INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING, 1899-1922

By Susan J. Douglas

Johns Hopkins University Press. 363 pp. $29.50

This is not, as its title suggests, primarily a story about American broadcasting. It is far more a history of the early age of wireless communications and its panoramic emergence as a global service. Its heroes are inventor-scientists -- Heinrich Hertz of Germany, Guglielmo Marconi of Italy, Reginald Fessenden of Canada, Lee De Forest of the United States. Its predators are corporate monopolists and oligopolists who sought to convert wireless communications into a profit-making service, and largely succeeded. The story ends in 1922, just when American radio was beginning a galvanic surge across the nation.

This caveat aside, Prof. Susan Douglas of Hampshire College has succeeded in fashioning a superb portrait of the communications revolution that profoundly altered 20th-century life. It is meticulously researched and documented; and to scholars of the wireless era, to college students of communications, her work will provide fresh insights, and perhaps generate considerable controversy. In a sense, she has written a revisionist history.

In her view, the true prophet of modern broadcasting was De Forest, one of the inventors of the vacuum tube, who in 1908 proposed the use of radiotelephony not only for point-to-point messages but also for broadcasting music and speech into the nation's homes. "This conception of radio's place in America's social and economic landscape was original, revolutionary and quite different from that of his competitors," she contends.

With great clarity, although somewhat repetitiously, Douglas recounts the epic struggle between technical and entrepreneurial forces that followed Marconi's introduction in 1899 of the first practical system for transmitting electromagnetic signals across varying distances without wires. First the English Channel and then the North Atlantic were spanned. The Wireless Age had begun, its apotheosis the aristocratic Italian inventor hero who was lionized in the popular press. He sought an international wireless monopoly under the aegis of the English Marconi Co.

Ultimately he failed, the author asserts, because of limited technical vision. Other scientists made his system of Morse code dots and dashes obsolete. Fessenden's invention of continuous wave transmission permitted music and the human voice to be borne on the airwaves. De Forest and E.H. Armstrong amplified the transmitting and receiving power of wireless signals, thus permitting radio broadcasting to eclipse Marconi's original point-to-point wireless concept.

The story of these early 20th-century years of technical ferment, and of the emasculation of individual inventors through rapacious corporate takeovers of their inventions, has been often told, but seldom in such precise detail and with such astringency.

Examining press coverage of early wireless, Douglas finds it flaccid and venal to a degree that would revolt most of today's reporters. Newspaper owners saw in wireless a means of transmitting dispatches more cheaply than the cable and telegraph monopolies afforded. They drenched the new service in adulatory prose. Beginning with Marconi, its inventors entered the same pantheon as military heroes. Any report of a technical advance, whatever the source, was accepted at face value. Promoters of fraudulent stocks -- and there were many -- would get their press releases printed verbatim and then use the news clippings to sell more stock. In October 1915, Theodore Vail, head of American Telephone & Telegraph, prevailed upon the editors of The New York Times Magazine to print a lengthy question-and-answer interview with him. It was prepared in advance by his publicity department.

More than a pre'cis on the invention of American broadcasting, this book provides an in-depth examination of the initial struggle for control of that mysterious realm known variously as the ether, the spectrum or the airwaves. The combatants were governments, military services, scientists and inventors, legislators and lobbyists, corporate and other commercial interests. The struggle still continues, and if future authors examine it with the scholarly intensity of Susan Douglas, history will be well served.

The reviewer, the retired executive vice president of RCA, is the author of "The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of Mass Communications."