Digital wireless and cellular roots go back to the 1940s when commercial mobile telephony began. Compared with the furious pace of development today, it may seem odd that mobile wireless hasn’t progressed further in the last 60 years. Where’s my real time video watch phone? There were many reasons for this delay but the most important ones were technology, cautiousness, and federal regulation.
As the loading coil and vacuum tube made possible the early telephone network, the wireless revolution began only after low cost microprocessors and digital switching became available. The Bell System, producers of the finest landline telephone system in the world, moved hesitatingly and at times with disinterest toward wireless. Anything AT&T produced had to work reliably with the rest of their network and it had to make economic sense, something not possible for them with the few customers permitted by the limited frequencies available at the time. Frequency availability was in turn controlled by the Federal Communications Commission, whose regulations and unresponsiveness constituted the most significant factors hindering radio-telephone development, especially with cellular radio, delaying that technology in America by perhaps 10 years.
In Europe and Japan, though, where governments could regulate their state run telephone companies less, mobile wireless came no sooner, and in most cases later than the United States. Japanese manufacturers, although not first with a working cellular radio, did equip some of the first car mounted mobile telephone services, their technology equal to whatever America was producing. Their products enabled several first commercial cellular telephone systems, starting in Bahrain, Tokyo, Osaka, Mexico City.
Wireless and Radio Defined
Communicating wirelessly does not require radio. Everyone’s noticed how appliances like power saws cause havoc to A.M. radio reception. By turning a saw on and off you can communicate wirelessly over short distances using Morse code, with the radio as a receiver. But causing electrical interference does not constitute a radio transmission. Inductive and conductive schemes, which we will look at shortly, also communicate wirelessly but are limited in range, often difficult to implement, and do not fufill the need to reliably and predictably communicate over long distances. So let’s see what radio is and then go over what it is not.
Weik defines radio as:
“1. A method of communicating over a distance by modulating electromagnetic waves by means of an intelligence bearing-signal and radiating these modulated waves by means of transmitter and a receiver. 2. A device or pertaining to a device, that transmits or receives electromagnetic waves in the frequency bands that are between 10kHz and 3000 GHz.”
Interestingly, the United States Federal Communications Commission does not define radio but the U.S. General Services Administration defined the term simply:
1. Telecommunication by modulation and radiation of electromagnetic waves. 2. A transmitter, receiver, or transceiver used for communication via electromagnetic waves. 3. A general term applied to the use of radio waves.
Radio thus requires a modulated signal within the radio spectrum, using a transmitter and a receiver. Modulation is a two part process, a current called the carrier, and a signal which bears information. We generate a continuous, high frequency carrier wave, and then we modulate or vary that current with the signal we wish to send. Notice how a voice signal varies the carrier wave below:
This technique to modulate the carrier is called amplitude modulation. Amplitude means strength. A.M. means a carrier wave is modulated in proportion to the strength of a signal. The carrier rises and falls instantaneously with each high and low of the conversation. The voice current, in other words, produces an immediate and equivalent change in the carrier.
As we can tell already, and as with the telephone (internal link), a radio is an electrical instrument. A thorough understanding of electricity was necessary before inventors could produce a reliable, practical radio system. That understanding didn’t happen quickly. Starting with the work of Oersted in 1820 and continuing until and beyond Marconi’s successful radio system of 1897, dozens of inventors and scientists around the world worked on different parts of the radio puzzle. In an era of poor communication and non-systematic research, people duplicated the work of others, misunderstood the results of other inventors, and often misinterpreted the results they themselves had achieved. While puzzling over the mysteries of radio, many inventors worked concurrently on power generation, telegraphs, lighting, and, later, telephones. We should start at the beginning.
In 1820 Danish physicist Christian Oersted discovered electromagnetism, the critical idea needed to develop electrical power and to communicate. In a famous experiment at his University of Copenhagen classroom, Oersted pushed a compass under a live electric wire. This caused its needle to turn from pointing north, as if acted on by a larger magnet. Oersted discovered that an electric current creates a magnetic field. But could a magnetic field create electricity? If so, a new source of power beckoned. And the principle of electromagnetism, if fully understood and applied, promised a new era of communication .
In 1821 Michael Faraday reversed Oersted’s experiment and in so doing discovered induction (internal link). He got a weak current to flow in a wire revolving around a permanent magnet. In other words, a magnetic field caused or induced an electric current to flow in a nearby wire. In so doing, Faraday had built the world’s first electric generator. Mechanical energy could now be converted to electrical energy. Is that clear? This is a very important point. The simple act of moving ones’ hand caused current to flow. Mechanical energy into electrical energy. But current was produced only when the magnetic field was in motion, that is, when it was changing.
Faraday worked through different electrical problems in the next ten years, eventually publishing his results on induction in 1831. By that year many people were producing electrical dynamos. But electromagnetism still needed understanding. Someone had to show how to use it for communicating.
In 1830 the great American scientist Professor Joseph Henry transmitted the first practical electrical signal. A short time before Henry had invented the first efficient electromagnet. He also concluded similar thoughts about induction before Faraday but he didn’t publish them first. Henry’s place in electrical history however, has always been secure, in particular for showing that electromagnetism could do more than create current or pick up heavy weights — it could communicate.
In a stunning demonstration in his Albany Academy classroom, Henry created the forerunner of the telegraph. Henry first built an electromagnet by winding an iron bar with several feet of wire. A pivot mounted steel bar sat next to the magnet. A bell, in turn, stood next to the bar. From the electromagnet Henry strung a mile of wire around the inside of the classroom. He completed the circuit by connecting the ends of the wires at a battery. Guess what happened? The steel bar swung toward the magnet, of course, striking the bell at the same time. Breaking the connection released the bar and it was free to strike again. And while Henry did not pursue electrical signaling, he did help someone who did. And that man was Samuel Finley Breese Morse.
From the December, 1963 American Heritage magazine, “a sketch of Henry’s primitive telegraph, a dozen years before Morse, reveals the essential components: an electromagnet activated by a distant battery, and a pivoted iron bar that moves to ring a bell.”
In 1837 Samuel Morse invented the first practical telegraph, applied for its patent in 1838, and was finally granted it in 1848. Joseph Henry helped Morse build a telegraph relay or repeater that allowed long distance operation. The telegraph united the country and eventually the world. Not a professional inventor, Morse was nevertheless captivated by electrical experiments. In 1832 he had heard of Faraday’s recently published work on inductance, and was given an electromagnet at the same time to ponder over. An idea came to him and Morse quickly worked out details for his telegraph.
As depicted below, his system used a key (a switch) to make or break the electrical circuit, a battery to produce power, a single line joining one telegraph station to another and an electromagnetic receiver or sounder that upon being turned on and off, produced a clicking noise. He completed the package by devising the Morse code system of dots and dashes. A quick key tap broke the circuit momentarily, transmitting a short pulse to a distant sounder, interpreted by an operator as a dot. A more lengthy break produced a dash.
Telegraphy became big business as it replaced messengers, the Pony Express, clipper ships and every other slow paced means of communicating. The fact that service was limited to Western Union offices or large firms seemed hardly a problem. After all, communicating over long distances instantly was otherwise impossible. Morse also experimented with wireless, but not in a way you might think. Morse didn’t pass signals though the atmosphere but through the earth and water. Without a cable.