How did the human race develop palm-sized devices that enable people to converse and exchange text messages worldwide, snap and upload pictures, download music and videos, and determine their precise locations?
I’ve been interested in the history of technology for a long time, having worked in the high-tech industry for 30 years; I specifically wanted to know more about the evolution of wireless, and I was surprised that I couldn’t find a comprehensive history. There are many books on key figures and time periods in the history of wireless, but none that explain how we got to where we are today. So I decided to write such a book.
The following pages trace the entire journey—from the discovery of fundamental scientific effects to the development of next-generation wireless standards.
Arthur C. Clarke said that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But most magic is just sleight of hand. Drawing back the curtain reveals the true sources of advanced wireless technology: brilliant science, ingenious products, and innovative business models.
Science rarely progresses in a straight line. Nor is there a single correct way of doing science. The history of wireless technology shows that the clash of opposing philosophies of science can be a catalyst and even a necessary ingredient for progress.
The history of wireless technology cannot be separated from the history of wireless business. Technology harnesses science to create valuable products and services. Business delivers those products and services to customers. Before a technology comes to life, someone has to determine who needs it and what they’re going to do with it. It’s also business’s job to figure out how best to package and distribute technology—how to get it in the hands of as many people as possible in a form they can use.
The story of wireless is fascinating and inspiring, and the technology should be celebrated. Great technology is every bit as creative as great art. While we can often perceive the creativity in a work of art directly, we usually need to know the story behind a technology to fully appreciate the creativity that went into its development.
No one has figured out how to bottle and sell creativity, but the history of wireless provides important clues about its sources. There are lessons about persistence; luck and preparedness; synthesizing ideas; challenging common assumptions; and more.
The first decision for anyone writing history is deciding where to begin. A history of wireless communications could begin with the first person to commercialize the technology, Guglielmo Marconi. Or it could start with Heinrich Hertz, the first scientist to create and detect radio waves. Why not go back further? After all, Hertz was only verifying James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field. The dilemma is that there would not have been a Marconi without a Hertz, nor a Hertz without a Maxwell, nor a Maxwell without a Faraday.
I chose to start with the debate between Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta that led to the invention of the battery. (Galvani actually witnessed wireless communications but did not understand its significance.) Once investigators were armed with a source of continuous current, the discovery of electromagnetism became almost inevitable.
The narrative proceeds to Michael Faraday, the great experimentalist who added more to our knowledge of magnetism and electricity than anyone before or since. Faraday laid the foundation for James Clerk Maxwell, who translated Faraday’s observed facts into the symbolic language of equations and assembled them into a comprehensive theory of electromagnetism—an achievement that, ironically, might have been disowned by the strict empiricist Faraday.
A note about terminology: most early scientists were known as “natural philosophers.” That term is used here, as well, because that’s what investigators such as Michael Faraday wanted to be called. Faraday detested the word “physicist.” I’ve also kept the jargon to a minimum; however, some of it is unavoidable. Most concepts are explained in place and reviewed in the Glossary.
Faraday did science in the laboratory; Maxwell did science in his head. Heinrich Hertz proved that Maxwell’s fertile imagination produced something concrete. There really are electromagnetic waves that propagate through free space.
Next the journey takes us on an important detour. Wireless communications is technology for conveying human intelligence. There would be no wireless telegraph without Samuel F.B. Morse’s wired telegraph and there would be no wireless telephone without Alexander Graham Bell’s wired telephone. The stories behind these two great inventions are essential to the history of wireless.
The idea seems obvious today but taking wireless out of the laboratory, fashioning it to serve specific applications, and offering it for sale initially faced tremendous resistance. With the telegraph going great guns, Guglielmo Marconi struggled to build the first wireless business. He built it around a technology—spark transmission—that would prove a dead end. (At least, temporarily; more than a century later a technology called ultra wideband is emerging that uses spark-like signals.)
That brings us to several lesser known names: the people who put wireless on the right technological footing. Reginald Fessenden and Edwin H. Armstrong led the way. Fessenden understood that wireless needed to be based on continuous waves rather than sparks. Armstrong took the vacuum tubes invented by John Ambrose Fleming (the valve) and Lee de Forest (the Audion) and built vastly superior transmitters and receivers. Amateur radio operators—Armstrong was one of them—contributed numerous refinements.
David Sarnoff thought about becoming an engineer, but he ended up becoming the prototype for today’s high-tech business leaders. He was a hands-on executive who understood that success requires the right technology, the right products, and the right marketing. He was also one of the first business leaders to successfully navigate the hazardous waters of intellectual property, government policy and regulation, and unscrupulous competition. During this era the word “radio” gradually replaced the word “wireless.”
Wireless underwent a dramatic transformation in the years leading up to World War II. The wireless market, once the exclusive domain of entrepreneurs and small businesses, became a playground for big corporations. New technology was developed by teams. It becomes harder to identify individual inventors, but they are still there.
The aftermath of World War II saw the commercialization of frequency modulation, mobile radio, television, and mobile telephone. Less well known, it was also the gestation period for the wideband radio technology that later (after being declassified by the U.S. government) enabled unlicensed wireless LANs, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and third generation (3G) cellular systems.
We finally arrive at the modern era of wireless. It would be difficult if not impossible to recount this part of the story without research at the frontlines of development. Fortunately, several leading actors—including Andrew Viterbi, Martin Cooper, and Donald Cox—contributed to my research.
It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of cellular telephone on culture and the global economy. Ironically, its development was largely hidden from view—and its commercialization was significantly delayed. Perhaps that explains why it has grown way beyond the most optimistic forecasts. [There are now over 4 billion mobile phone subscribers.]
The historic role of industry standards must also be acknowledged. A degree of conformity is required so that products from different manufacturers can talk to each other. But it would be remiss to deny the impetus of proprietary technologies and business contrarians. The evolution of wireless continues to be driven by the clash of opposing ideas.
By no means has the era of individual discoverers and inventors come to an end. The current industry is obsessed with planning, and much is already decided about the next generation of wireless technology. Or so the experts think. Even the best planning cannot prevent unexpected twists and turns in the road ahead.
The book concludes by identifying some key lessons. How did the science behind wireless technology evolve? Why did some technologies succeed and others fail? And what can scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs learn from the history of wireless about creativity? The history of wireless provides a treasure trove of lessons about how to avoid pitfalls—and how to succeed in science and business.