On January 13, 1910, tenor Enrico Caruso prepared to perform an entirely new activity: sing opera over the airwaves, broadcasting his voice from the Metropolitan Opera House to locations throughout New York City. Inventor Lee deForest had suspended microphones above the Opera House stage and in the wings and set up a transmitter and antenna. A flip of a switch magically sent forth sound.
The evening would usher out an old era—one of dot-dash telegraphs, of evening newspapers, of silent films, and of soap box corner announcements. In its place, radio communications would provide instant, long-distance wireless communication. In 2009, America celebrated the 40th anniversary of the creation ...view middle of the document...
Radio was a highly technical leisure activity. Fans used wire coils and spark plugs as they built receivers and transmitters at home. Early radios required multiple dial adjustments.
Not everyone embraced the radio or understood how it functioned. The resulting mystery left some Americans wary. Were electromagnetic waves responsible for droughts? Skeptics blamed radios for the vibrations of bed springs, the creaking of floorboards, even a vomiting child. In Wisconsin, people thought radios could stop cows from producing milk, says Hilmes. Could the electromagnetic waves kill birds? Yes, Hilmes concurs: “If they flew into electrical wires.”
But critics could not dampen the spirits of radio fanatics. Despite a hiatus during World War I, when the government banned amateur radio broadcasting, the medium blossomed. In 1922, the United States made radio licenses available to broadcasters, and several hundred stations were founded.
The 1920s showed audiences that radio was a faster means of receiving updates than waiting for the newspaper. The experimental Detroit station 8MK announced the results of the 1920 Harding-Cox presidential election to the approximately 500 locals with receivers. (Others eager for speedy news gathered outside the Detroit News, which shared results by megaphone and lantern slide.) Also broadcast live were the oral arguments and verdict in the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925.
As more events were captured on the radio, more fans built and bought sets. From 1922 to 1923, the number of radio sets in America increased from 60,000 to 1.5 million. In 1922, there were 28 stations in operation; by 1924, there were 1,400. Among the biggest...