THE INTERNET: a revolutionary medium, a chaos of information and opinion, a back-door for pornography, Nazism, libel and rubbish, a channel for international dialogue and learning, a fount of profit.

These are early days, and we don't really know what to make of it. All we know is that this global web of computers and telephone links is likely to change a good deal about our lives and the prospect inspires in us both excitement and fear.

These feelings would be recognised by another generation who lived in what we now regard as the neolithic age of technology, at the beginning of this century. To them, radio carried very similar thrills and dangers.

The radio age, like the information superhighway, did not announce itself with clarity. At first, lay people were impressed mainly by the ability of signals to pass through solid walls. Then it was thought that it would be useful mainly for helping navigation and allowing masters to communicate more readily with their servants below stairs.

Broadcasting, and all that implied, was slow to emerge as an idea, but when it came along the effect was dramatic. From 1922 in the United States, as Todd Lappin writes in the current US edition of Wired magazine, "radio stations were popping up like dandelions".

In fact, more than 1,100 stations were set up within two years and the result was described as a "chaos of the ether". Too many stations were pumping their signals into too few wavelengths, creating a jumble of noise which, even in free-market America, prompted calls for some form of regulation.

Yet the novelty of it was thrilling, infecting even Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, who declared: "For the first time in human history we have available to us the ability to communicate simultaneously with millions of our fellow men."

Hoover added: "An obligation rests on us to see that it is devoted to real service and to develop the material that is transmitted into that which is really worthwhile."

Britain did not experience a craze of the kind seen in the US in these years, but radio was still causing excitement and debate. In garages and attics, people of all ages were cobbling together home-made receivers and Asa Briggs, the leading historian of broadcasting in Britain, has estimated that by 1922 every village had its "wireless enthusiast".

Such people comprised the main audiences for the early experiments in radio, including a transmission of Dame Nellie Melba's voice from Chelmsford in 1920.

It was soon clear that this strange business of invisible waves would bring change. "Are people going to read less? Are they going to talk less?" asked one commentator. "I believe that those accustomed to read will continue to read whether they use the radio or not. But what of the next generation brought up on radio? Are they going to prefer information through the medium of the ear to that through the medium of the eye?"

As with the Internet, minds soon turned to the possibility of bringing this under some form of official control. It seemed inconceivable that a medium of such potential might regulate itself, and word from America appeared to confirm this. For the sake of good order and propriety, someone would have to be put in charge of British radio.

The Manchester Guardian expressed some anxiety about who this should be: "On the assumption that the public takes eagerly to the new method of communication," it observed, "it is a matter of supreme importance that the judges of what is to be communicated should command a good name."

They need not have worried. Very soon a man was put in charge who made it his life's work to protect public morals and elevate the public soul. His name was John Reith.