The discovery of radio waves ranks among the most astounding achievements of Victorian science, with far-reaching consequences that are still felt today.
Their existence was predicted in the 1860s by the brilliant Scottish theoretical physicist James Clerk Maxwell, while he was developing a theory that revealed electricity and magnetism are just different aspects of the same phenomenon.
Maxwell’s prediction was confirmed in 1887 by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who – incredibly – dismissed radio waves as “of no use whatsoever”. Fortunately, other scientists saw potential in the mysterious waves that could travel through air, solid walls or the vacuum of space. Among them were the British physicist Oliver Lodge and the Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi, who independently invented ways of turning electrical discharges into detectable signals. The two men were often locked in legal battles over patents, but Marconi is usually regarded as the ‘inventor’ of radio communication. That’s partly because he was the first to send simple radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean, a PR coup which led to international recognition, including a Nobel Prize.
Yet even Marconi failed to realise the full communication potential of radio. The technical challenges of going beyond electric sparks to a high-fidelity speech and music medium needed the work of a host of far less well-known inventors.