Radio through the years

By Mike Smyth, specialist technical writer
Thursday, 20 September, 2012

It is hard to imagine life without radio. From commercial two-way to broadcasting, to amateur to specialised services such as the military, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and education through School of the Air, radio is as ingrained into our activities as if we have never been without it.

While the origins of the RFDS goes back to the Reverend John Flynn, it is hard to remember that both aircraft and radios were nowhere near as sophisticated and reliable as they are today. Indeed, pictures of figures on adapted bicycles, pedalling for the power to run these radios, are almost as much a part of Australia as the landings in Botany Bay.

Because of its vast area and sparse population, it was natural that the country took to radio like a duck to water. Elsewhere in the world the new science was also being welcomed and put to use.

One of its world-first achievements was to apprehend a murderer who, without radio, would probably have gone on to enjoy a much longer life with his mistress.

Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was the first killer ever to be arrested using seaborne radio telegraphy. An American homeopathic physician, who also trained as a dentist, he came to London with his second wife, Cora, in 1896. He was not happy with Cora, who was an unsuccessful opera singer and music hall performer, and he began an affair with his secretary Ethel. After poisoning his wife at a party, he dissected the body, burned the bones and buried the remains under the cellar floor of his home.

Cora’s disappearance prompted the police to search the house, although they were told that she had died while on holiday in the US. However, during a fourth search they found the remains of the body under the cellar floor.

With this discovery, Ethel became uneasy and the couple fled to Antwerp where, under an assumed name and Ethel disguised as a boy, they boarded the Atlantic liner Montrose, bound for Canada.

During the voyage, the ship’s captain, aware of the publicity surrounding the police investigation into the disappearance of Crippen’s wife, became suspicious of the pair and, using the new technology, contacted Scotland Yard, presumably using a Marconi Spark-gap transmitter of doubtful reliability and range but nevertheless successful. 

After receiving the message, British police boarded a faster ship and reached Canada ahead of the Montrose. As the liner sailed up the St Lawrence river towards Quebec, the police came aboard posing as pilots and arrested the pair. They were taken back to London, where Dr Crippen was tried and executed at Pentonville prison in 1910.

Ethel was charged with being an accessory after the fact, and on acquittal emigrated to the US.

That radio is a powerful tool for influencing the masses was quickly realised by some scrupulous and not so scrupulous individuals and governments.

Since early on, radio has been used or abused as a tool of propaganda which was brought to a fine art by the Nazis through Joseph Goebbels and Lord Haw-Haw during World War II. It was brought to an even finer art by the Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War.

Radio has also been used for a spoof when Orson Welles, in 1938, had America trembling at the knees with his more than realistic portrayal of HG Wells’s story War of the Worlds. This was only a 60-minute broadcast but much of it was in the form of news bulletins, which added to its authenticity and convinced many listeners that Martians were actually invading Earth.

Today, radio and its relative television are the mass communicators of the age. They are purveyors of news and events but also attempt to persuade and mould opinions and at times confuse. The trick is in knowing the difference.

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