It often seems like new technologies just suddenly appear on the scene, as if they just fell from the sky. But of course new technologies don't fall from the sky. They don't even pop out of research labs suddenly and full formed.

To understand how technologies do show up on store shelves, radio is a classic case study. To us, radio seems simple and old-fashioned, but it was once an amazing new technology; it was like the internet is today. The story of how radio came to be used for this thing we call "broadcasting" -- the sending of one-way radio signals through the air to large numbers of receiving sets -- is an interesting illustration of the interaction of new technologies with social forces.

The Invention of Broadcasting

Beginnings: Invention

It begins in the 1800s, when the British scientific genius Robert Maxwell used some amazing mathematics to figure out that there ought to be something called electromagnetic waves in the universe. Not long after Maxwell worked out the mathematical theory of electromagnetic waves, a German scientist and philosopher called Heinrich Hertz developed a proof of Maxwell's theory. Hertz built an electromagnetic wave generator out of a "spark gap" and managed to send the wave a few feet across a darkened room. At the time, it was mind-boggling: an invisible force propagating invisibly -- no wires or sound.

Maxwell and Hertz were pure scientists; they were just trying to figure out the nature of the universe. But when Hertz's experiments were publicized, many people began to think about ways to put Hertz's odd device to practical use. This is where social forces start to enter the picture: in the movement from pure science to practical use.

Step 2: Practical Use For Established Purposes

As a general rule, when a new technical possibility comes along, the first thing people do is imagine using it to do traditional things more effectively. Around 1900, the first thing that occured to people in power -- business and military leaders, mostly -- was that this new radio thing might make a terrific replacement for the telegraph. In recent years, the militaries of the U.S. and Europe had already discovered the importance of the telegraph for instant communication from headquarters to the front lines. Big corporations were eager to communicate with far-flung divisions; United Fruit, for example, was growing into a major international business by shipping fruit from the tropics to temperate climates. Telegraph wires, however, were expensive, could be easily cut by enemies, and could not work between mobile troops or ships at sea.

So this meant the first big organizations to invest in the new technology of radio wanted to use it for point-to-point communication, for control at a distance. Radio wasn't for ordinary people to use in their everyday life; it was a strategic technology for communication with ships at sea and the like. So, at first people called this thing the "wireless telegraph" (and after that "the wireless telephone"). The U.S. Navy was so interested in the wireless telegraph that it lobbied the government to give it a complete monopoly on the technology; it was too important to let businesses use it, the Navy thought, much less ordinary folks.

The Discovery of Broadcasting: A New Purpose

Besides the fact that it spread through the air, radio had another difference from the telegraph: it's signal went out in all directions, not just towards the person you were trying to communicate with. Radio waves are omnidirectional. From the point of view of corporate executives and military commanders, this was a huge problem, because it meant anyone could eavesdrop on their important communications. In the early years, huge amounts of money and effort went to trying to stop the signal from going out every which-way.

It is often people at the margins of power that discover entirely new uses of a technology. Because they are less invested in the existing way of doing things, they are able to experiment and play with new gizmos, coming up with creative new ways to use them. In the case of radio broadcasting, the people at the margins were radio amateurs or hobbyists -- the hackers of the early 20th century. In 1906, the "crystal detector" was discovered, a simple device involving a crystal and a few wires that could miraculously pick up a radio signal. It was cheap; a twelve year old boy could buy one by saving up his allowance.

After that, the radio amateur movement developed. Groups of boys and young men began building radio receiving and transmitting sets just for fun. Working often at night in their attics, they discovered that it was absorbing to tinker with the technology and communicate with other amateurs at far flung distances. They often became quite adept at the new technology. For them, omnidirectionality wasn't a problem, it was the source of a new kind of entertainment, a new way to spend your leisure time. Radio didn't have to be used for serious purposes; it could be fun. This was the first use of radio waves for entertainment, and it was the discovery of what we now call broadcasting.

Conflicting visions

When different groups of people have different visions of what to do with a new technology, conflict often develops. In the case of radio, the amateurs came into conflict with the corporations and the Navy. The amateurs, for their part, formed the "American Radio Relay League" in 1914; it was a group of radio hobbyists spread across the country that would relay news and information from place to place. (It still exists: It was probably the largest and most effective "radio network" in the world at the time. As the Navy and private ships installed "wireless telegraph" sets on all their ships, however, it became increasingly worried about intereference and snooping from amateurs. So it began lobbying the government to have the amateurs banished from the airwaves.

Annoyed by the amateurs using the airwaves to discuss everything from sports scores to school, Navy officials used examples of amateur pranks to bolster their argument that the airwaves should be brought firmly under government control in the name of national security and the safety of ships at sea. Amateurs, according to an official Navy report, were often "seemingly semi-intelligent and wholly irresponsible operators," who "at any time through carelessness or stupidity may render hopeless the case of a shipwreck" by interfering with maritime transmissions. The amateurs responded by publicizing examples of Navy radio operators' frequent incompetence, refusing to yield to Navy operators over the air, and on a few occasions generating radio messages from fictitious admirals that sent Navy ships steaming off on spurious missions. (The internet was not the first technology in which you could fake your identity.)

Private corporations like AT&T and Westinghouse were a third party in these conflicts. They wanted radio to be private so they could make money off of it, but they did not want it overrun by amateurs, either. By World War I, they came to ally themselves with the Navy because they could make a profit by selling equipment to the military, but they joined the Navy in getting the government to banish the amateurs from the airwaves during the war, on the grounds of military necessity.

Resolution: the Corporate Model

During World War I, everything was devoted to the war effort: corporations supplied equipment, the military used radio to great effect, and many amateurs came of age and ended up becoming soldiers and operating radios on the war front. The technology improved greatly during this time. (One of the scary things about the history of technology is that wars seem to be good for technological development.)

In 1919, when the war was over and the troops came home, however, the question remained: how was radio to be used in peace time? Several things happened simultaneously. First, now that radio was known to be a successful and crucial technology, the government and many major corporations worked together to form a for-profit corporation to manufacture radio, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). At the same time, however, when all the soldiers who had learned to use radio came home, radio became a craze: all kinds of people began building radio transmission and receiving sets, and radio became a popular fad. Some times people sent signals to each other, and sometimes they just broadcast music, news, and gossip, and others would listen in from afar. It was all informal, it mixed two-way with one-way communication, and it was exploratory, experimental, and for enthusiasts, exciting. At first, the government and the big corporations did not pay much attention to all this activity, because they were still focussed on using radio for point-to-point communication. But then the fad became so big, that the large institutions began to take notice.

After the war, a young soldier returning home called Frank Conrad began working for the Westinghouse corporation, which specialized in electrical equipment. Conrad was one of those amateurs who had become good at radio during the war, and so he operated an amateur radio transmission set from his home and would send out music to friends and interested strangers in the evening. During the day, he worked for a corporation, and at night he was a radio amateur. In September of 1920, Conrad's boss, Westinghouse Vice President Harry P. Davis, saw a department store newspaper ad for radio sets. Davis suddenly realized that radio could be profitably used for publicity, as a mass medium; it was more than just a point-to-point device. In his words, "Here was an idea of limitless opportunity." Davis persuaded Westinghouse to bring Conrad's activities inside corporate walls. On the theory that regular broadcasts would stimulate sales of Westinghouse radio receivers, a new, more powerful transmitting station was built at the Westinghouse plant, and a license obtained from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. On November 2, 1920, station KDKA was inaugurated with a broadcast of the election results, and the legendary broadcast boom of the early 1920s began. Corporations began to see that they could make a profit by selling receiving sets to people who wanted to listen to broadcasts, and everybody tried to jump into the act. (

The period that followed is often called the period of "Chaos of the Airwaves." Radio waves were not very well regulated at the time, and so as more and more people began jumping into the broadcast game, the radio waves became crowded, and interference between signals started to drown everybody out (sort of like spam and viruses are doing to email right now, but worse). All the different players -- the corporations, small businesses, amateurs -- blamed the others for causing the problem.

What happened next is that the large corporations went to the government and insisted that the government regulate the airwaves to prevent interference. Eventually, Congress passed the "Radio Act of 1927" which gave government the power to decide who gets to broadcast and who does not. The law said that anyone who broadcasts has to get a license from the government to broadcast on a particular frequency at a particular time, and that they only get to use the license in so far as they serve "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." This is still the law today.

It is important that business asked government for regulation in this case. Many people believe that business and government are opposed parties, but in this case (and in many others), business and government worked together on behalf of business interests. As a result of the law (and of the way it was implemented) most of the small and non-profit broadcasters of the day were forced off the air, and the airwaves were cleared for the creation of big, corporate-owned broadcast networks. RCA created the NBC radio network in 1926, and CBS was created in 1928. Within less than ten years, these two networks would dominate most of American radio.

The Development of Radio compared to the Development of the Internet

There are interesting parallels between the development of radio and the development of the internet. Those parallels point to some general principles useful for understanding how technology "happens" in general.

Invention: Hertz's spark gap in 1888 | Packet-switching 1969

The scientific discovery of the potential of sending radio waves through the air has its parallel in the invention of the concept of computer "packet-switching" in the 1960s. Traditional electronic communication, like the phone network, works by making a fixed connection between one person and another; when you're not saying anything during a conversation with a friend on your phone, the line is still connected, and the silence is transmitted. Phone systems need a central switching station; they are centralized. (See the graphic.) In the 1960s, computer scientists proposed a form of communication with computers in which messages are broken into thousands of little "packets," each of which has a computer-readable address attached. The packets are then released onto the network, and automatically forwarded to the appropriate destination, where they are re-assembled into the message. A side-effect of this kind of communication is that the network is "distributed." It has no central switching station, and you can eliminate "nodes" on the network without breaking the network. If messages don't make it by one route, they just go another way. In 1969, the US military began building an experimental packet-switching network called "ARPAnet."

[From Paul Baran, " On Distributed Communications: MEMORANDUM: RM-3420-PR," AUGUST 1964, the Rand Corporation (available online at:]

1906 Crystal detector | 1980 microcomputers with modems

Through the 1970s, computer communications was extremely expensive and rare, so the only people who got to use it worked in research universities or for the military. But in the early 1980s, the first microcomputers -- cheap little computers that an ordinary person could buy -- became widely available for the first time. Most people just used the microcomputers for word processing and spreadsheets, but hobbyists and experimenters began attaching the computers to phone lines with modems, and began using simple forms of email and discussion lists. This is comparable to the appearance of crystal detector radio sets in 1906, which first made the technology of computer communication cheap enough that hobbyists (or hackers) could begin using them.

1914 Radio Relay League | 1984 non-military internet, usenet groups

Just as the radio amateurs organized themselves by forming the Radio Relay League in 1912, in 1984, "ARPAnet" was split into a military part and an "experimental" part. Also around that time, hobbyists and researchers began building "usenet" computer communication networks, which were a cheap way for computer hobbyists to use email and discussion lists. Just as the big corporations of the 1910s did not understand the value of the amateur efforts because they thought radio was for point-to-point communication, big computer companies in the 1980s did not understand the importance of usenet and the internet. In the 1980s, most companies were investing in either variations on cable television or private computer networks like Prodigy or Compuserve.

1919 End of WWI, amateur radio fad | 1992, internet growth

During the rest of the 1980s, the internet quietly grew behind the scenes, and by 1992, it really started to get quite effective and popular within circles of hobbyists and researchers. Books began to be written about it, and young programmers began experimenting with it. (A college student called Marc Andressen, for example, began work on a program in 1992 called "Mosaic," which was the first successful web browser.) But the corporate world did not get it, much like they did not get it in 1919: in 1993, U.S. News & World Report interviewed seven major executives about the future of computer communications, including Bill Gates, and the heads of AT&T, IBM, and Motorola, and no one mentioned the internet.

1921 KDKA created by Westinghouse | 1994, corporations discover internet, web

In 1993, Marc Andreesen's "Mosaic" web browser became something of a smash hit on the internet, and finally an executive took note: Jim Clark, who was an experienced Silicon Valley businessman, partnered with Andreesen to found a company that would be called Netscape, and finally the corporate world took note of the internet. An internet gold rush ensued, internet stock prices soared, and the internet became the latest thing.

1922-26 Chaos of the airwaves | 1995-98 domain name crisis

The internet equivalent of radio's "chaos" period is what people call the "domain name crisis." Like radio in 1921, the internet was suddenly being used for things that no one had imagined. An internet domain name is kind of like a radio channel: for the internet to work, all the computers connected to it have to be using a consistent list of internet addresses, like or In the early days of the internet, this was an informal affair: the list of agreed-upon domain names was mostly maintained by graduate students. Anyone could register a domain names like or, just like anyone could broadcast on any frequency in the early days of radio. But as the internet took off and corporations suddenly tried to get involved, fights broke out over the rules for using domain names. The law was unclear.

1927 Radio Act, FRC | 1998 ICANN?

The fights over domain names are still going on. An organization was created called the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ( to resolve technical and legal disputes over domain names and internet standards. This is a lot like the Radio Act of 1927. This time, however, things have to be worked out globally; ICANN is an international organization. And its full legal status is unresolved: see for discussions of some of the latest controversies. Stay tuned ....


The point of this long story can be boiled down to three morals:

1) Technology does not come from a vaccuum. Technology is shaped by institutional goals and purposes.

2) Established institutions see new technologies through established lenses. New uses of technologies often come from minor players and take time to be established.

3) Markets want government intervention. New commercial structures and institutions require coordination by government.