through a single camera, but it was a start. Over the next two years, RCA sold about 7,000 television sets, mainly in New York and Los Angeles. Broadcasts were crude and audiences were tiny, even after RCA’s competition, the Columbia Broadcasting System, or CBS, began two 15-minute daily newscasts. These news shows featured hard-to-discern commentators running pointers over impossible-to-decipher maps.

Television had been a dream of many inventors and engineers in the closing decades of the 19th century, and the invention of movies, telephone, and radio seemed to put it all within reach. As with so many inventions, it took a number of advances by inventors and engineers in many countries, in this case, Germany, Russia, Japan, Scotland and Hungary, to make the technology practical and economically viable.

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The Brains and Business Savvy Behind Television

Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of modern television
Philo T. Farnsworth (Image: Harris & Ewing/Public domain)

But the first true working television was essentially the work of two inventors and one savvy businessman. Philo Taylor Farnsworth, an American inventor, developed a method for scanning images with a beam of electrons and transmitting them with what he called an image dissector, essentially, a primitive television camera; he did this in 1927. In 1931, RCA head, David Sarnoff, hired a Russian immigrant named Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin was a former Westinghouse employee who had patented a television transmitting and receiving system. At RCA, Zworykin developed the use of cathode-ray tubes and came up with a new form of camera called the iconoscope. Working with Zworykin, Sarnoff sought, contested, and purchased various patents, including Farnsworth’s, to develop a commercially and technologically viable television transmission and reception system.

Vladimir Zworykin
Vladimir Zworykin and some of the historic camera tubes he developed
(Image: Unknown/Radio Age magazine, Radio Corporation of America, New York, Vol. 13, No. 4, October 1954, p. 27)

The TRK-12 doesn’t look like much to us now. The picture tube was only 5 inches in diameter by 12 inches tall, and it was mounted inside the top of the unit. A hinged lid held a mirror, and the audience actually saw the image as a reflection. The unit also came with a radio receiver, so if you couldn’t yet get television in your area, well, at least it was still useful. The beautiful Art Deco design was the work of Greek-born John Vassos, RCA’s lead industrial designer.

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Television Enters the American Living Room

Just as World War I had slowed the development of radio, World War II slowed the development of television as companies like RCA turned their attention to military production. Six experimental television stations remained on the air during the war, one each in Chicago; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; and Schenectady, New York; and two in New York City. New companies gradually came into being. But full-scale commercial television broadcasts did not begin in the United States until 1947. The number of television sets rose from 6,000 in 1946 to some 12,000,000 by 1951. Up to that point, no new invention had entered the American home faster than black-and-white television sets. By 1955, half of all U.S. homes had one.

Television became a new center of home life, as well as cultural life.

With the proliferation of television sets and broadcasting came programs and advertising in the form of commercials to pay for them. Television became a new center of home life, as well as cultural life. Television news added a new, visual dimension to sharing information. The televised presidential debates between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon showed the power of the medium to influence viewers, when Nixon’s appearance, as much as his performance, shaped the television audience’s reaction.

Learn more about the rich tradition of innovation in America

The Smithsonian has a rich collection of the artifacts of television history, from the iconic stopwatch of 60 Minutes, to Fonzie’s leather jacket from Happy Days, to the judges’ desk from the musical talent show American Idol. The last of these represents the trend that really brings us full circle in this lecture. In reality television shows like this one, the audience is asked to participate by voting. One of the ways of voting is by sending in a cell phone text message, a short, dare I say, telegraphic form of communication. Mass communication and personal communications merge in determining the outcome of a television show, an amazing, if refracted, illustration of our absorption with grassroots democracy.

Common Questions About the History of Electronic Communication

Q: What device first allowed electronic communication?

The telegraph is both the oldest invention and one of the few from that time that are still around. It was invented between 1830 and 1840 and most often attributed to Samuel Morse, though were many inventors working with him on it.

Q: Who is responsible for electricity?

Benjamin Franklin gets credit for discovering electricity, but whether he was first or not is conjecture at this point.

Q: Why is electronic communication so important?

Electronic communication allowed people to exchange ideas and plans over long distances immediately and thus further expand civilization faster and cheaper.

Q: Did any one invention start the communication revolution?

The communication revolution was kicked off immediately with the invention of the radio, which led to the television and eventually everything we see now with satellites and computers.

This article was updated on 8/15/2019

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LC-DIG-hec-47304; passigatti/iStock/Thinkstock; CBS Radio Microphone, 1933-1945, Washington, D.C, United States, 8 X 4 in., (20.32 X 10.16 cm.) dia. base; 8 in. (20.32 cm.), coiled cord, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (CBS) and WTOP-Radio, through Mr. Roy Meachum, Director of Radio Promotion and Mr. Granville Klink, Staff Engineer, WTOP-Radio, Cat. No. 233610.01, Accession: 233610; RCA TRK-12 Television Set, 1939, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) Corporation, United States of America, Wood, glass, Metal, plastic, Measurements: overall 40 ¾ X 34 ½ X 20 ½ in. (103.505 X 87.63 X 52.07 cm.), National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution; gift from Col. Frank E. Mason, Cat. No. 326100, Accession: 258911; Publicity photograph for a television designed by John Vassos, 1940 Sept. 09 / unidentified photographer. John Vassos papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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