The Library of Virginia

Transmitting only the letter "S" in Morse code on December 12, 1901, Guglielmo Marconi harnessed radio waves to send the first transatlantic wireless transmission from Great Britain to Newfoundland and revolutionized communication throughout the world. As he developed a network of wireless (telegraphic) stations under the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America (owned by British Marconi), others foresaw a future for transmitting voice and music (telephonic transmission). In 1906, Reginald A. Fessenden, who invented the continuous-wave transmitter, broadcast violin music and holiday greetings to ships at sea on Christmas Eve. That same year Lee de Forest patented the first radio tube, the audion (tube), which reproduced sound with reasonable fidelity. In 1913, Edwin Howard Armstrong invented the regenerative or feedback circuit that fed a radio signal through the radio tube 20,000 times per second, increasing its power and allowing for the broadcasting of a more powerful signal. David Sarnoff, then an executive with American Marconi, declared in 1916 that he planned to "make radio a household utility in the same sense as a piano or phonograph. The idea is to bring music into the homes by wireless."

Radio Broadcast Cover

Guglielmo Marconi



Radio Broadcast, a trade publication, regularly printed a list of active radio stations operating at a minimum of one kilowatt. By 1926, there were six radio stations operating in Virginia. WRVA was the most powerful.

Cover illustration to Radio Broadcast, November 1925.

Guglielmo Marconi inside the station at St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, after receiving the first transatlantic wireless signal. 1901. Courtesy of the Marconi Collection, Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, U.K.


Before World War I, American Marconi was negotiating to buy exclusive use rights to the most powerful generator of radio waves in the world, the Alexanderson alternator, from General Electric (GE), an advancement that would enable Marconi to control wireless communications around the world. When war erupted in Europe, the United States Navy took control of all radio installations, including those of American Marconi. Although negotiations began again after 1918, a GE lawyer, Owen Young, with encouragement from the government, devised a plan to purchase American Marconi from its parent British company to prevent foreign interests from controlling United States communications. On October 17, 1919, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was incorporated to control the radio patents of GE, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), Westinghouse, and the United Fruit Company. General Electric purchased the shares of American Marconi from British Marconi and forced American Marconi to transfer the company's assets and operation to RCA.


Wireless Age Cover

Souvenir Radio Log WRVA

The cutting of telegraph cables between the United States and Europe during World War I hastened the development of radio telegraphy. The government halted any ongoing radio patent litigation to encourage unhindered development of radio technology.

"The Wireless Age on the Border." Wireless Age,
October 1916.

Radio stations provided listeners with log books to track where programs reached their audiences. Early radio stations often reached far beyond their local audiences to listeners in other states and, occasionally, in other countries.

WRVA Souvenir Radio Log. 1929. Booklet. Noting his favorite broadcasts in one week, the owner of this log listened to programs from WRVA (Richmond), WPTF (Raleigh), and WEAF (New York). He also noted that one of his favorite programs was the "South Sea Islanders," broadcast from KDKA (Pittsburgh).


Competing against RCA, the Westinghouse Company moved headlong into building a broadcasting business. Although amateurs throughout the nation experimented with broadcasting, talking, or playing phonograph music or instruments, the broadcasting revolution really began on November 2,  1920, when Westinghouse's KDKA, operating out of Pittsburgh, broadcast results of the presidential election between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. Although the Detroit News radio station, an amateur station, also broadcast the election results, Westinghouse publicized the event extensively for the purpose of developing an interest in its radio equipment. KDKA continued broadcasting regularly, and Westinghouse established radio stations in Boston, Chicago, and New York.

Lynchburg Radio News

Radio store, Hampton

Trade publications, such as the Lynchburg Radio-News and the Danville Radio News, provided program information and tidbits of radio gossip.

Inaugural issue of Lynchburg Radio-News,
February 19, 1933.

Radio store, Hampton. 1930.
Photograph by Christopher E. or Happy Cheyne.
Courtesy of the Christopher E. Cheyne Photograph Collection, City of Hampton Historical Collection.


By the end of 1922, more than five hundred radio stations had been established throughout the United States. Within two years, the number had increased to 1,400, as a wide variety of businesses and organizations, such as universities, department stores, newspapers, and banks, operated broadcasting stations. With more than 400,000 households owning radio sets by 1923, the medium had become a national phenomenon. Within a decade, more than one million listeners tuned in.

Radio in Virginia

Radio Icon
The Development of Radio

WRVA - The Voice of Virginia

Network Radio

Radio Programming

The Programs and Announcers