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October 1970 Popular ElectronicsTable of Contents
People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history of early electronics. Popular Electronics was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged. See all articles from 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...
Who Did Invent Radio?
By Fred Shunaman
In 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?
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.
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."
Next, Edison 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 accomplished."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 telegraphy experiments.
Posted September 15, 2011