Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922

Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922

By Susan J. Douglas


While there are many good histories of radio and broadcasting available today, most of them center around the equipment or the personalities within the industry. Yet, radio did not develop in a vacuum. Indeed, radio and broadcasting were strongly influenced by society as it was and events that occurred during the early part of this century. Broadcasting was, as the late D. H. Moore would say, "a sociological phenomenon." This is the approach Susan Douglas takes in her book, Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922, which explores the evolution of broadcasting.

This book is quite different from Eric Barnouw's excellent book, A Tower In Babel, which looks at broadcasting from an industrial point of view, or Tom Lewis' book, Empire Of the Air, which examines broadcasting in a study of three of the major personalities involved with radio. Douglas feels that to really understand broadcasting, we must study it in the context of the social and economic times in which it evolved.

One would think that a study of broadcasting would start with the KQW broadcasts of the 1910s or broadcasts of the early 1920s pioneered by KDKA. Indeed, that is where Douglas planned to start. However, as she delved more deeply into the events leading up to regular, commercial broadcasts, she realized that we would have to go even earlier to the very beginning of wireless to understand how broadcasting came about. Therefore, this book ends with the birth of broadcasting.

In the introduction, Douglas discusses the three factors that she believes were necessary for broadcasting to evolve: 1) technology -- control of a working system (not just individual components properly protected by patents) necessary to making broadcasting work; 2) the capital and business strategy needed to exploit this technology; 3) control of the media to shape public opinion and promote society's desire for the technology.

This third area is often overlooked. While the media of the time did not invent broadcasting, they had tremendous influence as to how it would be shaped. It is to these three areas that the book is devoted.

The first chapter covers the inventor-hero concept popular during the time of Marconi's wireless reports of the America's cup races of 1899. The individual inventor, like Edison in his early days, struggling to invent something for the betterment of humanity, was much admired by American society at that time.

The second chapter details the struggle by different inventors to make a complete technological system that would work better than competing systems and, at the same time, circumvent competitors' patents. Each inventor wanted to monopolize the industry for his own profit.

The third and fifth chapters discuss the financial aspects of broadcasting. It was not enough to have a great invention; one had to sell it. While some were struggling for capital, others were cashing in on the aura of wireless to sell worthless stock. After many people had lost their money in bad investments, they began to look at the inventor-heroes as single-minded villains who were taking their money.

The fourth and sixth chapters cover the influence of the U.S. Navy and amateurs. The Navy, after initial reluctance, became a major buyer of wireless. Since wireless companies needed capital, they were strongly influenced by the Navy to make apparatus to Navy specifications. Since the Navy was mainly interested in reliable, point-to-point communication, the Navy influenced the direction wireless was to take for a while.

Amateurs were able to make homemade apparatus fairly cheaply. Soon the amateur wireless hobby grew to the point where there was a conflict between the amateurs, who believed "the air" was free for all, and the Navy, who wanted strict control in the name of national security. Amateurs prevailed for a while, because no one was sure how to regulate that which was so nebulous.

The seventh and eighth chapters show how things changed as a result of the Titanic disaster. When rescue efforts and later information on survivors were hampered by wireless chaos, interference, and lack of regulation, people demanded regulation. The government, prompted by the Navy, began regulating the wireless industry and amateur stations.

The advent of World War I reinforced government control. However, during World War I, government control of some industries, like the railroads, turned out to be a disaster. Public opinion then shifted to corporate control of radio. The public believed that corporations were benevolent in their use of inventions. By this time, the inventor-hero had mostly disappeared, and the large research laboratories had taken over much of the development of technology.

The final chapter brings together all the parts necessary for commercial broadcasting to begin. The formation of RCA combined patents so that good quality apparatus could be made. Amateurs were no longer thought of as pests, because, during the war, amateurs had helped to fill the great need for radio operators. Soon, some of them started broadcasting music and other interesting material to which all could listen.

It soon occurred to radio manufacturers that you could sell a lot more radios to "Everyman" than just to licensed commercial and amateur operators. Thus, broadcasting was born.

The epilogue discusses the fact that, while a lot about broadcasting has changed since the beginning, an amazing amount has not. Broadcasting is still controlled by major corporations. Corporate-military connections are stronger than ever. Broadcasting has become one medium strongly influencing public opinion. The sale of advertising finances broadcasting, just as it does print media.

The book finishes with extensive notes allowing readers to delve more deeply into subjects that interest them. These notes show the depth and extent of the author's research. There is also a very good index.

Douglas has managed to avoid perpetuating many of the myths about early radio that trap other authors. The context of her book is that radio was just one of the many forces of change at the time. Things that appear strange to us now make sense when viewed in the perspective of the prevailing social climate of the era.

On the down side, Douglas does not have the technical expertise to explain clearly the circuitry and apparatus used in early radio. Whether the reader is an expert or a novice, he will find some of the explanations a bit obtuse. However, this is not a technical book, and the lack of technical explanation does not detract from what is meant to be a sociological study.

Overall, Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922 is a well researched book and merits a place in the library of anyone interested in broadcasting from a sociological-historical viewpoint.

Published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, the book has 363 pages in a 6" x 9" paperback format with about twenty illustrations. It is available from Antique Radio Classified and other booksellers for $14.95. Be sure to check for shipping information.

-- Paul Joseph Bourbin, February 1998. All rights reserved.

(Paul J. Bourbin, 25 Greenview Ct., San Francisco, CA 94131)

"Wireless Fever"


In 1922, Herbert Hoover was Secretary of Commerce and described the "wireless fever " as "one of the most astounding things that has come under my observations of American life." In her book Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922, Susan J. Douglas does a wonderfully accurate job of telling the story of that "wireless fever" era.

This history of the events leading up to the advent of American broadcasting includes the story of the inventions of the wireless telegraph and the wireless telephone in the context of the cultural history of the period. World commerce was rapidly growing, a world war was fought, the Titanic sank, and the automobile was replacing the horse.

Douglas gives individual inventors a great deal of deserved attention and credit for their individual roles in the development of radio. The book is worth reading just to gain a better appreciation of these men.

But, the book is much more. It is the story of amateur radio operators, as well as of capital and the quest for profits, which turned wireless inventions into profitable commercial enterprises. The result was the formation of the Radio Corporation of America and the active participation of corporate giants -- General Electric, Westinghouse, and AT&T. It is also the story of how the Navy tried to gain control over radio, told in a very informative way.

In all, Susan Douglas' study of the era of "wireless fever" is well researched and very good reading. It should be read by all who are interested in the history of early radio.

(Bob Breese, 50877 Deer Run Trl., Elkhart, IN 46514-8503)

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