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Summary: The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves and the Birth of the Communications Age, by Scott Woolley – Love Your Work, Episode 292

November 17 2022 – 07:30am

the network scott woolleyThe Network, by Scott Woolley, tells the history of wireless communications, and the stories of the characters that were a part of it. It’s the first book strictly about media history that I’m summarizing and adding to my best media books list.

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Wireless communications start with wired communications

Wireless communications today of course include cell phones, but The Network takes us from the wireless telegraph, to radio, to television, and finally to satellites. First, it gives a little background on the history of the electric telegraph, the invention which suddenly made it possible to move, in minutes, messages that used to take weeks to reach their destinations.

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The electric telegraph was able to change the world thanks to one simple action: The ability to move a piece of metal at the end of a wire. That was enough to develop codes that could transmit messages, based upon the simple movement of that piece of metal. This process started in 1822, when Christian Órsted attached a copper wire to a battery and saw a nearby compass needle move.

There was a several-decade-long race to develop an electric telegraph. The first transatlantic cable was opened for business by 1866. A big customer of these telegraph services were stock traders, who could buy shares in London, sell them a few seconds later in New York, and always profit if their trades were executed in time.

Morse code was the winning format for turning the movement of a piece of metal into messages that could travel around the world. A claim in The Network I couldn’t find a source for, but that sounds pretty cool: The clouds in New York City at night used to have projected on them news, election results, and sports scores – in Morse code.

From a worthless accidental discovery to worthwhile wireless

The history of wireless communication started with a discovery as accidental as Christian Órsted’s: Heinrich Hertz noticed that metal objects moved slightly when lightning struck nearby. He later conducted experiments where he successfully generated sparks through the air. It was pretty cool, but he concluded that the invisible waves he had discovered were “of no use whatsoever.”

Electrical signals that traveled through the air were made very useful, indeed, by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. For much of its early years, most people thought his Marconi Company was a scam. Like the dot-com and crypto booms, many companies at the dawn of wireless technology made off with investors’ money. One article, with the headline, “Wireless and Worthless,” pointed out that more criminals were being prosecuted from wireless companies than from any other industry.

Besides, what did we need wireless technology for, when there were companies such as The Commercial, which was probably the hottest tech company in New York in the early 1900s? It owned five of the sixteen cables crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and one of the two that crossed the Pacific – which was 10,000 miles long.

10,000 miles was pretty impressive, especially when you consider that in 1896, Guglielmo Marconi could only send a wireless message one mile. What was the point?

The pseudo-events of Guglielmo Marconi

Marconi was good at building buzz for his wireless technology through public demonstrations – you could call them pseudo-events, a la Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image, which I talked about on episode 257. In front of an audience, he’d ask a volunteer to carry around a “magic box.” He’d build tension from the stage, then push a lever, which would make the magic box buzz from afar. In 1898, when his wireless range was somewhere around ten miles, Marconi set up a telegraph receiver on the yacht of the prince of Wales. Queen Victoria sent the first mundane wireless text message, asking, “Can you come to tea?” The prince replied, “Very sorry, cannot come to tea.” After all, he was on the ocean. By 1899, Marconi could send a message over the English channel, and by 1901, he could send a message 225 miles.

Marconi had competition in trying to send a wireless message across the Atlantic, which was 3,000 miles. Nikola Tesla, with the money of J.P. Morgan, was working on a fifty-five ton, 187-foot-tall steel super-antenna. And Marconi didn’t have the funding to build something like that.

Marconi won that race across the Atlantic. In one of his publicity stunts, he was able to relay “Marconigrams,” as he called them, from celebrities in London to celebrities at a dinner party in New York. But, that wasn’t enough to impress stock traders who relied on wired telegrams – the messages took ten minutes to arrive, with pre-arranged help in expediting them as they traveled to and from coastal locations on wired connections. And radio waves are easier to transmit at night than during business hours, when radiation from the sun interferes with wireless signals.

As the Titanic sank, Marconi rose

But in 1912, the day before Marconi Company investors were to vote on whether to further fund the company, the Titanic sank. Using Marconi’s wireless technology, an ocean liner, the Olympic, fielded a message from the Titanic, over 500 miles away, which included coordinates, and said, “We have struck an iceberg.” Another ocean liner, the Carpathia, came to the rescue. Thanks to Marconi’s wireless technology, of the Titanic’s 2,223 passengers, 706 survived.

What followed sounds like the third act of a great movie: When Marconi arrived at a lecture that had already been scheduled, there was a crowd overflowing out the building. He received a standing ovation, including from the once-skeptical Thomas Edison. And the vote of Marconi shareholders, on whether to issue another $7 million in stock to build stations for intercontinental telegraphs, was a no-brainer.

David Sarnoff: The early days of an innovator

Working at Marconi at that time was the young David Sarnoff, who had started at Marconi after being fired for taking the day of Rosh Hashanah off work at Marconi’s rival company, the Commercial. A Russian immigrant, Sarnoff’s father had recently become unable to work, so he had set off to support the family as an office messenger boy, at only fifteen.

Being a telegraph operator was a hot tech job at the time. David Sarnoff bought a used telegraph key, so he could spend his evenings practicing his coding skills – his Morse-coding skills. He worked his way up until he was managing Marconi’s New York office, but then transferred to what seemed like a step down – as an inspector in the engineering department.

Edwin Armstrong’s signal amplifier

It was as chief inspector David Sarnoff met Edwin Armstrong, who demonstrated to him an amazing signal amplifier. From a Marconi station in New Jersey, Armstrong’s amplifier turned signals from an Ireland station from barely audible, to loud and crisp. They were then able to listen in on signals from competitor Poulsen Wireless, as their San Francisco station communicated with their Portland station. They were even able to listen to Poulsen’s Hawaii station, despite the fact Poulsen’s own San Francisco station – the breadth of a continent closer – could barely pick up the signal, amidst a Hawaiian thunderstorm.

Sarnoff thought he had found the key technology that would help Marconi dominate wireless telegraphy, and free it from having to share its revenue with rival cabled networks. Instead, Guglielmo Marconi himself refused to believe the results of the story, and another executive publicly chided Sarnoff within the company for conducting the unauthorized experiments, which he believed merely drove up the prices of inventors’ patents.

Edwin Armstrong becomes Major Armstrong

Armstrong ended up selling the patent for his amplifier to AT&T. Through the use of that amplifier and other wireless-technology inventions, Edwin Armstrong achieved the rank of Major Armstrong in WWI. During WWI, Britain and Germany cut one another’s cables, making wireless communication even more important. The British military took over Marconi’s wireless stations within their empire. Armstrong helped intercept Germany’s wireless communications.

RCA, born from a patent pool

But during the war, the way wireless technology patents were split up amongst companies became a problem. It was impossible to build useful devices without using a variety of innovations, and thus infringing on other companies’ patents. The Navy used its wartime powers to allow American manufacturers to use any wireless patents they wanted, without consequence.

Once the war was over, the military sought to maintain this freedom of innovation, and – as a matter of national security – keep the American radio industry out of foreign hands. They struck a deal to cut off the American portion of the British Marconi company, and pool together patents from AT&T, Westinghouse, G.E., and – interestingly – United Fruit Company, who had patents for communications systems on their Central American banana plantations. The name of this new company: RCA. Its general manager: David Sarnoff.

Sarnoff’s radio

Sarnoff had pitched to his bosses at Marconi, in 1915, a “Radio Music Box.” Far more complex than moving a piece of metal, voice had first been transmitted over radio waves in 1906, and The Navy had done “radio telephone” calls, but nobody had thought of using radio to transmit to a wide audience. His pitch described a box with amplifier tubes, and what he called a “speaking telephone.” He wrote, “There should be no difficulty in receiving music perfectly when transmitted within a radius of 25 to 50 miles. Within such a radius there reside hundreds of thousands of families.” Sarnoff had already experimented with the concept by transmitting music, to a boat cruising around Manhattan, from a phonograph in Marconi’s New York office.

Sarnoff’s bosses at Marconi had ignored his radio music box pitch, but once he was in charge at RCA, he was free to pursue the idea. Sarnoff hadn’t gotten much support for his ideas at Marconi, but he had learned the value of a well-crafted pseudo-event. The upcoming boxing match between the American, Jack Dempsey, and the Frenchman, Georges Carpentier was the perfect opportunity to show the value of using radio waves to broadcast sound to a large audience.

The pseudo-event that launched radio

As was customary for big events at the time, if you wanted an update, you could gather near a telegraph station, where someone would announce a text-message update of the event. In Paris, a flare was to be released from a plane after the fight: white if Dempsey won, red if Carpentier. But if you truly wanted to know what was happening, you had to be one of the ninety-one thousand people there in the stadium. So, the rich and famous were flocking to New York. 300 rooms were booked at the Plaza, 500 at the Waldorf Astoria, and 800 at the Biltmore. Actress Mary Pickford took her yacht all the way from Hollywood, through the Panama Canal, and some came in the 1921 version of a private jet: a private train car.

But for the first time, people who couldn’t be at the fight could get blow-by-blow updates. RCA teamed up with amateur radio operators, who rented out auditoriums and received a voice broadcast from ringside, via “radiophone.”

This helped solve the chicken-and-egg problem of getting mass-audience radio started. You couldn’t get people to buy receivers if they hadn’t experienced a broadcast – and if there was nothing being broadcast – and it wasn’t worth broadcasting if nobody had receivers. By getting a lot of people together for a global event everybody was already talking about, it was worthwhile to do a broadcast, and people got to see the potential of radio.

Radio in its infancy

Over the next three years, secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover granted licenses to 600 radio stations – small ones that broadcast across a particular city or county. There were no radio stations or programs in much of rural America. But Sarnoff was pushing the adoption of higher-powered AM transmitters that could broadcast to multi-state regions. This idea was opposed by the smaller stations that didn’t want their audiences stolen, and also by AT&T.

AT&T’s raw deal in radio

AT&T believed that since radio involved transmitting the voice, they, as the phone company, should be in charge of it. They also didn’t want to lose revenue: For AM radio programs to be syndicated from one station to another, they had to be sent over AT&T’s phone lines, as they would come out distorted if transmitted wirelessly. Additionally, AT&T felt duped from the negotiations over the RCA patent pool, which Sarnoff had been in charge of. Sarnoff had proposed that AT&T get the rights to sell radio transmitters, while RCA would sell radio receivers. This didn’t seem like a bad deal in 1920, before the Dempsey/Carpentier fight, but now it looked like a raw deal, indeed. In 1924, RCA’s AM radio sales were over $50 million, while AT&T had a measly market of 600 radio stations. Most of those stations ignored AT&T’s patents and built their own transmitters, and AT&T wasn’t successful in getting the revenue that was rightfully theirs.

The first radio ad

The radio broadcasting industry was experimenting with business models. AT&T ran the first radio ad in 1922. For fifty dollars, a suburban housing development got to broadcast on an AT&T station. Herbert Hoover called advertising-funded radio “the quickest way to kill broadcasting.” He wanted instead to fund radio broadcasts by placing a surcharge on the sale of each consumer radio receiver. David Sarnoff was on his side, which was odd, since an advertising-funded model would make his radios cheaper to consumers.

Divvying up the radio waves

There were also fights over who could broadcast on what frequency. The Radio Act of 1912 had been passed, after amateur telegraphers’ messages had interfered with one another while communicating about the Titanic sinking. Hoover tried to regulate the frequencies some stations were broadcasting on, but it turned out the 1912 act had only regulated airwaves at least six-hundred meters long – the technological limit at the time. Some stations protested by deliberately overlapping their broadcasts, resulting in an hour of unpleasant squelches, followed by a message to support the passing of a law to regulate the airwaves. The Federal Radio Commission was formed in 1927, for that purpose. In 1934, it became the FCC, overseeing all types of electronic communications.

How AM held back FM

Sometimes, an inferior technology dominates, as VHS did over Beta, but sometimes, despite the best efforts of entrenched interests, the better technology prevails, as did eventually FM radio, over AM.

AM radio signals are imprinted sounds on waves that vary according to amplitude, or the height of the waves. Thus “AM,” for “amplitude modulation.” FM radio waves are varied according to the frequency of the waves, or their width. Engineers in the radio industry and academia once thought frequency modulation wouldn’t work. A 1922 paper from AT&T claimed to prove mathematically that it “inherently distorts without any compensating advantages whatsoever.”

But Major Armstrong was pushing hard for the FM method. Armstrong once again conducted a demonstration for Sarnoff. His “little black box” that transmitted an FM signal had vastly superior sound quality than an AM radio. Sarnoff let Armstrong run tests with FM equipment from RCA’s offices atop the Empire State Building – the tallest in the world at the time. The FM signal delivered better sound quality than AM with one twenty-fifth the signal power.

FM threatened existing AM interests

There was a lot at stake in switching to FM: It could deliver better sound quality, and – since signals could be transmitted on a variety of frequencies – it could add thousands of stations to the dial. But, there were already tens of millions of AM radios, and hundreds of expensive radio station transmitters that would become obsolete. A benefit to RCA, however, would be that with clearer signals, they would no longer have to pay AT&T for use of their phone network for syndicating content.

Y2K of the 1940s: The bogus sun-spot scare

In 1941, the FCC approved a band of FM stations between 42 and 50 MHz. At the start of WWII, Major Armstrong pushed the military to switch to FM, and waived any licensing fees, increasing adoption. After the war, there was a controversy about sunspots: They work in an eleven-year cycle, and in FCC proceedings, one engineer rose a stink about how the next time sunspots came around, they would interfere with stations on the existing FM band. Despite the fact nearly every expert disagreed with that prediction, the FCC moved the FM dial to the current 88 to 108 MHz band. This made $75 million worth of devices soon-to-be worthless, and pissed off hundreds of thousands of FM early adopters. (When the strongest sunspots in two centuries came along, the old FM band worked fine.)

The stifling of FM radio continued. The FCC eventually cut FM broadcasts from a 150 mile radius to a 50-mile radius, which may not sound like much, but translates to a ninety-percent cut in coverage area. Conveniently, this meant FM stations could no longer send programs to neighboring markets through the air, and had to instead pay to use AT&T’s expensive and low-fidelity telephone wires. AM radio interests had also taken over most FM stations, where they simply rebroadcast their AM programs. There was little incentive to buy an FM set, and by 1946, nine of ten radio manufacturers weren’t bothering to make them.

All of this was enough to prompt Major Armstrong to file an antitrust suit against RCA, claiming David Sarnoff was conspiring to stifle the FM radio industry.

The bold bets Sarnoff made in TV

David Sarnoff was very focused on making television work around that time. He made some bold bets that helped NBC, a spin-off from RCA, be the first on the air. Searching for office space during the Great Depression, Sarnoff had decided to move RCA and NBC into the expensive 30 Rockefeller Plaza, aka “30 Rock.” He pissed off shareholders by building elaborate radio studios. He had special wires installed in NBC’s studios – for transmitting TV signals around the building – that weren’t used for another twenty years. He had a giant studio built, with rotating stage, to work with television cameras that didn’t even exist. Overall, he spent $50 million on television research over the course of twenty-five years, and it took a long time to pay off.

Battles over TV airwaves

The FCC’s poor decisions continued in the proliferation of television. Despite warnings from engineers such as Major Armstrong, they allocated VHF channels so poorly, only one or two stations worked in most cities. They had to learn from their mistakes and start over with UHF stations. But UHF wavelengths were so short, the lower the channel number a station had, the further and more clearly their signal could travel. So, stations fought over the smaller-numbered of the sixty-eight channels.

The television satellite

David Sarnoff was there, once again, innovating in television. There was a battle over the color standard, and Sarnoff and RCA’s NSTC standard was finally adopted by the FCC in 1953. “Relay-1” was the first American communications satellite, launched in 1962. It helped bypass AT&T’s cables for syndicating programs, thus doubling RCA’s revenue. Some events had previously been broadcast via airplane to expand coverage area. Relay-1’s first trans-Pacific broadcast was supposed to carry to Japan an address from President Kennedy. Instead, it carried coverage of his assassination, and footage of the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson.

There’s your The Network summary

As you can see, The Network covers a lot of the early history of wireless communications. It also does it with an engaging narrative style. There is of course much more. Read it to find out:

If you’ve enjoyed this summary, you’ll no doubt enjoy The Network.

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Thank you for having me on your podcasts. Thank you to David Elikwu at The Knowledge.

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