On the Power of Radio

Addressing the four hundred plus delegates from over seventy nations gathered to open the International Radiotelegraphic Conference on October 4, 1927, President Coolidge, who had signed the Radio Act (helping to bring order and room for growth in radio communications) earlier that year, offered his assessment of the medium’s progress and future potential. He said,

“Ladies and Gentlemen:

“It is my privilege to extend to the delegates to this conference a most cordial welcome on behalf of the people of the United States. Seldom has a more representative world conference assembled. The presence here of delegates from so large a proportion of the nations of the earth is of itself sufficient evidence of the importance which will attach to your deliberations. The large number of subjects to be considered is at once apparent when it is remembered that there has been no conference of this nature for about fifteen years. Meantime there have been many improvements in transmitting and receiving radio messages and a perfectly tremendous expansion in their use.

“It is scarcely thirty years ago that the transmission of intelligence by radio began. For almost twenty-five years it was largely confined to Government use, mostly in navigation. Within the past five or six years has come the enormous popular development which has brought the radio receiving set into such general use in the home and the construction of so many privately controlled broadcasting stations. The chief marvel and usefulness of this modern invention lies in the instantaneous service it is able to render over great areas of the earth’s surface, using as its medium of transmission only the natural elements of the atmosphere. In military defense, in navigation, in commerce, in education, in musical and theatrical entertainment it has come to play a great part in the life of our people.

“Communication is one of the important supports of civilization. If we glance at any of the backward portions of the earth we shall see at once that methods for the transmission of intelligence are lacking. In such places there are few and poorly constructed highways, railroads are lacking, telephone and telegraph lines do not exist, newspapers do not circulate, the radio is unknown, and, finally, there is almost nothing in the way of post-office service. These are the necessary equipments for a people desiring to live according to modern standards and become partakers in modern progress. I believe that the radio holds great promise of reaching into these dark places of the earth because the cost of its installation and maintenance will represent almost nothing in comparison with the cost of the other means of communication. To use it does not even require an elementary education of reading and writing. Its main weakness appears to me to lie in the fact that it produces no permanent record for future consideration.

“An instrument of such far-reaching magnitude, fraught with so great a power for good to humanity, naturally requires national and international regulation and control, to the end that there may be the most perfect order and the largest possible uniformity in its use and enjoyment. It is to consider methods and rules for securing these results that this conference has been called. I commend to you the adoption of the policy of candid discussion, generous conciliation, and wide cooperation. This is a field where it will be exceedingly easy for a single nation to render uncertain and useless a broad area of surrounding territory, greatly to the disadvantage of itself and all others concerned. A large opportunity exists for an economic treatment of radio problems through standardization. A uniformity of action among different peoples is always a most important step in advance.

“In many fields our country claims the right to be the master of its own independent development. It cordially concedes the same right to all others. But in the radio field the most complete development, both at home and abroad, lies in mutual concession and cooperation. Your main endeavor will be to discover the rules which will be for the mutual advantage of all those who are connected with this great industry and who are the users of this means of communication.

“This conference recognizes that the radio has become a great influence in the world. Like every invention which increases the power of man it may be used for good or for evil. It can serve the cause of understanding and friendship among people and among nations, or it can be used to create ill will and dissension. The world will not be benefited by this increase in the scope of its power unless there is corresponding increase in moral development. Your main object will be to raise this great industry into the realm of beneficent public service.

“Those of you who are present here from foreign lands I trust may gain a deep appreciation of the cordial friendship which this country entertains toward all of you. I hope you may have the opportunity of coming into closer contact with the life of our people, that you may secure a helpful knowledge of our commercial and political institutions, and that out of the deliberations of this conference there may come an increased power for the service of humanity.”

The Conference of radio entrepreneurs, broadcasters, producers, inventors, advertisers, and regulators would not only revise the regulations governing radio communications under the new law but would do much to foster a place for where it had all began: the amateur owners, operators and innovators. Creating the ten-meter band on a world-wide basis, and new spaces on the dial for broadcasting, the members who heard Coolidge that day were keeping radio’s openness, opportunity and creativity without making future progress impossible. Had they not done so, participants would have spilled into other frequencies and listeners would not have found much of anything coherent, useful or entertaining on the airwaves. The medium simply would have succumbed to chaos and never known the power Coolidge saw possible in its development as he stood before those men and women on that October afternoon eighty-seven years ago.

The delegates of the International Radiotelegraphic Conference, October 4, 1927, split in two photographs. Notice who stands in their midst in the top shot: President and Mrs. Coolidge.

The delegates of the International Radiotelegraphic Conference, October 4, 1927, split in two photographs. Notice who stands in their midst in the top shot: President and Mrs. Coolidge.

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