The 1930 population census was the first U.S. census to ask about a technological device in the home with column 9: “Radio Set.” In paragraph 145 of their instructions, enumerators were told: “If the family, or any member of the family, has a radio set, write “R” opposite the name of the head of the family. If the family has no radio set, leave this column blank." In the image below, the families of Edward Conway and Albert Wiemels at 1896 and 1900 W. 57th St., Cleveland, Ohio, both have radio sets, as indicated by the "R" in column 9:
Image from National Archives Microfilm Publication T626, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Roll 1763, Pct. S, Ward 3, Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, ED 18-45, Sheet 17A.
Radio was “the” disruptive technology and new industry of the 1920s that massively altered how people received and consumed news, information, ideas, and entertainment. “Disruptive technology” can be defined as an innovation that significantly changes the activities or habits of consumers, industries, or businesses. Radio informed and modified cultural norms and entertainment. It created consumer demand for products through advertising. New entertainment stars became popular. Sporting events could be followed in real time. Radio was the internet and social media of its time. It was revolutionary.
Radio broadcasting for entertainment began as a hobbyist activity. After the World War I ban on civilian radio stations ended on October 1, 1919, Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, experimented with broadcasting phonograph recordings to other area “wireless” enthusiasts who had “wireless sets.” The Joseph Horne department store advertised in the Pittsburgh Press newspaper on September 29, 1920, that the wireless set it had on display had picked up Conrad’s concert and, oh, by the way, the store sold “Amateur Wireless Sets” for $10 and up. Westinghouse Vice President Harry P. Davis quickly realized that consumer demand for Westinghouse radio receiver sets would be greatly increased if there were radio broadcasting stations to provide “content” (to use a 21st century term). Thus, Westinghouse quickly applied for a commercial radio license which was granted 100 years ago on October 27, 1920. The assigned station name was KDKA, and is today recognized as the first commercial broadcast radio station. On Election Night, November 2, 1920, radio broadcasts by Westinghouse in Pittsburgh and by radio amateurs in Detroit, Michigan, and Buffalo, New York, informed the public of the results of the Harding-Cox presidential contest. A new era had begun.
American political leaders viewed radio as a potential source of cultural "uplift" for the population, as represented by this 1924 photograph of “Master Harold Shaver of Jersey City learns to draw by listening in to lessons broadcast by WOR,” Library of Congress Reproduction No. LC-USZ62-38569:
The use of radio as an educational tool in the classroom was also discussed and debated, such as in Carroll Atkinson, Development of Radio Educational Policies in American Public School Systems (Edinboro, PA: Edinboro Educational Press, 1939).
At the same time, business leaders viewed radio as a powerful tool for advertising and selling all kinds of mass-produced goods, just as Davis of Westinghouse had quickly realized, and as captured in the catchy article title by Steve Craig, “The More They Listen, the More They Buy” – Radio and the Modernizing of Rural America, 1930-1939,” Agricultural History, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Winter 2006): 1-16.
The brand-new radio industry grew rapidly. In 1930, just ten years after KDKA began, Ruth Cornwall noted in “What About Radio?” (H. K. McCann Co., 1930), that there were more than 500,000 workers employed by 640 manufacturers; 1,500 wholesalers; and 43,822 retailers of radio sets, parts, and accessories - in addition to the 626 U.S. radio stations with their accoutrements and employees.
Thus, after 1920, the radio set became increasingly common but it was not until 1950 that 95% of American households owned radio receivers. As a luxury good, it was not evenly found across all sections of the country or all segments of the population.
The 1930 census statistics showed that 40.3% of all families owned a radio set, but it was more widely adopted in urban areas, with ownership at 50.0%. Ownership in rural farm families was 20.8% and in rural non-farm families, 33.7%. Interestingly, radio ownership by U.S.-born whites who had one or two foreign-born parents was 57.3% overall, which was much higher than ownership by whites with two native-born parents, which was 39.9% overall. Radio ownership by African-American radio was only 7.5% and by other races, 5.9%.
Radio ownership in urban areas and the northern U.S. was much more widespread than in the south, as shown in this map created by the Bureau of the Census:
Researchers interested in additional statistics on radio ownership by region, state, county, city, and other variables, can learn more in Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Population, Volume VI, Families (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933).
As we know, over time radios were adapted for many other consumer uses, such as installation in automobiles, as shown in Patent 1959869, Radio Control Device, by William P. Lear, May 22, 1934:
In subsequent censuses, questions about radios and other technological devices were relegated to the decennial housing schedules that were completed by only a sample of the full population:
Radios: 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970.
Television Sets: 1950, 1960, 1970.
Telephone: 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000.
Air Conditioning: 1960, 1970, 1980.
Since 2005, technological device questions are included in the American Community Survey (ACS) sent annually to a population sample of about 3.5 million households. In the beginning, this survey only asked whether the household had a telephone (including cellphone), but now (2020) asks about telephone, smartphone, desktop or laptop computers, tablet or other portable wireless computer, and internet access by cellular data plan, broadband, satellite, dial-up, or other means. The technological revolution continues!