The History Of Two-Way Radios: 1880’s to Now

Two-way radios have developed massively through history, playing a major role in the safety of many industries and have aided world events in a way that was never even considered at the point of their origin. From the initial concrete evidence that electromagnetic waves existed, to two-way radios being used across the world in a multitude of environments, there is much to unpack when it comes to their history.

1880s & Heinrich Hertz

It is generally considered that the creation of two-way radios as products, began in the 20th century. However, it is important to discuss and remember the man that allowed the development of radio communications.

Heinrich Hertz. Hertz was a German physicist who successfully proved the existence of electromagnetic waves (later known as radio waves) beyond any doubt. Working off James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, Hertz conducted a series of experiments between 1885 – 1889 whilst at the Karlsruhe Polytechnic to prove the existence of such waves.

However, whilst Hertz is credited with the corroboration of the wave’s existence, when asked at the time if he believed his experiments would hold any historical or developmental impact, he said no! At the time, Hertz did not believe electromagnetic waves would ever be used in the future! Oh how he was wrong!

History photo of Heinrich Hertz

Heinrich Hertz. Born 1857, Hamburg, Germany. Died 1894, Bonn, Germany.

1890s & Guglielmo Marconi

The use of wireless telegraphy messages were widely used by ships at the end of the 19th century and were the first instances in history in which radio waves were used to communicate. With manual systems, the ship’s operator taps telegraph keys which turns the transmitter on and off to produce pulses. To the receiver, the pulses were audible and operators on the receiving end translated the pulses to messages – also known as Morse Code.

The first transmitters and receivers in history to be practically used were invented by Guglielmo Marconi in 1894-1895.

This technological development stemming from Hertz’s work with electromagnetic (or radio) waves dramatically improved the safety of the maritime industry.

In 1899 Marconi established wireless communications with France and England, erecting permanent wireless stations at multiple points across the South English coast. This was the first time in history that a message could reach England from France without going via a messenger on a horse. A MASSIVE leap for the future of communications.

Guglielmo Marconi. Born 1874, Bologna, Italy. Died 1937, Rome, Italy.

1900 – 1910: A period of historical moments

In 1906, Canadian radio pioneer, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden became the first in history to broadcast music and voice transmissions over a long distance, playing music from Brant Rock, Massachusetts all the way to Norfolk, Virginia on Christmas Eve! It was the first messages NOT in Morse Code.

Soon after, in just 1907, access to communications across the Atlantic Ocean became available commercially. Only a few years later in 1910, the history of aviation communication jumped up to match that of the maritime industry as they were now both able to transmit and receive information even when they are far out of sight of land.

The Wireless Ship Act of 1910! This was the U.S Federal Government’s first attempt in history to regulate radio communications, but as you’ll find out soon, it was very quickly updated. Passed in June 1910, the U.S Government required all ships departing from a United States port to be equipped with wireless radio equipment with a range of 100 miles and a qualified operator on board if they were carrying more than 50 people and travelling over 200 miles.

Reginald A. Fessenden born 1866, East Bolton, Canada. Died 1932, Bermuda.

Fessenden (right) and co-workers at their radio station in Brant Rock, 1906.

Two-Way Radios & The Titanic

The true importance of two-way radio communications and the power of Marconi’s technology made itself know to the world in 1912.

The Titanic was kitted out with some of the best wireless telegraphy equipment that was available at the time and can be considered one of the main reasons that there were survivors of the ship-wreck.

Unfortunately, there was not yet a policy for ships to keep a channel free for emergencies. This resulted in busy channels, lots of transmissions and ultimately led to the Titanic missing the iceberg warnings. However, the distress signal that was sent out from the Titanic by Senior Wireless Operator Jack Phillips, was heard by Harold Cottam, the operator on the near-by RMS Carpathia. The Carpathia is best known for making the 60-mile journey at a estimated top speed of 17 knots to the Titanic (3 knots above the maximum that the boat was designed for), and although arriving over hour after the ship sank, rescuing all 706 survivors.

The history behind the RMS Carpathia is fascinating.

The Carpathia, Pier 54 in New York City. Either 18th or 19th April 1912 following the rescue of Titanic survivors.

The Radio Act of 1912

Following the Titanic’s catastrophic end, the US Congress saw this is a prime example of what can happen when technology advances quicker than regulations. Whilst the Wireless Radio Act of 1910 arguably saved the 706 passengers of the Titanic because it had become a requirement for the ship to have a wireless telegraphy system on board, the Acts of 1910 had one MAJOR flaw!

The 1910 act did not allocated frequencies, and this is where The Radio Act of 1912 differs. This new act called for proper regulation of two-way radios. Licencing for operators was now needed, a separate frequency and absolute priority for distress calls, as well as all ships to have 24-hour operation of the radio systems, meaning at least two operators on board.

The Titanic distress call was only picked up by The Carpathia as Cottam worked past his mid-night shift end by about 25 minutes and stayed just long enough to catch the SOS.

The 1912 Act also required all amateur radio broadcasters to be licenced and prohibited them from broadcasting over main commercial and military wavelengths.

These acts were the first attempt in history at regulating two-way radios and have paved the way for today’s licencing laws and regulations.

Two-Way Radios in WWI

Whilst radio communications has transformed in leaps and bounds since the 1880s, its usage in active military scenarios was still rather limited. During WW1, radio operators with portable transmitters were able to quickly warn soldiers of incoming poisonous gas attacks thanks to the development of voice transmissions away from Morse Code.

Despite the advances made, the radios were considered still widely unreliable on the battlefield by many military leaders who opted to use older methods of communicating.

1920s -1930s

In 1921 the Detroit Police department began experimenting with radios in their patrol cars to combat the number of criminals that had been escaping them in car chases. To begin with, the police shared a frequency with a commercial station. This meant there was a large amount of interference from other broadcasters, as well as the general public being able to hear all the communications with the police if they were on the same frequency. Imagine your music being interrupted by the number plate of a stolen car!

Patrolman and radio operator Walter Stick stands by one of the city’s first radio-dispatched Police cars, a Ford Model T, featuring an antenna on the roof.

In 1923, the Victoria police department in Australia were the first successful department in history to use mobile two-way radios regularly. It was deemed whilst having the whole back of the car occupied with a radio was inconvenient, it was outweighed by the advantages of fast sharing of information in regard to stopping and catching criminals.

In 1928, years after trial and error with radios in cars, the Detroit Police Department were able to successfully and regularly communicate information on crimes in progress between the stationhouse and police cars as they drove. They finally had their own frequency.

WWII & Donald Hings

Canadian inventor, Donald Hings is credited for the first truly portable hand-held radio in 1937, shaping history today as we know it.

Donald Hings. Born 1907, Leicester, England. Died 2004, Burnaby, Canada.

Hings had contributed to the world of electronic technology and communications for more than 60 years, and the originator of over 55 patents in Canada and the U.S. In 1939, Hings was in Washington hoping to receive the patent for his latest handheld radio – C-58 – when Canada declared war with Nazi Germany.

Hings offered his wireless radio for free to the Canadian and British militaries. As a civilian on loan from CM&S – the company he was working for when inventing these handheld radios – Hings assisted the Allie’s militaries in their use of portable radios in war time. 18,000 of Hings’ portable radios were produced for the war-time effort, with different series being tailored to certain environments such as: polar or tropical regions, landing D-Day craft and paratroops.

WWII was the first war in which soldiers could communicate whilst on the move. It changed the way in which WWII played out.

In 1939, Galvin Manufacturing Corporation (founded 1928) released their first two-way radio, the SCR536 AM, which was also widely used in the war efforts.

Canadian Soldier with Hings’ 1937 C-58 model.
Hing’s 1943 C-27 handheld radio.
Donald Hings in 1993 with his C-58 production model.

Post War Developments

After WWII, the general use of two-way radios began to rise after the devices were designed more compact and affordable. In the late 1940s, the use of two-way radios became very popular for businesses to communicate with their drivers, particularly in the Taxi industry.

The Galvin Manufacturing Corporation, who changed their name in 1947 to Motorola, have been a leading company in the production and development of two-way radios since WWII. Along with other major brands including: Hytera, Icom, Kenwood and Entel.

The development of Hing’s portable two-way radio – or ‘Walkie talkie’ – was more or less the end of the major technological advancements. That’s not to say that two-way radios haven’t developed since, because as history has shown us, there are always advancements to be discovered. There are just fewer individual people that can be credited with the inventions. The progress made has been important still (as all technological evolution will be), but less industry changing as the inventions before have been.

The efficiency of frequencies; the use of channels to create security and privacy between users; the range the radios have, and the size/weight/and cost have all massively improved over the years since the war.

The features and technical side alone of two-way radio are – I’m sure – beyond what any of the inventors that came before could have ever envisioned were possible. Features like: selective group calling; angle tilts to detect a fallen user; the option to switch between analogue and digital; nationwide communications; text features and much much more!

The new look of two-way radios.


The history behind two-way radios dates all the way back to the 1880s with the initial theories on electromagnetic waves from Maxwell and Hertz’s impractical experiment that proved their existence. Knowing that electromagnetic waves existed could be considered the igniting spark that inventors and physicists around the world needed to begin the journey of two-way radio communications.

Behind the technology filled radios we have access to today, stands a history book-full of incredibly intelligent individuals who have shaped the worlds communications; changed the world of warfare and crime-fighting; and contributed to saving hundreds of thousands of lives, without possibly ever having predicted the impact they would come to have in the future.

If only Heinrich Hertz knew, I bet he would have never said:

It’s of no use whatsoever … this is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right—we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye. But they are there.

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