Although electromagnetic radio waves were known to exist in the 1860s, more than 20 years elapsed before the first wireless signals were transmitted and received. A gigantic breakthrough occurred in 1901, when Marconi succeeded in transmitting wireless signals across the Atlantic, from Polhdu, Cornwall to Signal Hill, Newfoundland. Within the decade, valves had been patented, that could detect and amplify wireless signals.
The crystal detector first brought radio into our homes. Crystal sets were cheap, easy to build and provided adequate volume for one person. The most commonly used crystal was Galena, a sulphide of lead. You had to search with a spring of fine wire (the cat's whisker) for the crystal's sensitive spot. All the energy in the headphones came direct from the aerial which was as long as possible and a good connection to earth.
In the early days, broadcasts were restricted to seven minutes out of ten for a maximum of one hour a day and in 1919, enthusiasts could 'listen in' to W.T. Ditcham from Marconi's works Chelmsford, reciting train time-tables! Shortly after a song recital by diva Dame Nellie Melba in June 1920, the authorities banned entertainment broadcasting for its triviality and 'the considerable interference with other stations'.
Eventually, restrictions were lifted, the BBC was established and transmitting stations opened across the country. There were now demands for a loudspeaker so that all the family could 'listen in' together and crystal sets disappeared, to be replaced by all enclosed mains receivers.
Progress was rapid. By the end of the decade, valved portables had been introduced, combining aerials, receivers, speakers and batteries into one carrying case and the first mains operated sets were appearing.
The building of the National Grid and establishment of the Central Electricity Board in the 1930's resulted in mains receivers becoming standard equipment, dispensing with the need for batteries. Designs were further influenced with the use of Bakelite. It was cheap, easily moulded, lightweight and available in colours.
By the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, almost 9 million radios were licensed; three quarters of Britain's homes owned a set. During WW2 radio's role was vital. The BBC News and Overseas Service relayed the latest developments whilst programmes like ITMA and Workers' Playtime provided light relief to a troubled existence. From the end of the First World War until the advent and take-over of television in the 50's, radio reigned supreme. It became an indispensable part of family life and the nucleus of home entertainment.
Miniature valves were introduced in the post-war years, resulting in the popularity of small portables – but by the early 60s ‘the Tranny’ heralded a new era of radio design. By the end of the millennium, solar powered and wind- up receivers were available…as ecologically ‘green’ as the old crystal sets. The Radio Story had gone full circle.