Science Diction

The Origin Of The Word 'Radio' — Scientists originally used the prefix 'radio' to refer to the electromagnetic radiation used in innovations like radio-telegraphy, a way of sending messages without wires, cables and poles. Science historian Howard Markel discusses the origin of the word radio, and the history of its invention.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The alphabet has only 26 letters. With these 26 magic symbols, however, millions of words are written every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE TYPEWRITER")

IRA FLATOW, host: Ah, that means it's time for this month's episode of Science Diction, where we explore the origins of scientific words with my guest Howard Markel. He's a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also the director of the Center for the History of Medicine. Hey, welcome back, Howard.

HOWARD MARKEL: Hello, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Hey, what word have you got for us today?

MARKEL: Well, I've got a word that I know is near and dear to your heart: radio.

FLATOW: Ah, very near and dear to my heart, yes. You know, I hadn't thought about where radio originated. Don't you?

MARKEL: Well, it's a great word, but it originates from a type of electromagnetic radiation or waves that propagated through the air.

FLATOW: Right.

MARKEL: It was discovered by the physicist Heinrich Hertz in 1888. So around then, radiation - or radiant energy - referred to a lot of terms: radioactivity, alpha beta gamma x-rays. And in 1888, he named his electromagnetic, or radio waves that traveled across the ether - which was the atmosphere - at the speed of light.

Now, today, we measure units, frequency units, in hertz, or megahertz. But back then in 1888, he says my discovery is of no use whatsoever, which was probably the greatest understatement in the history of science.

FLATOW: Huh. So when did it get, you know, linked to the kind of radio we sit around and listen to?

MARKEL: Well, there's a technological step in-between. Around 1893, first Nikola Tesla, and in the following year, Guglielmo Marconi - and then several others -developed conductors and transmitters and receivers that made it possible to send electrical waves and then Morse-coded electrical waves longer and longer distances. By 1901, world news was that Marconi managed to send the letter S in Morse code across the Atlantic Ocean. That was big news. That was...

FLATOW: Big news, yeah. Important.

MARKEL: Yeah. So after that, other people started working on frequency waves that carried the sounds of voice and even music. And that was called radiotelephony, or radiotelephony. But the point of those things is that they were early communications between two individuals. I'm going to talk to you on the phone, or I'm going to send you a radiogram, which is what those telegrams were called.

FLATOW: Email.

MARKEL: Email, right - literally email, the original email. But what became the radio, as we understand it, what we're on right now, was based on a whole slew of inventions and creations and discoveries and many historical actors, which is so common in the history of science of any, you know, very complicated device. And by the way, broadcasting, I can't help but tell you, that that's an agricultural term, and it meant casting your seeds broadly across a large field. So that's an agricultural term.

But there were many, many people involved, as I said, and three in particular stand out. The first is a man named Dr. Lee De Forest, and he was a gadgeteer and inventor. And he invented the Audion, which was a glass vacuum tube with prongs that could receive distances - radio signals from long distances. But he didn't know how he invented it. He patented it, but he didn't know why it worked. And he got involved in a lot of fly-by-night businesses and lawsuits for the rest of his career.

But another genius was Erwin Howard Armstrong, who between 1912 and 1927, discovered the regeneration circuit and the superheterodyne, which allows us to dial in frequencies and hear them even better. And he even discovered FM, or frequency modulated radio. And then, the final great man to the history of broadcasting is David Sarnoff, who began working as Marconi's messenger boy, was the telegraph operator when the Titanic was sinking, so that was very lucky. And he founded RCA, which created all these radios, and later televisions.

And he created the National Broadcasting Company to put on shows and entertainment that people would want to buy radios for.

FLATOW: All right. And as they say in radio, we've run out of time, Howard.

MARKEL: Ah. Nice to talk with you, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you. Howard Markel's Professor of the history of medicine at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also director of the Center for the History of Medicine there. As I say, we have run out of time. You can also surf over to our website, because there's some great videos up there. We have the teenagers who've created this terrific wheelchair. There's a video up there. And it's - and also, if you wanted to see the pavement, this porous pavement, the pervious pavement and how well it works, go to our website at sciencefriday.com, both videos up there for you guys, everybody to enjoy.

Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow, in New York.

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