Radio’s Sordid History Of Being Blamed For Everything

In the surreal world of a pandemic lockdown, we are surrounded by news stories that defy satire. The idea that 5G cellular networks are to blame for the COVID-19 outbreak and a myriad other ills has the more paranoid corners of social media abuzz with concerned citizens leaping upon random pieces of street furniture as potential 5G infrastructure.

The unanimous advice of the world’s scientists, doctors, and engineers that it is inconceivable for a phone technology to cause a viral outbreak. Amusingly, 5G has not yet been rolled out to some of the places where this is happening. But with conspiracy theory, fact denial only serves to reinforce the idea, however misguided. Here at Hackaday we have already ventured into the technical and scientific side of the story, but there is another side to it that leaves the pandemic behind and reaches back over the decades. Fear of new technology and in particular radio is nothing new, it stretches back almost as long as the public has had access to it.

This innocent-looking Royal Mail post box in an English village could conceal a hidden 5G mast! (If only! - finally, decent bandwidth around here.)
This innocent-looking Royal Mail post box in an English village could conceal a hidden 5G mast! (If only! – finally, decent bandwidth around here.)

Where this is being written, in a quiet corner of rural Southern England, we don’t have a good mobile signal. In part this is due to an ineffectual roll-out of cell towers across the country going back decades, but in particular it is due to the residents of a neighbouring village who successfully campaigned against a proposed mast during the 3G deployment over a decade ago.

Browsing the archives it rapidly becomes obvious that we aren’t alone, with fears of everything from headaches to cancer clusters being blamed on cell towers worldwide since their arrival on the scene. But the archives also reveal a parallel set of stories from the 1920s, when it wasn’t the centimetre and millimetre wavelengths of mobile phone signals in play, but the much lower frequencies of AM radio.

Fear And Mistrust In The Age Of Marconi

There have been quasi-humorous compilations of seemingly-absurd small-town headlines on the subject, but it’s interesting to note that this was not restricted to superstitious peasants, instead reaching to the top of some societies. In a distant precursor to some of today’s pronouncements from on high, in 1926 the French statesman Paul Painlevé, then Minister for War, blamed a spell of unusually wet and stormy weather on radio transmissions. This was quickly debunked by meteorologists, who instead fingered sunspot activity as a more likely culprit.

As if to prove that we are a set of actors performing the same character roles separated by a century, it was not difficult to find a 1920s technical journalist willing to go into battle just as we have on 5G. Hugo Gernsback was editor of Science and Invention, and in October 1924 he felt it necessary to pen a lengthy editorial debunking the idea (PDF, turn to page 13). Some of his claims of the health-giving properties of radio lack substance from a 21st century viewpoint, but we can certainly see a parallel. Perhaps in a hundred years time another exasperated scribe will write a piece for whatever medium serves the thirst for tech news debunking fears about quantum entanglement communication heralding the end of the world.

Pro Science, Not Anti Testing

There must be times in every copywriter’s life when they wish they could go back and change what they’ve written. Courtesy of Science History Institute (Public Domain).

It is right and proper to question new technologies for potential harm as they emerge, lest they conceal another tragedy such as Thalidomide-related birth defects or leave a toxic legacy such as DDT accumulation in the ecosystem. It is even right to question new developments in the light of emerging scare stories such that surrounding the MMR vaccine and its supposed connection to autism in the 1990s. This is the point of science; to always question and push the boundaries of human knowledge.

But this article is not dealing with the evidence-based research. Instead we are up against a much more primeval part of human nature;  the fear of that which we don’t understand. The same impetus that made some of our ancestors burn suspected witches when their livestock became sick is making them ascribe random headaches or other pieces of bad luck to the appearance (or in the case of those random pieces of street furniture, imagined appearance) of a cell tower. While the concerned citizens will almost certainly all use cellphones, to them they are a magic artifact covered in glowing runes that might as well have been seized from the dust of a hidden tomb as part of the plot of an Indiana Jones movie.

Are we as engineers and technologists in part responsible for this? Have we made the technology so invisible as to be considered witchcraft? The purpose of technology should be to make lives better, and for that to extend to everyone it means you shouldn’t need an engineering background to use it. So yes, we have made it invisible and perhaps were we’ve been lax is in making the basic concepts a part of the hype for cell technology itself. But no matter how good a job is done in educating the end user, to exercise the vernacular of social media: idiots gonna idiot.

Header image, a broadcast radio curtain array: MikeincDerivative work: Chetvorno / CC BY-SA 3.0.

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