Radio is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.
In the 1930s, gas companies fought to stop customers switching to electricity. They identified radio (which in those days had to be plugged into the mains) as their rivals’ ‘killer app’. If people wanted to listen to the BBC badly enough, it might swing them in favour of going electric. To prevent this, the gas companies developed a gas-powered radio set. It was three feet tall with the radio at the top and a gas burner in an asbestos-lined cabinet underneath. As a bonus, it also helped to (slightly) heat the room. They followed this up with gas-powered washing and washing-up machines, gramophones, trouser presses and even vacuum cleaners, but unfortunately they all flopped in the marketplace.
These devices use the thermoelectric effect: a current is obtained by exploiting the difference in temperature between the device and its surroundings. In Russia, this was used to develop a kerosene-powered radio for use in rural areas with no electricity: in order to get a cold enough ambient temperature, you were supposed to listen to the radio with all the windows open.
Drahtfunk ('wire radio') was a primitive ancestor of broadband: a way of listening to the radio by plugging it into a phone line. First developed in Norway and Switzerland where mountains made radio transmission patchy, it was originally sent down power lines. In the 1930s, when phones came in, these were used instead.
Unlike radio, drahtfunk couldn’t be jammed, so the Germans used it in the Second World War. It was particularly useful during air raids, when conventional radio transmitters had to be switched off to prevent their use as location finders by enemy bombers. It was also a more reliable way of warning people of air raids than sirens, and was what sent most people to the shelters. The content detailed the approach and progress of enemy aircraft. Berliners would gather around local area maps plotting the course of the bombers as the announcer read out the grid squares they were currently over.
Drahtfunk was still used into the 1950s in the American sector in Berlin - though it offered more upbeat fare.
It's not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.
One thing you could have listened to on radio in Britain in the 30s was darts. In 1938, champion darts player F.H. Wallis challenged the entire radio audience to a game of 301. On each turn, he threw his three darts in the Alexander Arms in Eastbourne, after which his score was announced. Then there was a pause while he waited for the listeners at home to throw their three darts wherever they were. No prizes were offered. Listeners were told that if they beat Wallis, their reward was to ‘pat yourself on the back and tell the story to the fellows at the office in the morning’.
A kind of forerunner of Facebook ‘likes’, was the Radiovota. It was a box you attached to your radio that functioned as an instant polling device. It had three buttons (Present, No, and Yes) with which people could comment on what they heard.
Initially intended to test the popularity of songs, it was immediately obvious that it had much wider potential. One reviewer predicted: ‘the president of the United States may step before a microphone, ask a question of his radio listeners concerning some question of public policy and receive an immediate reply from millions.’ It didn’t catch on, as when the listener pressed the button, the signal took seven hours to reach the monitoring station.
Commercial radio began life as a policy of the Monster Raving Loony Party.
Gustav Eiffel originally proposed that the Eiffel Tower be used as a wireless radio mast.