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Inventing European Wireless. A cultural history of wireless from point-to-point telegraphy to one-to-many broadcasting, 1903-1927



Balbi G.



Rikitianskaia M.



This projects aims to study the political, economic, and social construction of European wireless from the first international conference in which radiotelegraphy was considered (Berlin 1903) to the first in which radio broadcasting was definitely regulated (Washington 1927). During these years wireless underwent a crucial metamorphosis: before the First World War it was mainly conceived as a point-to-point medium and after it also became a one-to-many medium better known as radio broadcasting. This project seeks to establish for the first time a pan-European dimension, presuming that wireless was an international technology in many aspects. From a political point of view, wireless waves could hardly be restricted to national boundaries and, for this reason, international rules were established early. Furthermore, wireless was seen by national governments as an international weapon of communication and its control became crucial for states like the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and later the U.S.A. From an economic perspective, wireless market was supra-national: huge private companies such as British Marconi Company, German Telefunken, and French Société Générale struggled to acquire dominant positions in a European and, later, global markets. Finally, wireless was European also in terms of users. Radio amateurs, whose relevance increased in many European countries during the 1910s, aimed at communicating to each other and at listening to common contents such as the Eiffel Tower signals. National policies and markets were reaffirmed through radio broadcasting, but at the same time broadcasting had an inter- and transnational dimensions: frequencies had to be distributed in order to avoid overlapping, new international companies were created to produce radio sets, and early radio listeners were fascinated by European listening. The main research questions of this project are: 1. Wireless could have been used for national communication just like wired telegraphy or telephony, but it was quickly perceived as a long distance medium for international communication. Why? How was this long distance “nature”, not inherently embedded in the technology itself, co-constructed? 2. Why and how did European regulations, business strategies, technical options, and users’ demands affect the development of wireless? Are there significant differences between wireless and radio broadcasting? 3. How were new media, like wireless and broadcasting, understood at that time by “different social groups” such as politicians, investors, technicians, and users? And how were these different views conflicting? 4. Historians often claim that the turning point between wireless telegraphy and radio broadcasting was the First World War. How did this European conflict transform one medium into another? How was wireless telegraph/telephone used during the war and how did these uses favor/discourage the “broadcasting option”? 5. Finally, what can the origins of wireless telegraphy and radio broadcasting say on the cultural origins of long standing concepts for XX century media history, such as frequencies, freedom of the spectrum, “virtual” communities, and point-to-point/one-to-many media? This project seeks to answer these and other questions by conducting research on the basis of historiographical methods. Its methodological approach is based in the field of media history, with contributions from the political economy, economic history, international relations and institutions history, and finally audience studies in order to reconstruct the cultural history of two media (radiotelegraph and broadcasting) which emerged from one technology (wireless).

Additional information

Start date
End date
44 Months
Funding sources