A Question of Semantics
October 1970 Popular Electronics
Just as you will never get
everyone to agree on who was the first person to successfully fly a powered aircraft (Wright, Whitehead, Curtiss,
etc.), there will never be a consensus on who invented the radio. Most people would probably say it was Marconi,
but this author makes a case for none other than Thomas Edison. Before you dismiss the opinion, read on...
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A Question of Semantics
Who Did Invent Radio?
By Fred Shunaman
all probability there will never be total agreement on the question of who actually discovered radio. In fact, the
word "radio" itself does not stand up to a strict historical interpretation. Does the "first radio" mean the first
two-way wireless communication? Or a one-way wireless transmission? Or would a minor laboratory demonstration and
a patent establish the precedency of the discoverer/inventor?
In one way or another, Marconi, Popov,
Loomis, Butterfield, Lodge, Hertz and Tesla all qualify as discoverers of radio. However, history now shows that
none of these men has the supporting evidence of discovery that belongs to Thomas Alva Edison-to whom the honor
may rightfully belong.
A simple language difficulty may have cost Edison the credit for first discovering and using radio as a
means of communication. He announced the discovery of "etheric force" when Marconi was only a year old and while
Tesla was still attending school. And, in 1885, two years before Hertz announced the discovery of electromagnetic
waves, Edison applied for a patent on a complete wireless system. Submitted with his application were patent
drawings of radio towers and antennas on the masts of ships.
How It All Began. During the
evening of November 22, 1875, Edison was studying the action of a magnetic vibrator. He noticed a tiny spark
between the armature and core of the vibrator as the armature approached the core. Suspecting faulty insulation,
he checked the coil but found everything in order.
However, Edison reported that; "If we touched any part
of the vibrator we got the spark," and that "the larger the body of iron touched to the vibrator, the larger the
spark." If a wire was connected between the vibrator and a gas jet on the wall, a spark could be drawn from the
gas pipes anywhere in the room.
Above is one of the drawings from Edison's Patent No. 465,971, Dec. 29, 1891, describing
a "Means for Transmitting Signals Electrically." Particularly interested in transmitting across bodies of water,
he showed high towers and ships carrying "condensing surfaces" (which we would call antennas). At the right is an
enlargement of the insert, in which Edison described how signal was generated and transmitted to antenna.
Then Edison performed the experiment that Hertz was to do 17 years later; he found that "if you
turn the wire round on itself and let the point of the wire touch any part of itself, you get a spark .... This is
simply wonderful and a good proof that the cause of the spark is not now known force."
constructed a demonstration apparatus and revealed his new etheric force" to the Polyclinic Club of the American
Institute. Many of the members seemed upset by the name he had chosen for the new effect. But Edison was
undaunted, and he predicted (in the January 1876 issue of the Operator, a telegrapher's magazine) that the new
force might become the telegraphic medium of the future. He is quoted as having stated: "The cumbersome appliances
of transmitting ordinary electricity, such as telegraph poles, insulating knobs, cable sheathings, and so on, may
be left out of the problem of quick and easy telegraphic transmission, and a great saving of time and labor
The Scientific American of December 1875 stated: "By this simple means signals have been sent [by wire] for long
distances, as from Mr. Edison's laboratory to his dwelling house in another part of the town. Mr. Edison states
that signals have also been sent the distance of 75 miles on an open circuit, by attaching a conducting wire to
the "Western Union telegraph line."
Edison's "black box" 1881 demonstration had graphite points which could be connected to an external circuit. The
extension eye-shade permitted viewer to see, jumping between the contacts, sparks unlike any known to an
electrical phenomenon at that period.
Thomas A. Edison, from a print dated 1877, about the time he was working on his "etheric force" invention. This
and other illustrations in this article are adapted from those appearing in "Menlo Park Reminiscences," Vol. I,
by F. Jehl, Edison Institute, Dearborn Park, Mich.
As It Developed. A "black box," used by Edison to demonstrate etheric
force was sent to Paris where Edison's assistant, Charles Batchelor, lectured on the etheric force. (The black box
detector consisted of a pair of adjustable graphite points in a shaded enclosure, with terminals to attach it to
an external circuit.) There is a bare possibility that Heinrich Hertz might have heard about Edison's experiments,
for hi spark points with the micrometer adjustment are virtually identical to those in the black box, and he
repeated the experiment of turning the wire back upon itself.
Work on the telephone took Edison's
attention away from etheric force for some time. But in 1885 he applied for a patent for a wireless telegraph
system based on his etheric force. The patent drawings show towers that are easily recognizable as radio masts,
and two ships with broad ribbon-like antennas hung between their masts! The text of the patent application goes
into detail about the equipment shown in the drawings.
"The wire (from the 'condensing surface' C) extends
through an electromotograph telephone receiver D (Fig. 2) or other suitable receiver, and also includes the
secondary circuit of an induction coil F. In the primary of this coil is a battery b and a revolving
circuit-breaker G. This circuit-breaker ... is short-circuited normally by a backpoint key K, by depressing which
... the circuit-breaker makes and breaks the primary circuit of the induction coil with great rapidity," Edison
Explaining the phenomenon as he saw it, Edison went on to state: "These electric impulses are
transmitted inductively to the elevated condensing surface at the distant point ... "
Here is where the
confusion in language occurred. At the time, the term induction, unless otherwise explained, meant electrostatic
induction (a tendency that still lingers on in some elementary physics textbooks). The transformer had just been
invented, and magnetic induction was a laboratory curiosity. The term "electrostatic" drifted into obscurity as
the art progressed, and later writers referring to the "induction telegraph" unquestioningly accepted the term to
mean magnetic induction.
The confusion was increased because the only commercial use Edison made of his
invention was the "grasshopper telegraph," a system of telegraphing from moving trains to the telegraph wires
alongside the tracks. This was a distance that could be covered easily by electromagnetic induction, and
historians who believe that radio communication started with Tesla, Lodge, and Marconi assumed that this was the
case. Yet, in explaining the "grasshopper telegraph" to a reporter, Edison said, "The system works by
So, a change in the generally accepted meaning of a word with the changing times
buried the fact that Edison invented, described, patented, and operated a radiotelegraph system in 1886 - a year
before Hertz explained the cause of the etheric force, which he called electric force.
What other "firsts"
.may lay buried or attributed to other discoverers because semantics denied the original inventor or discoverer
his due? At least now Thomas Alva Edison's long list of achievements will have numbered among them the discovery
of radio waves - even if he did not title them as such.
Editor's Note: We are given to understand that the graphic-points "black box" is still in
existence and has been exhibited on the second floor of the restored Edison Laboratory.
In his book,
"Menlo Park Reminiscences" (now believed to be out of print and unobtainable), author Jehl says that Edison was
intrigued by the spark and performed many experiments to seek an explanation of its nature. Edison did find that
the spark was unpolarized; had no respect for the usual types of insulation; would not discharge a Leyden jar; and
had no effect on his electroscopes.
Unquestionably, Edison had stumbled onto radio-wave transmission, but
the fact that energy could be propagated through the atmosphere and not via wires was alien to all of his