Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Some history on Marconi, FDR, and Disruptive Technologies

Throughout the history of mediated communication, beginning with the telegraph and Morse code technology, one finds the trend of disruptive communication technology becoming the eventual mainstay that wins out over the older, antiquated models, but usually not without a fight. Tracing the history of the medium of radio and the individuals involved in its restriction and ultimate essential freeing up of government restriction, one sees a pattern that is eventually initiated and successfully negotiated within the medium of television and the Internet.

If it weren’t for Marconi’s invention of the antenna and the founding of Marconi of America in 1899, the precedent for radio and all subsequent technologies might still have occurred; however, this is difficult to say emphatically. Spontaneous simultaneous invention seems to be the way that this creative world operates as exemplified by photography, film, and other such technologies, so who is to say that without Marconi there would be no antenna? Nikolai Tesla, the credited inventor of the radio, certainly had a huge role in the development of the technology, as did inventers Reginald Fessenden and Lee DeForest, all of who can be recognized as the “fathers of radio”. However, for the purposes of this argument, Marconi will take at least partial imperative responsibility for causing radio to become a popular mainstay in American homes through his invention of the antenna.

In the initial years, the possibility of obtaining a license to broadcast over the airways was not blocked by any substantial hurtles; nearly everyone interested in transmitting could obtain a permit to do so. With the help of other aforementioned innovators, along with many parallel advancements and inventions in India and Europe, the amateur radio transmission trend was sweeping the world. This presented problems for copyright issues: many private residences and infrastructures began to broadcast music recordings over the airwaves without first obtaining permission from the artists or from the recording companies. It was for this reason, and with the country being on the brink of WWI, that FDR deemed radio a disruptive technology and made the decision to coordinate and effectively control the radio airways.

Under the banner of national security, the Navy set aside all patent claims to radio. All amateurs had to go off the air, and all antennas were taken over by the government. Essentially, the US government shut down all civilian transmissions in order to allow the US Navy full control over all transmissions and airwaves. This was a political move on the part of FDR, but this raised a question: Does the government have the right to turn off or take away technology? This was a direct violation of 1st Amendment rights in that it “abridge[d] the freedom of speech [and] of the press”, but in times of war the Navy and the President felt that it was their responsibility to monopolize the airwaves for the sake (and under the guise) of national safety.

This military-mandated ownership of the medium of radio continued until the end of World War I in 1919, when the Navy announced they wanted to introduce the radio to everyone; however, they wanted to still maintain ultimate control over the medium. The government completely disagreed with this concept, and thus the home-grown monopoly of the RCA (Radio Corporation of America) was born (a natural monopoly because there were no other competitors, much like the successive situation with AT&T). This technology was initially seen as a threat to national security, but odds are this “disruptive” technology instilled notions of fear in the military, hence FDR’s move to suspend all civilian access. With the creation of the RCA, however, this once disruptive and seemingly threatening technology became a mainstay, including regulatory laws, the foundation of the first public radio stations, and the eventual domestication of the medium as a part of the fabric of everyday American life.

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