99 years ago, one of Switzerland’s earliest known radio broadcasts hit the airwaves. In Lausanne, the ‘Champ-de-l’Air’ aircraft radio station broadcast a vocal performance live from the studio. Swiss radio was born. In the 1920s, listening to the radio was an adventure and a thrilling journey into uncharted territory. A look back at the pioneering age of radio.
Dr. phil., Curator of the Information and Communication Technology Collection, Museum of Communication, Berne
The idea wasn’t entirely new; live music was being transmitted via telegraph and telephone lines in the late 19th century. In Paris, the well-to-do were able to take out a ‘Théâtrophone’ subscription and listen to opera performances in stereo at home on their telephone handsets. The telephone was the radio before radios were invented. So the idea of using wireless telegraphy technology for radiotelephony or music transmission already existed. Then Guglielmo Marconi laid the foundations for using radio waves. In 1896 the Italian took out an initial patent, and in 1909 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his practical work in radiotelegraphy. Radio wave receivers could be found in some Swiss watch- and clock-making workshops as early as 1910. Thanks to the time signal from the Eiffel Tower, watchmakers were able to precisely set mechanical watches and check their movement.
Historically, it can be very difficult to identify ‘the first time’. This is also true of Switzerland’s ‘first’ radio transmissions. The Lausanne aircraft radio station, for example, claims to have made early broadcasts. In 1922, engineer and qualified wireless operator Roland Pièce (1897-1972) operated an aircraft radio station in France for the Lausanne-Blécherette airfield. In August of that year, the ‘Champ-de-l’Air’ transmitter commenced operations. This aircraft radio transmitter was located not at the airfield itself, but in the city of Lausanne, slightly to the north of the cathedral. The Lausanne station, named for the field, operated out of premises provided by the City of Lausanne. The adjacent ‘Service météorologique vaudois’ provided relevant weather data and forecasts for the Paris-Lausanne route. But there was only one flight a week. Between flights, Pièce had time to experiment. In September 1922 he used a wax cylinder phonograph to play music and entertain an air crew via radio microphone. As Pièce remembered it, the overture from Rossini’s William Tell was among the pieces that went over the air waves in this historic first. The ‘Champ-de-l’Air’ station was officially inaugurated on 26 October 1922. Pièce and his staff secretly organised a first radio broadcast from the studio to the Hotel Beau Rivage on the shores of Lake Geneva, in Lausanne’s Ouchy district. An ensemble sang live in the studio and a Federal Councillor, senior PTT officials, the French ambassador and representatives of the City of Lausanne and the Canton of Vaud had their first experience with the new medium. That is what happened, at least according to Pièce’s memoirs, published in 1972. However, there are no references to this event in the region’s daily newspapers. It was only on 30 April 1923 that the Gazette de Lausanne reported on a similar occasion.What is clear, however, is that in 1922 the federal government asserted its own power over the new medium by law as the licensing and supervisory authority. Regulatory duties were delegated to the postal department (PTT). In 1923, the federal government authorised the aircraft radio stations to transmit the first regular broadcasts. Several radio broadcasters evolved out of this. Lausanne officially went live in 1923, followed by Zurich in 1924, Bern and Geneva in 1925 and Basel in 1926. Switzerland’s first entirely broadcast radio station belonged to Radio Zürich, and transmitted from Höngg. In the 1920s, radio broadcasters were financed through reception fees from licensees and contributions from both private and public sources. Advertising was prohibited, and broadcasters tended to run on a shoestring. Meanwhile, listeners were becoming more and more enthusiastic about the new medium. In 1923 the federal government administered only around 1,000 receiving licenses, but by 1930 the number of licence-holders was in excess of 100,000.
Early radio reception
But how did private radio reception work in the 1920s? Crystal radio receivers were in common use. The key component was a small piece of pyrite crystal that was clamped on top of the unit. The listener used a pointed wire to search on the stone for a suitable place. The stone acted as a demodulator, rectifying the high-frequency vibrations of the radio waves. So the most basic radio converted the radio waves into audible sound. The signal was not amplified. This meant that only strong transmitters, and therefore mostly local stations, could be received. Users listened via headphones – the power for operation was provided by the radio waves themselves. The components of these early radios were mostly sold individually. Listening to the radio called for some DIY construction skills. An advertisement placed in the Neue Zürcher Nachrichten newspaper on 30 October 1924 by Zurich specialist shop ‘Photo-Bär’ gives us an idea of the costs involved: including headphones, the total came to 40-50 francs, which would be equivalent to at least 200-300 francs today. Devices with an external power supply and receiver circuits with multiple circuits and tubes were more expensive, and more complex in terms of fiddling around. Here too, tuning in to the ether was mostly done through headphones. The listener was still shackled to the device.Funnel loudspeakers were an alternative; a membrane was made to vibrate in a sound box. As with the phonograph or gramophone, a funnel was used to amplify this acoustic signal. The listening experience was probably similar to listening to a phonograph or gramophone. Loud dynamic loudspeakers with a coil and magnet didn’t come on to the market until after 1925. In addition to the receiving set, an external antenna was essential. Here, too, there were often improvised solutions. Appropriate wires were aligned and tensioned in the attic, or slung between the house and a nearby tree.Radio reception in the 1920s was worlds away from today’s listening pleasure. The listening experience was characterised by crackling, hissing and background noise. Today we would probably rate it as ‘indigestible’. Electrical equipment in the home, such as heating units, or a passing tram, massively interfered with reception. In addition, foreign stations often broadcast in better quality. This also attracted criticism, of course – in the NZZ of 26 September 1924, for instance: ‘The Zurich programmes are remarkably varied and abundant; but it is a great pity that this lovely music is not reproduced better. How smooth and full, pristine and loud the performances of the London or Brussels radio orchestras sound to us over here. And how hard, feeble and raspy it sounds, in contrast, if you set the dial to Zurich.’Listeners could find the radio schedule for the Swiss stations in the local newspaper. Broadcasting time was the afternoon and evening. Programming was structured around the news, the weather forecast and the regularly broadcast time signal. Classical and traditional music was played live or in recordings. Readings, talks, radio plays, discussions and sermons completed the programme. Broadcasters endeavoured early on to appeal to various different target groups. For instance, on 9 April 1927 Radio Bern broadcast a ‘Children’s hour with Miss Gsell, Bern: Something from the Easter Bunny’.The pioneering age of radio in Switzerland came to an end with the establishment of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (Schweizerische Rundfunkgesellschaft, SRG) in 1931. From then on the SRG had the monopoly, and provided Switzerland with radio programmes via the country’s public broadcasters. Many radio pioneers of the 1920s now worked for SRG or PTT. Roland Pièce became technical director at the national broadcaster in Sottens.
Receiving and listening to radio signals is easier now. There’s no having to build your own set. You can buy radios in speciality shops. The antennae are more manageable and the names of the national stations are printed on the radio dials – setting your radio to a particular station takes no more than the turn of a knob. Radio now comes out of loudspeakers, and can also be conveniently consumed while doing something else. The heady adventure of the pioneering days has become a mass medium.
‘A sturdy, high-performance assistant for all four types of calculation, right there in your pocket’, promised the sales brochure. The world’s smallest handheld mechanical calculator was made in Liechtenstein.
Once upon a time, television stations didn’t broadcast round the clock. Late at night and in the morning, there was a break in transmission. The symbol for these time-outs was the PTT television test card. A look back at a not too distant echo of a time when life wasn’t moving quite so fast – the test card hasn’t been gone all that long.