Radio

Authored by: Alasdair Pinkerton

The Ashgate Research Companion to Media Geography

Print publication date:  August  2014
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9781409444015
eBook ISBN: 9781315613178
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042822

10.4324/9781315613178.ch3

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Abstract

Radio is an inherently spatial medium. From the birth of radio waves as a mechanism for transmitting messages during the late nineteenth century, their capacity to traverse space and to bring people and places into close contact has been harnessed and celebrated. Guglielmo Marconi, widely acknowledged as the father of long-distance radio communications, was particularly sensitive to, and indeed motivated by, the geographical and spatial consequences of these burgeoning technologies. As well as seeking commercial opportunities in improving maritime safety through enhanced ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications, Marconi demonstrated an almost missionary zeal in the quest to “annihilate” space and time, and to defeat the strictures of distance. Reflecting on the first successful transmission of radio signals across the North Atlantic in December 1901, Marconi proclaimed that “the electric waves sent out into space from Poldhu had traversed the Atlantic – the distance, enormous as it seemed then, of 1700 miles – unimpeded by the curvature of the Earth.” “I now felt,” he continued, “for the first time absolutely certain that the day would come when mankind would be able to send messages without wire not only across the Atlantic but between the farthermost ends of the earth” (Marconi 1901: n.p.). Radio thus resounded with modernist ambition. Marconi, in particular, invested radio with a rhetorical power to control “the elements and forces of nature” and to collapse the physical dimensions of geography. But radio’s allusion to “power” was more than simply a rhetorical device. It was Marconi’s obsession with the bridging of oceans by electromagnetic means that drove both the development of ever more powerful transmitting stations (such as those at Poldhu in Cornwall and Caernarvon in west Wales) as well as establishing an early iconography of an immense radio “power” both in terms of the scale of its global broadcasting ambition and in the scale of its technological and engineering achievement. As the media historian David Hendy (2010) has also argued, radio played a part in “rewiring” the modern mind, in turning attention toward the sky and the “air” (often interjected with the rhetorical metaphor of “the ether”) as a medium with a near-utopian capacity to unite and secure peace. But, even from the earliest days, radio’s strategic capacities were recognized.

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