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From Wireless to Wireless

Wireless – via flickr

Communication has from the first been a major priority of humans. From the early days of travelling Minstrels that oft times use the major news of the day in their repertoire. To the printing press and the first “Newspapers.” But until the early 19th century and the advent of the telegraph, one could hardly call this news. It could take days, weeks even months for any information the travel any distance.

Which more appropriately puts it under the heading of recent history. There were various attempts at signalling devices but most were limited in distance, cumbersome to use, complicated, unreliable and therefore of little improvement over just carrying the message there by Pony Express. By the mid 1800s a number of electromagnetic methods of sending messages were being developed.

The one adopted here was one that Samuel B. Morse designed. Initially limited in distance — only about 10 miles — with the addition of relay stations, it eventually crossed the contentment and even the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Using a special code to represent the letters and numbers and punctuation necessary by sending pulses down a wire: the Morse code. The code, if not the mechanics, was quickly adopted world wide.

But this “land line” telegraphy was not with out it’s problems. The greatest being it’s vulnerability to intentional sabotage by Native Americans, train robbers, bank robbers and opposing military forces.

But still you might hear what’s going in in Chicago but Poplar Bluff, MO? Forgetaboutit.

In the late 1800s Heinrich Hertz did experiments with electromagnetism. Discovering the principal of electromagnetic waves IE Hertzian or radio waves. It was not long before a number of people started to experiment with these new found magnetic waves. Of course there was a big push to use them to send information.

One cannot really say who first got the idea of using electro magnetic waves to send and receive messages but Gugleilmo Marconi was the first to make a commercial success of it. And it became a big hit I can tell you. By the early 20th century it seemed like everyone was building radio sets and trying out this new technology.

Unlike wired telegraphy where all messages went through a telegraph office, anyone could put together a wireless set and have at it. But early wireless was crude to say the least.

There was absolutely no way to tune or separate wireless transmissions. Either sending or receiving. The receiving set was not at all sensitive and the transmissions themselves, even from the most sophisticated apparatus sounded like noise. Keyed on and off buzzing sounds. Like this or this or this. Now imagine 4 or more stations on at the same time all trying to contact you or them selves or somebody else. It would get very chaotic to say the least.

Well after the Titanic sank and other lessor disasters, it was obvious this new wireless thing needed regulation big time. And so it was. It was Edison who saved the day, though he did not know it at the time.  He was trying to figure out why his light bulbs were getting this coating on the inside and the filaments burning out at the same time. Edison did not understand alternating current and was not the least bit interested in wireless. Sill he want to know what was going on and made a special bulb with a wire attached to a plate in it. What he noticed was when he put a meter between the plate and one of the filaments, it showed an electric current flowing.  He called it the Edison Effect, wrote it up and gave a few demonstrations and that was it.

Fortunately Sir John Ambrose Fleming who was interested in wireless attended one of those demonstrations and got very curious. Would this detect radio waves? And indeed it did. What he discovered was the first practical application of Thermionic emission. Essentially meaning that when you heat a metal of any kind up really hot, it givers off electrons. In the air these electrons just go into the air and if enough are given off can combine with the oxygen and create ozone. But in a vacuum, like a light bulb, they have nothing to combine with, so they collect somewhere. Like on the metal plate.

If you connect this plate to a positive electrical voltage, the the electrons will flow from the filament to the plate. If you put a negative voltage on the plate, no electrons flowed. Fleming called this his valve or oscillation valve. Another engineer named Lee DeForest then discovered that if you put a wire grid in between the plate and the filament,  a very small electric voltage on this “grid” made a large change in the electron flow from the filament to the plate. He called his new “tube” the Audion. DeForest found that not only could it amplify but could also be easily made to oscillate and produce a nice pure radio wave and its frequency could be easily set.

Radio just exploded.  Putting voice on this new radio wave was almost immediate. Radio stations began to appear and news became…well news. You no longer had to wait for the daily paper to find out what the president said, you could actually her him say it.  News may have become instant but it was heavily filtered.  Radio broadcasting was commercial and even  though radio stations seem to sprout up like weeds,  ones that could be heard more than a few miles away were big and expensive to build and operate. There was very little frequency coordination and stations frequently changed their frequency. So where one would be one time, it might not be there another time. Only the big stations and those who owned them stayed put. And the owners were the networks that started by big radio manufacturers.  Like RCA who had two networks.

Though broadcasting was improving by leaps and bounds, radios themselves … not so much. The new radios with the new tubes were expensive to buy and operate. They ran on batteries and the batteries had to be replaced. Most people had crystal sets. They were time consuming and tedious to use and tune. And the bigger station would win out over the smaller one, even it the smaller one was local. That is until Edwin Armstrong came up with his superheterodyne circuit, which made tuning a whole lot easier and sensitivity better and your ability to pick out one station much easier.

Radio stations were, as I said, commercial. They existed to sell something. Usually what ever the owner wanted you to buy since nearly all were owned by some commercial enterprise or another. So the more listeners they got, the more stuff they could sell. The entertainment and news was there to get you to listen to their pitch and buy something. So to get your particular message on the air, you had to be pretty main stream and appeal to the owner interests. Or own your own radio station. With the radio networks, everybody pretty much heard about the same thing in the same way.

Pictures and television came next after WWII but this situation on who heard what remained pretty much the same. Television stations were very expensive to build, run and maintain and were nearly always part of one of the three networks. For entertainment, news and … advertising. Their primary reason for existence. And if the advertisers did not like you, you did not get on period.

The upshot of all of this was that for a long time … a very long time if you were not what the media considered mainstream, if your message or persona was even the least bit offensive or out in left [or right] field, all you had was your own voice screaming in the wind. And any person or group with a weird or strange grudge or message or attitude had no outlet. That is unless they caused trouble and made really great video doing it. The video got on the air … the message not so much.

From the 1970’s on this changed again very markedly. PCs and satellites and cable and cell phones and the internet have each in their own way truly given each and every one of us Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. Even more since anyone who has a PC and access to the internet can now post his or her feelings, views and even videos for all to see and hear. No matter what they are.

You can now sit in a coffee shop and post for all to see what ever garbage comes to your mind. No matter how ludicrous it may be. Even get into arguments with people you do not know or will ever see that are half way around the world.

Wireless indeed!

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