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The word "radio" originates from "radius", which in turn came from "ray". That's why "radius" means any line from a central focal point to any directions.

Because of that, in 1881, Alexander Graham Bell chose to name his photophone as "radiophone" (which is a combination of the words "radio" and "phone"). That implied that his device was able to radiate voices in all directions. That seems to be the first wide usage of the word "radio".

In 1887, Hertz discovered a kind of electromagnetic waves that was first named as "Hertzian waves". This wave is the wave that we called "radio waves" today. Why and how was radio waves named as "radio waves"? What is its etymology?

Is it because this wave is the only electromagnetic wave that is radial by nature (i.e. it radiates from a focal point into all directions) when Hertz discovered it?

Or actually all other electromagnetic waves (such as infrared and ultraviolet which were discovered in 1800, way earlier than radio waves) are also radial by nature, so the naming of "radio waves" was random with no certain origin?

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    $\begingroup$ If your university library subscribes to Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, there is early usage of this term since the beginning of the 1900s. . $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Feb 27, 2023 at 7:28

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The OED asserts that the origin of radio as a stand-alone word arises by clipping earlier uses of radio as a combining form. The earliest stand-alone use that the OED cites is in 1903, whereas the earliest cited use as a combining form is this one:

1875 W. Crookes in Proc. Royal Soc. 23 377 The luminous rays..repel the black surface more energetically than they do the white surface. Taking advantage of this fact, the author has constructed an instrument which he calls a radiometer.

The title of that article is On attraction and repulsion resulting from radiation, and the terminology radiation occurs repeatedly throughout the article, including in the vicinity of the coined term radiometer. For example, this quote appears in the very next paragraph, which also contains the word rays:

The author finds that this instrument revolves under the influence of radiation, the rapidity of revolution being in proportion to the intensity of the incident rays.

Unless there's something even earlier, the best guess I could form on this basis is that the word "radio", rather than deriving directly from "radius", instead derives from Mr. Crookes determination that "radiometer" just sounded better than "ray meter" or "radiation meter".


Poking around in the future of 1875, the earliest entries in the OED for "radio" as a stand-alone word in the phrases "radio wave" and "radio frequency" appear at just about the same time, namely 1915, with their modern meaning. But the OED gives the following slightly earlier stand-alone use:

1912 Statutes U.S.A. XXXVII. i. 308 ‘Radio communication’ as used in this Act means any system of electrical communication by telegraphy or telephony without the aid of any wire [etc.].

and then, tracing the telegraph connection further back, there is this interesting entry:

1898 J. Munro in Electrician 21 Jan. 428/2 ‘Wireless telegraphy’ is not a bad technical term; but if a more scientific name be desirable would not Radiotelegraphy or Ray Telegraphy be preferable to ‘Space Telegraphy’? which Dr. Lodge employs.

This leads one to think that the "radio" combining form had become well established in science in the years since Crookes' radiometer. My best guess here might be that as the technology of telegraphic communication via electromagnetic waves advanced, the more general use of the combining form "radio-", introduced by Crookes' and referring to unspecified frequencies of radiation, somehow became narrowed down to refer to the familiar wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation in its modern meaning.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe it is noteworthy that radium and radioactivity were (discovered and) named in the same decade we are closing in on here? $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2023 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ An instrument used to measure the ratio of the energy radiated to the energy received was called a radio-micrometer. This term was in use before wireless telegraphy was renamed to radio - see for example "Tuning in Wireless Telegraphy" by Sir Oliver Lodge, Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1908. $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2023 at 19:16

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