What is a walkie talkie?
Walkie talkies are handheld portable radios that use radio waves to communicate wirelessly on a single frequency band. They were first developed in the 1930s by a Canadian inventor named Donald Higgs and, quite independently, by an American named Alfred Gross. They were originally called two-way radios or pack sets, but as the thing that made them really stand out from telephones was the fact that you could both walk and talk at the same time, they became known as walkie talkies.
Each battery-powered handset contains a transmitter (which doubles as a receiver), an antenna for sending and receiving radio waves, a loudspeaker that also often functions as a microphone, and a 'push-to-talk' button that, unsurprisingly, you push to talk.
The loudspeaker-cum-microphone works like an intercom system. Because speakers and microphones contain what are essentially the same components – a magnet, a coil of wire, and a cone made of paper or plastic to receive or generate sound – they can be combined into a single device and the direction of the electrical current determines which function is given precedence. These features are separate in more sophisticated models.
So how do they work?
People communicating by walkie talkie must first of all ensure that they are sharing the same channel, or frequency band. Their handsets are all set to receive, so the microphone-cum-loudspeaker is set to loudspeaker. When no one is talking, the device will probably be broadcasting
the sound of static, like a detuned radio. When someone wishes to talk, they simply depress the push-to-talk button, forcing their loudspeaker to switch to microphone function, eliminating in the process the sound of static.
As they speak, their words are converted into radio waves and broadcast across a pre-arranged channel. Radio waves fall within the electromagnetic spectrum and therefore travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) and are picked up what feels like instantaneously by the other handsets, where they are converted back into vibrations or fluctuating electric currents and the speaker's voice is broadcast by the loudspeaker.
When the speaker has finished speaking, they say 'over' to let the listener know they have finished speaking, and they let go of the push-to-talk button and their handset returns to listening mode.
A walkie talkie is a two-way radio, which means that unlike a normal radio, it can both send and receive information. As the same channel is used for both functions, this means only one person can talk at a time.
In order to avoid the possibility of interference from other two-way radio users, most modern systems allow use on multiple channels. In order to do this, the radio transmitter must be able to generate waves in different frequencies.
Who uses walkie talkies?
Walkie talkies are still widely used in various organisations and industries where instantaneous and group communication is required. These include the emergency services, security services, the military and transportation industries. They are also used in construction, hospitality, manufacturing and in many other sectors.
The fact that they are hard-wearing and easy to use also makes them very popular with families. Kids love using them when out and about and they're great for parents to keep in touch with their kids when they're on a camping holiday, for example.
How Walkie Talkies Work/Two Way Radio
Walkie talkies don’t play music, text, access social media or take photographs but still have the upper hand when you need to communicate in areas without a mobile or GPS signal. That’s because they work off single frequency wireless signals which means that all is not lost if you find yourself off the beaten track. These hand-held radios are compact but include a speaker and microphone and are very simple to use.
How do they Work?
Walkie talkies are powered by battery, are made for transmitting and receiving messages and are manufactured to work to specific radio frequencies. Radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum and are transmitted at the speed of light, or 186,000 miles per second. Whilst a user is not speaking the unit will be issuing static as it is in receiving mode, and you will hear a hissing noise just like you would with a radio that isn’t tuned into a station. When you want to talk you have to press a button and in order to hear the reply you then have to release the button. Provided all parties are sharing the same frequency band, or channel, it is possible to communicate over several miles depending on the terrain. There is no limit to how many walkie talkie users can communicate at the same time however because all will be sharing the same frequency band only one person can speak at any one time. Once you have finished relaying your message you will say ‘over’, release the button to allow your handset to revert to listening mode and let the other person speak. Because of the ‘group talk’ facility and usability in areas of poor mobile signal quality two-way radios are often preferred by small businesses, rescue groups and the military.
The Components of a Walkie Talkie
All modern walkie talkies are made up of the same components. There will be a microphone/speaker, antenna, LCD display, function buttons, battery and circuitry all working together to convert your voice into radio signals. Typical workings will consist of a coil of wire, a magnet and a paper or plastic cone to utilise the sound waves. Whilst most basic models come with a combined speaker and microphone the more sophisticated models can have separate components.
Common problems and How to Fix Them
- Losing coverage – this is often the result of allowing the battery to run down. Keep them properly charged at all times. Batteries should be replaced every 12/18 months to guarantee performance. Poorly-charged batteries can cause other problems like constant radio beeping or poor performance.
- Too much background noise meaning you can’t hear a conversation properly – consider using a walkie talkie with noise-cancelling abilities.
- No privacy. Two-way radios are not the most discreet forms of communication and others can hear your conversations – consider using an ear-piece for privacy.
- Excess static during transmission – could be caused by a dirty antenna so clean the antenna contacts using a pencil eraser.
To keep your walkie talkie safe and ready for use make sure to keep your battery fully-charged and store the unit in a dry, well-ventilated place.