Wireless Telephones: “New and Useless”?

Mobile phones and wireless telephony are much older than you might think. Reginald Fessenden began experimenting with wireless phones in 1898 and successfully transmitted speech via radio Dec. 23, 1900, from a station on Cobb Island, Md. Fessenden made the first shore-to-ship radio broadcast in 1906. His work led to major advances in wireless ship-to-shore communications, both in Morse code and voice, and was in many respects the genesis for our modern, global communications network.

This article is from the Feb. 11, 1922 edition of The Traffic World:

Regulation of Wireless Telephony. — Wireless telephony has been developed to such a state that President Harding and his cabinet gave two hours of their time recently to a discussion as to how it might be regulated. In the present state of development anyone able to buy, make, or otherwise acquire a receiver, may listen to all the talking and singing that may be going on, for the benefit of subscribers for a particular service, without paying a cent therefor. If capital cannot be assured profits it will not engage in the production or installation of apparatus for such telephone service; hence the worry on the subject. Taxing the whole public for such service, without, at the same time, providing for each family a full supply of news and music, would hardly do. The expenditure of public money on the ground that the invention was needed for military purposes of prime importance would not be any better, because military secrets entrusted to the wireless system would be the property of anyone who cared to listen. Unless some way is found for confining messages to the ears of those for whom they may be intended, the wireless telephone apparatus will fall into the classification created by the older patent office examiners, of “new and useless.” Patents are supposed to be limited to things that are new and useful. As a matter of practice, the man who devises something new gets a patent, no matter how useless the examiner who passes on the thing may think it is, on the theory that the examiner may not be wise enough to see its use. The automobile patent that was supposed to be basic, for years after its issuance, was useless, in the sense that no one had demonstrated how useful the thing could be made.

— wbc

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