The History of Radio


Throughout human history there have been a number of inventions that have fundamentally changed how people communicate. One of the most influential was the advent of radio. Although the technology was discovered in the 19th century, radio really came into the popular culture in the first half of the 20th century. Even today, radio continues to reach nearly 250 million Americans on a weekly basis. Join Active Minds as we trace the history and impact of this important technology.

Key Lecture Points

  • Instantaneous information movement began with the invention of the telegraph in 1837, the telephone in 1849. The concept of wireless communication began in theory in 1864 when Scottish physicist James Maxwell declared the existence of electromagnetism. In practice, radio was created by many scientists, inventors and businessmen of the latter 19th Century, including Heinrich Hertz, Nicola Tesla, and Guglieimo Marconi.
  • Although the technology was discovered in the 19th century, radio reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s during the Great Depression when listening to the radio was often the only amusement people could afford. Radio also became a crucial source of news, particularly during World War II.
  • During the Cold War, radio provided uncensored news and information to countries behind the Iron Curtain. Radio still fulfills this role in countries where the news media is restricted or controlled by the government.
  • The advent of television in the 1950s and 1960s gave people more entertainment options, but radio remained alive and well. In the US, radio continues to reach nearly 250 million listeners on a weekly basis.
  • Radio technology continues to evolve to reach new listeners and now includes podcasts, satellite radio, streaming radio over the Internet and digital radio.

Exploration Questions

  • How has radio influenced US history and culture?
  • What are the new technologies converging into today’s radio broadcasting?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think radio has a future? Why or Why Not?
  • Do you listen to radio? How have your radio listening habits changed over your lifetime?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • NPR Funniest Driveway Moments: Radio Stories That Won’t Let You Go. (compact disc) Highbridge Company, 2008. A collection of stories originally aired on NPR.
    Click here to order
  • Jenkins, John D. Where Discover Sparks Imagination: A Pictorial History Presented by the American Museum of Radio and Electricity. American Museum of Radio and Electricity, 2009. 218 pages. The early history of radio and electricity shown through photographs.
    Click here to order