The "Wireless" Revolution

The Roaring Twenties was an era clearly obsessed with radio and its development, not just in America but the world. The 30th U.S. president Calvin Coolidge made history with his inauguration being the first to achieve air time and then when he delivered the very first presidential speech (now the State of the Union address) on December 6th, 1923. According to the New York Times, the message was heard so clearly across half of the nation that clean over in St. Louis, Missouri, a station there called to the Capitol Building (where POTUS was addressing Congress) and asked, “What’s that grating noise?” The reply made by the experts holed up in the basement transmitting was, “That’s the rustling of the paper as he turns the pages…”[1]

But it wasn’t just by radio that people heard Coolidge’s voice (and historic page-turning). Loud-speakers and simplifiers had been situated all up and down Pennsylvania Avenue surrounding the Capitol allowing him to be heard for several blocks. A generous crowd gathered and pressed in to hear while thousands more from the convenience of their home or in the fun environment of a listening party attuned their ears to the voice of the commander-in-chief. The radio broadcast began before Coolidge commenced talking with an announcer describing the House of Representatives and painting a picture for everyone tuning in—the figurative birth of C-SPAN.

What the U.S. Government accomplished was no small feat with six stations in major metropolitan areas—Washington, New York, Providence, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Dallas—receiving the broadcast through long distance lines and sixty repeater stations required “at intermediate points to maintain the volume of the speech current at the proper level.” It was a balancing act, a crucial juncture in American politics. The whole episode smacked of grand experimentation—like sending men to the moon—and the level of excitement at the success of this first presidential broadcast rocketed. The president could now talk to the people? Extraordinary. “Evening newspapers for many years have given the text of the President’s message to New York within a few minutes of its delivery, but never before have great numbers of New Yorkers been able to hear the pronouncement by the Chief Executive word by word and sentence by sentence as they did yesterday over the radio.”[2]

Broadcasting was so in-vogue and so natural that it became one of those fundamental things that people seemed to expect like breathable air, potable water, a non-porous roof over their heads. Flooding the pages of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals were articles devoted to understanding new on-air microphones, advice on proper coil configurations, tips on dealing with interference (the Achilles’ heel of the rising star technology), turning everyone into D.I.Y. radio engineers. And don’t forget about all those advertisements, sometimes taking up a half page, claiming to have the magic formula for the best sound and the best reception. “How many radio miles do you travel?” croons one ad quite enticingly. Some brands advertised taking the listener up to 6,000 miles. Imagine the power of knowing a tune of the dial would bring a listener in New York in touch with London, Paris… cities many Americans have only read about in books and headlines.  How did this unprecedented networking open minds to the possibilities of cultures and life outside people’s accessible sphere of existence? To hear words and music broadcast from London or the chimes of Big Ben, thereby unifying time and space just a little more in ways that foreshadowed modern instant entertainment, must have been phenomenal and in some ways unbelievable.

 

Very quickly, as Marconi predicted at various times in the ‘20s, radio’s technology expanded and spread across the globe with “superstations” being built on grand elevations in Europe.[3] Lattice radio towers sprang up, rising into the skies. In an article titled in large bold print “Radio’s Great Tomorrow”, the New York Times identified the dizzying developments worldwide:

 

Near Warsaw the Radio Corporation of America is rushing to completion a great wireless station for the Polish Government. At Marconi, near Pisa, the Italian Government is struggling against time and obsoletion in wireless apparatus to finish a trans-oceanic station worthy the name of the inventor of the first system of wireless communication. The Belgian Government is planning another modern trans-oceanic station to be located near Ghent. The Soviet Government also plans a huge wireless station near Moscow, with towers higher than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Under the auspices of the Australian Government another vast wireless station is to be erected near Sydney. […] Japan has opened a large wireless station at Tokyo, and more are projected for communication between this country and South America. Africa also has its plans.[4]

 

How was anyone to know that this crucial technology would help in the decades to come in unimaginable ways, to provide a voice and send a message to countries as first, World War II set fire to the stage and then the Cold War came to freeze it. Some may diminish the significance of radio’s role in the international conflict zones, holding that there were much more powerful factors at play which brought the demise of the Soviet Union. But what would the situation have looked like without radio? And how did radio build the USSR itself and help countries on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific to understand each other, to precipitate empathy and cultural exchange across divides? As George Kennan suggested, “The possibilities which lie in human understanding, like those that lie in darkness and ignorance, are seldom hypothetically demonstrable, but sometimes they are surprising.”[5] In keeping with the idea of harnessing human understanding, diplomacy, therefore, is a more vital tool than legalistic action for fostering a stronger international system since people are ultimately the players. And radio has been such a diplomatic device that has proven the power of a captive audience, audio that not only addresses individuals but unifies them, making unseemly or impossible connections possible—for good and nefarious reasons alike.

By Michelle Daniel

[1] New York Times article. “Nations Radio Fans Listen to Coolidge”. December 7, 1923.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Several New York Times articles from 1920 to 1928 feature Marconi predictions and forecasts, but the one referenced and quoted here is dated July 9, 1922.

[4] “Radio's Great Tomorrow”. The New York Times, July 9, 1922.

[5] For more on Kennan’s view on diplomacy in the modern world, see his book American Diplomacy, a collection of his lectures at the University of Chicago. This quote is found on p. 96.

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