The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves and the Birth of the Communications Age
© 2015 Scottt Woolley
Few things fascinate me as much as cities in the United States and Europe, circa 1880 – 1930: they were being remade year by year, as unprecedented new technologies arrived on scene and were incorporated into the urban fabric, radically changing society as they became less novelties and more infrastructure. Telecommunications were part of that story, and more than any other novelty of the industrial city, they are still quickly changing us today: every year makes the digital world more expansive, intrusive, and impactful. Its story begins with a hopeful Italian named Marconi, who narrowly missed death by choosing to sail to America not on the Titanic, but the Lustiania — and concludes with the first forays of the telecom industry into satellites. The Network is less about how radio revolutionized society, however, focusing instead on the legal and political fights that the telecom industry had to endure while rising from primitive telegraphs to the space age.
The Network is dominated by not by Marconi, as expected, but someone I’d never heard off, an immigrant named David Sarnoff. Like Pan Am’s Juan Trippe, he built the radio-tv telecommunications industry around himself, presiding over it from its infancy to maturity though his involvement with Marconi, the Radio Corporation of America, NBC, and other firms. The transition from wireless telegraphy to radio, and all that followed, was not an easy one: in the 1910s, a state of the art wireless set was impossible to build legally because the ideal device would incorporate mechanisms from multiple patent-holders. The government ‘helped’ here during the Great War by building ideal devices anyway, forcing patentholders into a pool at gunpoint. Whatever aid given to the industry by war was reversed by the FCC’s presumptuous, panicky kneecapping of the nascent FM industry: believing an increasing period of solar activity would cripple FM sets by causing interference, the FCC dictated narrow ranges for new FM sets and transmitting restrictions that forced stations to grow in adverse conditions. (The predicted solar activity had no discernible effect.) It wouldn’t be the first time the FCC nearly smothered the future here. In addition to the legal battles, Woolley also communicates a little of the technical evolution of telecommunications , but virtually nothing of radio’s cultural mark. The narrative also jumps decade to decade so that we experience milestones, but not the in-between; I often felt a little disoriented after each jump, since the industr(ies) would grow significantly in the interim.
Although the book wasn’t quite what I was looking for, I still learned quite a bit: although I knew that telephony had grown into divergent but related industries (radio, tv, internet, etc), I didn’t realize how interconnected they were even once they’d established themselves: RCA’s “radio” shows were relayed via AT&T’s phone lines to other stations to create national networks, even after FM transmittal would have allowed for more powerful direct broadcasting; this was one reason Sarnoff was keenly interested in using satellites to bounce radio signals from transmitting stations to receiving stations,so to bypass the forced reliance on its telecom rival’s infrastructure. In the future I’ll be looking for Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of the Radio Age; it may be more of what I’m looking for.
Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, Jill Jones. Again a history of patent wars and technical innovation, less attention on changing society.
The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage. On telecom’s granddaddy, telegraphy.