American Radio History:
The First Hundred Years

Alex Cosper

The story of wireless radio communication began before the turn of the twentieth century inventor Nikola Tesla, who worked for Westinghouse. Subsequent experimental transmission of Morse code over the airwaves is often credited to Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi. After years of controversy, in 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tesla held the original patent for the invention of radio, not Marconi. Tesla is also credited as the inventor of alternating current.

Between the 1900s and the 1920s radio was used by the military, engineers and hobbyists. In San Jose an engineer named Doc Herrold was perhaps the first person to ever accomplish a radio transmission featuring the human voice as early as 1909.

The three primary companies responsible for developing radio technology after its invention were Westinghouse, General Electric and AT&T. Marconi had owned an American and British company and GE purchased the American company, renaming it Radio Corporation of America (RCA), whose purpose was to market the radio receivers made by both GE and Westinghouse. AT&T made radio transmitters.

Radio became commercial beginning in 1920 with KDKA in Pittsburgh, broadcasting the Presidential election returns. The station was owned by defense contractor and commercial electric giant Westinghouse.

Radio began to grow as a commercial medium in the 1920s and became very much a part of everyday lifestyle trough the Great Depression years. Radio was eclipsed by television in the 1950s, but the advent of affordable transistor pocket radio, affordable to the teen market, gave radio a new life. FM radio began to gain significant audiences in the late 1960s and had completely taken over mainstream music by the early 1980s. The Telecom Act of 1996 transformed radio into big business, although its heyday seemed to culminate in the 1990s as the next decade offered a wider range of choices for the consumer through new media, overshadowing radio.

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