The radio receives electromagnetic waves from the air that are sent by a radio transmitter. Electromagnetic waves are a combination of electrical and magnetic fields that overlap. The radio converts these electromagnetic waves, called a signal, into sounds that humans can hear.

Radios are a part of everyday life. Not only are they used to play music or as alarms in the morning, they are also used in cordless phones, cell phones, baby monitors, garage door openers, toys, satellites, and radar. Radios also play an important role in communications for police, fire, industry, and the military. Although there are many types of radios—clock, car, amateur (ham), stereo—all contain the same basic components.

Radios come in all shapes and sizes, from a little AM/FM “Walkman” to a highly sophisticated, multi-mode transceiver where both the transmitter and receiver are combined in one unit. The most common modes for a broadcast radio are AM (amplitude modulation) and FM (frequency modulation). Other modes used by ham radio operators, industry, and the military are CW (continuous wave using Morse code), SSB (single sideband), digital modes such as telemetry, radio teletype, and PSK (phase shift keying).


Guglielmo Marconi successfully sent the first radio message across the Atlantic Ocean in December 1901 from England to Newfoundland. Marconi’s radio did not receive voice or music. Rather, it received buzzing sounds created by a spark gap transmitter sending a signal using Morse code.

The radio got its voice on Christmas Eve 1906. As dozens of ship and amateur radio operators listened for the evening’s traffic messages, they were amazed to hear a man’s voice calling “CQ, CQ” (which means calling all stations, I have messages) instead of the customary dits and dahs of Morse code. The message was transmitted by Professor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden from a small radio station in Brant Rock, Massachusetts.

In the years from 1904 to 1914, the radio went through many refinements with the invention of the diode and triode vacuum tubes. These devices enabled better transmission and reception of voice and music. Also during this time period, the radio became standard equipment on ships crossing the oceans.

The radio came of age during World War I. Military leaders recognized its value for communicating with the infantry and ships at sea. During the WWI, many advancements were made to the radio making it more powerful and compact. In 1923, Edwin Armstrong invented the superhetrodyne radio. It was a major advancement in how a radio worked. The basic principles used in the superhetrodyne radio are still in use today.

On November 2, 1920 the first commercial radio station went on the air in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was an instant success, and began the radio revolution called the “Golden Age of Radio.” The Golden Age of Radio lasted from the early 1920s through the late 1940s when television brought in a whole new era. During this Golden Age, the radio evolved from a simple device in a bulky box to a complex piece of equipment housed in beautiful wooden cabinets. People would gather around the radio and listen to the latest news and radio plays. The radio occupied a similar position as today’s television set.

On June 30, 1948 the transistor was successfully demonstrated at Bell Laboratories. The transistor allowed radios to become compact, with the smallest ones able to fit in a shirt pocket. In 1959, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce received the first patent for the integrated circuit. The space program of the 1960s would bring more advances to the integrated circuit. Now, a radio could fit in the frame of eyeglasses or inside a pair of small stereo earphones. Today, the frequency dial printed on the cabinet has been replaced with light emitting diodes or liquid crystal displays.