Suppose you're the boss of a radio station and you want to transmit your programs to the wider world. How do you go about it? You use microphones to capture the sounds of people's voices and turn them into electrical energy. You take that electricity and, loosely speaking, make it flow along a tall metal antenna (boosting it in power many times so it will travel just as far as you need into the world). As the electrons (tiny particles inside atoms) in the electric current wiggle back and forth along the antenna, they create invisible electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves. These waves, partly electric and partly magnetic, travel out at the speed of light, taking your radio program with them. What happens when I turn on my radio in my home a few miles away? The radio waves you sent flow through the metal antenna and cause electrons to wiggle back and forth. That generates an electric current—a signal that the electronic components inside my radio turn back into sound I can hear.
Transmitter and receiver antennas are often very similar in design. For example, if you're using something like a satellite phone that can send and receive a video-telephone call to any other place on Earth using space satellites, the signals you transmit and receive all pass through a single satellite dish—a special kind of antenna shaped like a bowl (and technically known as a parabolic reflector, because the dish curves in the shape of a graph called a parabola). Often, though, transmitters and receivers look very different. TV or radio broadcasting antennas are huge masts sometimes stretching hundreds of meters/feet into the air, because they have to send powerful signals over long distances. But you don't need anything that big on your TV or radio at home: a much smaller antenna will do the job fine.
Waves don't always zap through the air from transmitter to receiver. Depending on what kinds (frequencies) of waves we want to send, how far we want to send them, and when we want to do it, there are actually three different ways in which the waves can travel:
1. As we've already seen, they can shoot by what's called "line of sight", in a straight line—just like a beam of light. In old-fashioned long-distance telephone networks, microwaves were used to carry calls this way between very high communications towers (fiber-optic cables have largely made this obsolete).
2. They can speed round the Earth's curvature in what's known as a ground wave. AM (medium-wave) radio tends to travel this way for short-to-moderate distances. This explains why we can hear radio signals beyond the horizon (when the transmitter and receiver are not within sight of each other).
3. They can shoot up to the sky, bounce off the ionosphere (an electrically charged part of Earth's upper atmosphere), and come back down to the ground again. This effect works best at night, which explains why distant (foreign) AM radio stations are much easier to pick up in the evenings. During the daytime, waves shooting off to the sky are absorbed by lower layers of the ionosphere. At night, that doesn't happen. Instead, higher layers of the ionosphere catch the radio waves and fling them back to Earth—giving us a very effective "sky mirror" that can help to carry radio waves over very long distances.
The simplest antenna is a single piece of metal wire attached to a radio. The first radio I ever built, when I was 11 or 12, was a crystal set with a long loop of copper wire acting as the antenna. I ran the antenna right the way around my bedroom ceiling, so it must have been about 20–30 meters (60–100 ft) long in all!
Most modern transistor radios have at least two antennas. One of them is a long, shiny telescopic rod that pulls out from the case and swivels around for picking up FM (frequency modulation) signals. The other is an antenna inside the case, usually fixed to the main circuit board, and it picks up AM (amplitude modulation) signals. (If you're not sure about the difference between FM and AM, refer to our radio article.)
Why do you need two antennas in a radio? The signals on these different wave bands are carried by radio waves of different frequency and wavelength. Typical AM radio signals have a frequency of 1000 kHz (kilohertz), while typical FM signals are about 100 MHz (megahertz)—so they vibrate about a hundred times faster. Since all radio waves travel at the same speed (the speed of light, which is 300,000 km/s or 186,000 miles per second), AM signals have wavelengths about a hundred times bigger than FM signals. You need two antennas because a single antenna can't pick up such a hugely different range of wavelengths. It's the wavelength (or frequency, if you prefer) of the radio waves you're trying to detect that determines the size and type of the antenna you need to use. Broadly speaking, the length of a simple (rod-type) antenna has to be about half the wavelength of the radio waves you're trying to receive (it's also possible to make antennas that are a quarter of the wavelength, compact miniaturized antennas that are about a tenth the wavelength, and membrane antennas that are even smaller, though we won't go into that here).
The length of the antenna isn't the only thing that affects the wavelengths you're going to pick up; if it were, a radio with a fixed length of antenna would only ever be able to receive one station. The antenna feeds signals into a tuning circuit inside a radio receiver, which is designed to "latch onto" one particular frequency and ignore the rest. The very simplest receiver circuit (like the one you'll find in a crystal radio) is nothing more than a coil of wire, a diode, and a capacitor, and it feeds sounds into an earpiece. The circuit responds (technically, resonates, which means electrically oscillates) at the frequency you're tuned into and discards frequencies higher or lower than this. By adjusting the value of the capacitor, you change the resonant frequency—which tunes your radio to a different station. The antenna's job is to pick up enough energy from passing radio waves to make the circuit resonate at just the right frequency.