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

Advert: "DDT is good for me-e-e!"
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.

92 thoughts on “Radio’s Sordid History Of Being Blamed For Everything

  1. When I was still in Cellular, there was a story about a house in the Miami area that had a cell site in it. Apparently the community complained about a lack of coverage, but wouldn’t issue a permit for a tower. Their solution was to buy a house, gut it, and outfit it as a cell cite.

      1. And DDT is now being substituted by spraying diesel oil and kerosene over ditches and ponds to suffocate the mosquito larvae, which is doing untold damage to the environment and isn’t actually any better for the bird eggs either.

        1. Reference:

          https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/coimbatore/Kerosene-will-increase-potency-of-mosquito-spray-says-health-department/articleshow/16898037.cms

          >At the moment, the control measures against adult aedes segypti mosquite, the vector for dengue fever, involves intense fogging using Pyrethrum, a herbal insecticide mixed with diesel in the fogging machines, both hand-held and vehicle-mounted. The Pyrethrum exctract is dissolved in a solvent which is usually diesel, petrol or kerosene at a ration of 1:19

          Note: diesel and kerosene form an oily film on stagnant pools of water that prevents mosquito larvae from breathing. The Pyrethrum is for knocking out flying adult mosquitoes in the area being sprayed.

      2. I was reading bed bugs are making a come back also. Definitely not the waterfowl like watched or heard about from previous generations.

        Now I’m wondering about wireless infrastructure on migratory activity impact?

        1. TEL wasn’t initially considered harmful at the low concentrations present in gasoline, because they didn’t account for the fact that it accumulates in the environment.

          It was allowed on the point that it was much cheaper and easier to use than any of the other alternatives, such as ethanol which reduced the fuel energy (worse mileage, especially important for war machines) when blended.

          The irony is that the octane booster of choice today is ethanol, mainly because of massive agricultural subsidies – but the incomplete combustion of ethanol produces ethanal in cold and off-tuned engines, otherwise known as acetaldehyde. It’s a major contributor to lung cancer and asthma. Ethanol was the original second choice to TEL – one can imagine that if history went the other way around, we would have been crying out to ban ethanol in fuels and introduce TEL instead in the 70’s…

          1. There’s actually considerable evidence that they knew about TEL’s accumulative nature and clear dangers from the very beginning, but ignored it and pressed forward anyway. Much like cigarettes and oil companies knowing full well about climate change in the 70s. This is pretty standard.

          2. Yes. They simply didn’t account for it because they assumed something better would come along and they’d make the switch to that.

            Then the industry started paying doctors to claim that TEL is not harmful, and that the lead isn’t accumulating.

          3. Ethanal is also an intermediate in the metabolism of ethanol which is naturally occurring in fruits and drunk on purpose by many people worldwide. Where did you get, that it is that toxic?

  2. The best case I remember was when g3 was rolling out. There was an interview with an elderly lady who was suffering from headaches ever since a cell tower was placed on the roof of her flat one or more weeks prior. When she moved to the window she even started shaking (think parkinsons like). She and the reporter went to the roof and now even the reporter started feeling unwell.

    After the interview the telecom company (dutch KPN i think) was contacted about the issue. They took it surprisingly seriously and did some additional checking. This revealed the cell phone tower was not switched on yet.

    For me this shows how incredibly powerful our brain is. The elderly lady and de reporter were not making it up and there was real suffering. Only it was not due to radio signals from the tower.

        1. There’s a difference between someone who claims that radio waves are causing headaches and other ills without any scientific backing at all and someone using actual science to show how the radio waves may cause issues with scientific equipment, where the radio waves definitely WILL cause issues at high levels and where the main argument is not “can this happen?” but “at what signal strength will this happen?”

    1. Having worked for the gov’t regulatory body for Her Majesty that issues radio licenses and carries out general public investigations, I can state first hand that this sort of behavior happens! A new cell site tower can be blamed for health issues, or for garage door opener suddenly not working (in this case, turned out to be self-inflicted… a new touch controlled lamp was creating enough RF noise to drown out the 315 MHz door opener receiver). Yes, there are people that wear aluminum foil hats. Many are emotional and language based thought process, with only enough technical understanding to solidify their concerns. They cannot process the numbers that are involved with any technical assessment, or to calm their nerves.

      For example: Complainant: How is it a cell phone in a microwave oven with the door closed can still receive calls? This proves the oven leaks! If cellular signals can get in and out of that oven, so can the escape of the cooking energy that will harm me. Me: Well yes, closing the door reduces the escaping energy by at least 1000 times (30 dB) to safe levels, which makes energy escaping equivalent to a WiFi router. Complainant: Well, I don’t have any wireless routers or wireless phones in my house either because they are dangerous too. Me: Sigh!

      I’ve spent hours gently providing numeric (factual) answers. Might as well be speaking a foreign language.

      These days, the conspiracy theorists build into their arguments enough subterfuge to keep believers believing and negate or cast doubt into facts… pretty much like a cult.

      1. Conspiracy theorists pretty soon discovered that their absurdities can be turned into profits (books, TV and public appearances, merchandising, conference tickets, even political careers, etc.) so they have a strong incentive to keep their followers as stupid as possible.

      2. Actually, the complainant does have a point and the cell phone signal is NOT blocked by the microwave’s shell. But that’s not because ‘the microwave does leak a little but it’s within tolerance.’ If a microwave puts out microwaves at 700w but then is attenuated to about 700mw by the shielding then the signal from/to the cell phone that’s at 700mw would be attenuated to 700uw and be useless. The reason the phone may work is that the microwave isn’t designed to block the wavelength used by the cell phone. Try putting a cell phone that is ONLY using wifi-calling in the microwave and it won’t receive a call because it can’t get a signal on the wifi.

        1. The mesh on the door of the microwave is designed to block signals with a wavelength over the mesh size. It’s a faraday cage. Cellular networks operate below 2.4 Ghz, so they should be even more effectively blocked by the oven.

          If a microwave was leaking 700 mW it would be blanking out the wifi in the neighborhood. In all probability, their microwave did leak harmful amounts of energy because it was broken somehow.

          1. Yeah, yer right. The lower frequencies have a longer wavelength and would be blocked even more (I wasn’t thinking about HOW they are blocked.) But that would cause doubt on if a cell phone really WILL work inside of a microwave oven.

          2. Some of the shielding is wavelength dependent, e.g. the door frame there are quarter wavelength like structures included, some, like the door mesh is not. And yes, a Microwave can leak enough to cause interference to other 2,4 GHz applications like analog video transmitters or Bluetooth.

            On the other hand, if you have a good cellphone signal the an extra 30 to 40dB loss can be compensated for. The phone increases the transmission power and reception gain. The data bandwidth will for sure go down, but some signal comes through.

    2. I was employed in the 80’s by a manufacturer of security sensors. We were sued by a woman who claimed the sensor was the cause of her cancer. The lawyer was wetting his panties until he found out that the Infrared sensors were passive and radiated nothing.

  3. I think the trend toward willful ignorance, social media “news”, what people believe being used to counter scientific facts, and just the whole trend against scientific reasoning has consequences for us all.

    1. ^This.

      Humanity’s stupidity and ignorance enrage me lately.

      Basic understanding of science is lacking among these fools, and now they are actively destroying progress physically because of it.

      1. Basically I agree with what you’re saying, but look at the other side for a moment. Many people don’t have the wherewithal to understand science and technology. They’re not necessarily stupid – their brains just don’t work that way. When such people think about things like climate change, DDT, leaded gas, tobacco, sugar, thalidomide, opioids, (and on and on and on), they feel they have good reason for suspicion, mistrust, and paranoia. Companies and governments going back many decades have themselves to blame, at least in part. They’ve effectively MADE science and technology entirely untrustworthy in the eyes of people who are unable to evaluate claims and evidence.

  4. >”the fear of that which we don’t understand”

    I would argue that at least half of the public outcry is about:

    1) People intentionally generating drama to push up the land prices through NIMBY. There’s an interest for land owners to make other people believe in crazy things, and to pretend to believe it themselves in order to extract more rent from cell tower sites.

    2) Schizophrenia is present in approximately 0.3% to 0.7% of people. Another couple percent of the population have difficulties that don’t cross the threshold for a clinical diagnosis, but display the same type of cognitive distortions, such as narcissistic paranoia and illogical leaps of association. Basically, people have thought disorders and will misinterpret any fact you tell them to suit their own narratives.

    3) Peer pressure. 1 and 2 will make your life a hell for trying to rock the boat and say it like it is. Crazy people will litigate, they will harass, they will come to your lawn and try to torch your house… when you’re forced to live among such people, you nod along and keep your head down.

    1. Wanna hear my own private cranky conspiracy theory? Partially tongue in cheek, but there’s some suspicious details out there. I think 5g lobbying groups/telecom are actually the ones promulgating a bunch of the more insane and unscientific theories, e.g. 5g causes corona, and using that to be able to dismiss any criticism as cranks. A huge portion of the posting is coming from the usual bot farms and AWS IPs. I mean the FCC did it, they botted their own petitions and PR blowback. There’s so much that’s legitimately gross and shady about the business side of 5g, plus the bizarre and aggressive lobbying push, the totally manufactured “race” to 5g, etc.

      It’s going to be a terribly expensive and privatized infrastructure, and they want to get other people to pay for it but still own it themselves. And bulldoze through any obstacles that might be in their way. And it’s pretty spurious tech; probably will never achieve reliable coverage, and much of the US still doesn’t even have 4g. And the benefits to the general public are kind of vague and uncertain; nobody really needs that kind of speed yet. It seems mainly aimed at mass data collection and AI stuff. So it’s not really our infrastructure, it’s theirs. But we’re gonna pay for it and then we’re going to be the products sold on it as it constantly absorbs orders of magnitude more data about us all.

      It doesn’t cause cancer, but it still sucks. It’s still really crazy and suspicious. Just for the usual reasons your cable and internet companies are unbelievable assholes: greed and monopoly and corrupt regulatory capture.

      1. I don’t want public money going to it, they begged and pleaded for money for 3G and fiber saying they were martyr heroes for putting themselves in so much hock to create essential public infrastructure, so government opened the coffers, any notion of public partnership went by the board (It’s ours now, all ours) and they took windfall profits to build out higher speed all over the developing world instead of upgrading the bare minimum they could get away with they put in here. So screw them all with a utility pole, an old one that’s all splintery and has 2000, nails, staples and broke off thumbtacks in it from missing dog posters.

        Anyway, this has the looks of being a desperate last gasp, like HD-DVD, new LEO satellite constellations will eat their lunch. I wouldn’t waste money on it as a consumer.

        1. I love the idea with the utility pole. And honestly I love and respect the people setting fire to 5g towers, too. That’s not horrible or evil in my book; that’s just good praxis. Burn ’em, I don’t really care what the reason is. They’re just pieces of electronics. Make those thieves spend more of your sky-high subscription prices that they have made a monopolous cartel around jacking up to unbelievable levels.

          But I wouldn’t be so sure it’s their last gasp. They have entrenched legal and political power, so they might just manage to capture the new stuff and make it theirs as well. We’ll have to wait and see. They made it incredibly hard for Google to try and play ball. Google! They have more money than god! It’s essentially a mafia situation in telecom and the FCC.

          1. Nobody stop you from switching to free or low price wireless community network(Mesh Network) and distributed search instead of google and ask you acquaintances do the same.
            When they’re go bankrupt you can get their equipment for free or buy for cheap, so there is no a single reason to burn it.
            But you not do it, don’t you?

      2. >nobody really needs that kind of speed yet.

        It’s not the speed, its the latency that improves with 5G. It’s a real boon to video conferencing and VoIP calls. 3G networks can have up to seconds of latency, 4G networks are more in the wired internet direction, but 5G can push it down to single milliseconds which means random packet loss no longer causes long delays in transmission and the resulting loss of synchronization between people.

        Lag is really annoying, especially with party calls, because people will start talking when they can’t hear anyone else talking, except they did start talking but you’ll only hear it 200-300 ms later, and vice versa. Then the next 15 seconds is spent with people stopping and starting because they can’t figure out whose turn it is.

        1. Yeah, they’re building this incredibly expensive network of transmitters every thirty feet across the whole world to reduce your zoom latency by a couple milliseconds. No. That might be a side effect, but this network would never be built for that primary purpose. The bulk of the bandwidth is going to be surveillance data about everyone flowing into ever more concentrated hands.

          Much like how news websites are now the same few kilobytes of text that they were in the nineties, but now the tracking and advertising payload bumps it up to the most bloated webpages we’ve ever seen. The increase in bandwidth is not for your use, it’s for monetizing you. And of course it’s just a matter of time before that enormous bulk of data finds its way into abusive hands. We really reaaaally ought to know this by now. Our ahistoricity has reached a point to where we can’t remember lessons from the past ten years.

          1. It’s more to do with how 5G allocates transmission time slots and the turn-around response time by the tower that makes the difference in latency. They’re using MIMO techniques to split the coverage area into smaller sub-cells as well, so a customer east of the tower isn’t slowing down a customer west of the tower.

            The advantage is that the latency can be so low you can even control machinery wirelessly in real-time. When you push the round-trip time consistently below 10 ms. you no longer need the robot itself to compute all the time-critical stuff – so a self-driving bus or an industrial welding robot can be made a lot simpler. Think of a 5G drone you can fly in direct remote control wherever there’s cellphone coverage.

            It’s not about the distance, which by radio is 299 kilometers in a millisecond.

  5. Unfortunately, the title could equally be “Scientist’s sordid history of saying things were safe when they were not”.

    Leaded petrol was known to be dangerous even when it was introduced. But, profits. Given such regular abuses of trust, it is not surprising when people no longer believe corporate PR, or tame scientists whose research is funded by corporate interests .

    1. If you count the cases pro and con, I think it’s rarely the /scientists/ who were saying the things are safe.

      It’s usually some P.T. Barnum type pretending to be a scientists.

      1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Midgley_Jr.
        He had a PhD in mechanical engineering, had the experience of a master’s degree in chemical engineering, filed 100 patents, and was the main force for getting both tetra ethyl lead and freon into widespread usage. As one biographer said, he probably did more damage to the environment than any other human in history.
        Kinda gruesomely, after getting polio and being partially paralyzed by it, he made a machine that would allow him to get out of bed without human assistance, but it went awry and strangled him.

  6. Don’t forget Clark’s Third law:

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

    The problem being, with rapidly advancing technology and less focus on education, ‘indistinguishable from magic’ becomes easier every day. How many people could explain how even one element of their cell phone works? Or their car? I mean we all know automatic transmissions were invented by aliens and the secrets were presented to Chrysler, who worked them into the ‘Fluid Drive transmission of the 1930’s.

    1. Most people can’t explain how a fridge works, even though it is literally 17th century level of technology.

      I think it was Creg Davies who did the joke about being sent back to the 17th century to explain modernity. Every question eventually lead to “Yes but how does it work? – Well, there’s a cord that goes to the wall… – And then what? – I have no idea.”

    1. Vaccination was a whole lot more dangerous that time because they used an actual virus instead of just inactivated bits of it. The cowpox virus was related to the smallpox virus and was transmissible between animals and people, so it was used as a natural vaccine – but it also meant that a portion of those inoculated with the less deadly virus would still develop a more potent version of the disease and die because of it.

        1. But you can see the point: people were asked to take the virus without knowing whether it is safe – it’s all fine in retrospect, but put yourself in their position.

          Would you take the new Covid-19 vaccine before it is tested to be safe in humans?

          1. People would have been very familiar with both smallpox and cowpox though. They weren’t new to the world, the revelation was the use of one to prevent the other.

          2. This. The “anti-vaxers are idiots” left-wing lobby is busy shouting that they’re completely safe and have no side effects, and if you as much as feel the needle it’s a figment of your evil right-wing sub-average intellect imagination. It’s blatantly untrue; people do have side effects to vaccines. Try having the TB jab! But for the vast majority of people any side effects are minor compared to the infection. But they don’t admit that, which undermines their argument.

          3. >People would have been very familiar with both smallpox and cowpox though.

            Not really. Yes, they knew about it, but you’re talking about a time when the “miasma” theory was still competing with modern germ theory, and the people were acting with the best information available to them.

            This was literally when viruses were first discovered, so not only did they have a new suspicious remedy based on as-of-yet unproven theory, very many people “knew” it was bunk science because it went against the established paradigm. If you’re trying to think about it by what you know today, you’re committing the historian’s fallacy.

            Unfortunately, there’s two groups of people who are very bad at trying to think about thing from other people’s perspective and accept that other people might have different ideas that are equally valid in their own context: autists and leftists.

  7. Back in the days of “international shortwave broadcasting”, the cave-dwellers in Mtn. View, Calif. that espied the antenna for my Sony AN-1 figured it the source of all manner of inexplicable phenomena (static, burned toast, errant lovers, missing socks).

    1. But most (not all) of that is electricity-adjacent. As you point out, it’s largely transfer of ions. A good popular book on this subject is The Body Electric.

  8. I heard that if you play country and western music backwards, your wife comes back after running away with your best friend, your dog comes back, and your pickup truck starts working again.

    Maybe we need to broadcast country and music backwards from the 5G antennas to fix all of the health issues people are having.

  9. There was a moron community around me that had a big moratorium on cell towers. They were very proud back in the day. Of course a cell phones proliferated they became more and more of a technological black hole without them. They are lucky that I don’t run a cell company because now, I would make them pay for a tower if they wanna join the 21st century.

    1. I’ve heard several variations of the conspiracy theory, including that 5G “internally digitizes” you so that the Chinese government can remotely turn off your organs (yes, seriously).

      If they aren’t based on science to begin with then the stories probably mutate fairly quickly as they get passed around.

    2. That’s just it; disinformation is so easy to engage in that even this story, believing it is fighting misinformation, provides misinformation about the view that it wants to discredit!

      Lots of simple people understand that it is possible for technology to mimic a viral infection. It is not a crazy concern at all if you start from the premise that you know little about either biology or radio electronics.

      And to dissuade them of this simple, plausible concern, they’re informed that they’re idiots for thinking 5G causes a virus. They’re probably right to think they’re being spoken down to by people just as simple as they are.

      In the fervor to shout down the supposed crazy people, many otherwise rational people are even accusing the military of being irrational conspiracy theorists for complaining about GPS interference! Is it possible that the military would absolutely not care either way unless they had actual engineering predictions of a problem? I mean, does the military take a stand on other issues, like CB radio or BLE? (Spoiler: They do not normally have any opinion about this sort of thing)

    1. The only thing stopping 5G from spreading rabies is that bats navigate using 10-120kHz not 5GHz.

      But the basic concern is sound. If something interfered with bat navigation it would have all sorts of unexpected consequences. Always make sure allowable EMI levels are bat-safe. Always.

  10. I’m sure many among the ham radio operators out there that don’t live alone in the woods have some stories to share about neighbors reactions when they erected a new antenna.

    1. When I was a teenager I had some drug dealers come out of their hovel to check if I was a cop or not, because I was walking around talking on a handheld CB radio.

      I lied and told them I was broadcasting 7W, so they decided I must be OK if I don’t follow the rules.

    1. WOW! If I buy 10 of them and make a halo-ring out of them, then I can get rid of this tin-foil cap that looks so stupid. Of course, I’ll need a 16cm^2 solar panel in the middle to power them.

    2. I think companies that produces devices like this should be encouraged because if your stupid enough to believe their claims and shell at $X for their “product” I really don’t feel sorry for you and you deserve to be liberated from your cash.

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