One of the most interesting ‘roads not taken’ in the history of the radio is surely that of “wired wireless.” In America, the radio could have gone the path of the telephone and become a wired network that directly connected transmitters to receivers through various operations of switching. In fact, there were several analogous attempts in Europe to create a telephone newspaper, most famously, the Telefon Hirmondó in Budapest.
Even though wired wireless couldn’t cover the same broadcast area as wireless radio, telegraphy, or telephony, it has several advantages of wireless technology. As Randall Patnode argues, wired wireless appeared to solve three of the main problems in early wireless transmissions:
- Wires would reduce interference caused by atmospheric disturbances.
- Wires would eliminate interference caused by neighboring stations and prevent any eavesdropping on transmissions.
- Wires would solve the financial problem of who would pay for broadcasting. Wired radio would’ve allowed for the creation of a subscription-based service, and if content distributors could collect payments directly from listeners (as in the European model for financing national broadcasting), then there would be no need for on-the-air advertising to finance broadcasts.
Or at least those were the claims made by early proponents of the new technology. Nevertheless, due to patent disputes and questionable business practices, wired radio never really took off….
Significantly, wired radio and the telephone newspaper were both offshoots of advances in the field of “multiplexing,” the ability to transmit multiple messages in a single information channel. The Hungarian inventor Tivadar Puskás‘s (1844–1893) introduction of the multiplex switchboard in 1887 slightly predated the American inventor George Owen Squier‘s (1865–1934; pronounced “Square”) experiments with multiplex telephony and telegraphy.
All of this seems to be a subset of the case, “rock music as a misuse of a military device,” as Friedrich Kittler put it. But it seems like more work could be done from a media studies perspective on the parallels between wired radio and telephone newspaper, each of which usually gets discussed in its own terms.
Thomas Steinfeld’s presentation on the history of muzak at the IFK conference “Auf der Tonspur” reminded me of this interesting “road not taken” in the history of wireless. There’s an excellent article by Randall Patnode on the American history of wired radio called “Path Not Taken: Wired Wireless and Broadcasting in the 1920s.” There are also a couple of posts on “wired radio” over at the Modern Mechanix blog.