Artifact Spotlight: The Radio

In a previous blog entry we looked at the revolution in communication technology that was the typewriter. After the invention of the printing press (c. 1430), the typewriter (invented in 1868) was the next great leap in mass communication. The next major development in this evolutionary chain came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the form of radio.

History of the Radio

The inception of radio began in the 1890's, as great physicists such as Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla experimented with theories of wireless transmission (Hunt, 2020). The first transmissions were for purposes such as remote control and wireless telegraph communication (Smith-Rose, 2020). In December of 1906, the first voice and music signals were transmitted by Canadian scientist Reginald Fessenden, who broadcasted these signals for about an hour out of Brant Rock, Massachusetts (Skretvedt, 2018). While it would be another few years before regularly

scheduled broadcasts would become mainstream, this event marked the birth of a whole new means of cultural engagement for the following century and beyond.

In the early 20th century, use of the radio (or "wireless") was a niche activity. In the years preceding World War I, radio enthusiasts would work to build their own radio devices, and send and receive broadcasts from one another as a hobby. After World War I began, however, many of these enthusiasts had to put their hobby on hold as the warring governments did not want civilian broadcasts interfering with military communications. After the war, the use of radio began to become more mainstream, and it was in the 1920's that commercial radio stations began to emerge. The sensation of radio took the world by storm during this decade, and continued to grow up to its peak in the 1940's. The real heyday for radio lasted from about 1930-1955 with what came to be known as the Golden Age of American Radio.

With the development of commercial television in the mid-20th century (Fink, 2020), the Golden Age of Radio began to taper off as people now received both video and audio into their homes. Despite the introduction of television, the radio has remained with us into the present, and continues to be a staple for communication devices (and car models) the world over.

Reflections on the Radio

One of my favorite exhibits in the Plainsman Museum is the radio shop exhibit. While I may be of the millennial generation, I can't help but feel a sense of nostalgia when I see a good old fashioned radio set. To me, there's something very charming about an old radio, and with the recent revival of vinyl records and other retro things, I'm likely not alone in that opinion. Despite the radios in the exhibit being silent now, I can't help but wonder how many voices, musical pieces and sounds came through them during their years of use. As the radios in the museum are presently arranged together for display to the public, I can't help but wonder what corners of homes they inhabited before being brought here to this place.

^ Radios from the Marion and Loretta Larsen Radio Collection, Plainsman Museum collection

Imagine how many stories have been told through these machines over the years! Imagine how many famous (or infamous) broadcasts may have premiered on one of these very devices! Who were all the people that once listened to them? Did any of these sets receive FDR's famous "Fireside Chats" in the 1930's, or perhaps his address to the American people when we entered World War II in 1941? Were there any children who eagerly sat beside these sets as they waited for "Little Orphan Annie" to start, or adults in their studies and kitchens waiting for their favorite drama or comedy program to begin its opening jingle? Perhaps one of these sets received the first transmissions of Elvis Presley's songs in the 1950's. Or - and this is likely a long shot for our collection, but - were any of these devices hidden in secret during World War II so that ordinary citizens in Europe could receive news from the Allies while under Nazi occupation? Even if not, I can't help but have that image come to mind when I see the radios in our collection. Many from my generation know the anxiety that can come on when we find ourselves separated from our computers or our phones. How precious a radio must have been during the most truly anxiety-producing times of the 20th century.

As I've been typing this blog entry, I've had some music playing in the background on my computer. Recently, during moments of stress, I've been able to search for calming sounds on the Internet, and stream my favorite audiobooks to my iPhone. Last night as I was baking chocolate chip cookies, I listened to one of my favorite YouTube playlists through my headphones connected via Bluetooth. I do love the sleek design and clarity of sound that comes from my modern devices, and it really is a privilege of our modern world to have so much music and entertainment streamed to us at the touch of a button. And it all started with people having theories and dreams about wireless communication, and bringing that to life through the radio.


"Journey through yesterday" and click on the links below to listen to some samples of old radio broadcasts (c. 1930's-1950's).

"In the Mood" by Glenn Miller -

Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio drama -

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" Speech, December 8, 1941 -

"Who's On First" comedy skit by Abbot and Costello -

The Bing Crosby Show for Chesterfield, feat. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald -

"That's All Right" by Elvis Presley -

Works Cited:

Fink, Donald G., Jon Fisher, et al. Encyclopædia Britannica. "Television." Last modified January 31, 2020. Accessed September 23, 2020.

Hunt, Inez Whitaker. Encyclopædia Britannica. "Nikola Tesla." Last modified January 3, 2020. Accessed September 23, 2020.

Skretvedt, Randy. Encyclopædia Britannica. "Radio." Last modified November 15, 2018. Accessed September 23, 2020.

Smith-Rose, Reginald Leslie. Encyclopædia Britannica. "Guglielmo Marconi." Last modified July 16, 2020. Accessed September 23, 2020.

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