Robert W. Lucky
Retired Corporate Vice President
Telcordia Technologies, Inc.
When I was young there was no television. This was difficult to explain to my children. "Oh no, Dad," they would say, "There was always TV." They can't understand what people did at night in that incomprehensible time when lives were not illuminated by television.
But I remember. My world at night was filled with the magic sounds of radio. I would lie in bed in the darkness, watching the dancing glows of the filaments in my bedside radio. I imagined sometimes that there were little people encased in those tubes and their voices were those I heard. Now in the modern daylight of television it is hard to explain the reality of radio in that long-lost time. I rode with the Lone Ranger. I sent away for the secret decoder ring from Captain Midnight so I could unscramble the coded messages about the next episode. The pictures I drew in my mind may have been more real than the ever-changing, evanescent images from the ubiquitous cathode-ray tubes of today.
I wanted to create this miracle of radio myself. I built crystal radios with "cat whiskers" that touched delicately on little cubes of quartz and listened acutely through earphones as I moved a steel pointer across a coil wound on a cardboard tube. Sadly, I never heard a peep. So I studied a book entitled Boys' First Book of Radio and dog-eared a precious copy of the Amateur Radio Handbook. From them I learned about superheterodyne receivers. I designed and built one and experienced an unforgettable thrill when I turned the switch and music came from the speaker. That radio made an engineer of me.
The magic of radio lives with me today, but now I see it through the eyes of an experienced engineer. I look out the window at the clear blue sky and think of all the radio waves crossing that seemingly empty space. If those waves had visible color, the sky would be as bright as a laser light show.
It wasn't all that long ago when there were no waves at all. I remember the feeling I had when I visited Marconi's home outside Bologna, Italy, with his daughter, Gioia, who had become a good friend. I looked out the window where he had sent the first radio pulse and wondered what he must have felt like when the iron filings in the glass tube of the coherer detector across the hill jumped at the recognition of his pulse.
Somewhere out there, 100 light-years distant, that first pulse is still traveling among the stars. Its creator, Marconi, must have believed that the heavens had been opened to unlimited communication. As an engineer in the late 20th century, however, I came to realize that the precious spectrum that had seemed free and infinite in Marconi's day had been sold in tiny slivers for billions of dollars.
Today, we again use Marconi's word, "wireless," to describe cellular radio. There has been a renaissance in thinking about the capabilities of that empty sky. New methods of transmission, of processing signals, and of sharing the spectrum have cascaded out of universities and research laboratories. The 20th century saw radio emerge, blossom, and ultimately devour all the capacity that nature had given us. The 21st century may see us reclaim the vastness of Marconi's dream with these new technologies.