- Historic Sites
Dr. Conrad Founds Kdka
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
A pioneer amateur operator as well as an able engineer in the radio field, Mr. Little was a Signal Corps second lieutenant, assigned to the Bureau of Standards, when his story begins.
My introduction to Westinghouse and Dr. Frank Conrad occurred in this way. While I was at the Bureau of Standards in late 1917, Westinghouse received a contract from the Signal Corps for, I believe, 75 small portable transmitters and 150 portable receiving sets. I was sent by the Signal Corps to East Pittsburgh to assist in the development of this transmitter and receiver at Westinghouse.
Dr. Conrad and I worked very closely together. He arranged a room in one of the Westinghouse laboratories and together we worked out the transmitter later given the Army type number SCR-69. The receiver, SCR-70, was designed largely by Conrad alone in his workshop at home. These were built by Westinghouse in Pittsburgh at the Shadyside Works. These were developed before my SCR-79.
Dr. Conrad was not a college-trained engineer; in fact, I’m not sure he ever went through high school. He was just a natural-born engineer. He could, as a good many of the college-trained engineers in Westinghouse admitted, usually guess closer than they could figure. He just seemed to have a knack for it.
To the best of my knowledge, Dr. Conrad did not have any vacuum tubes prior to the time the Signal Corps gave him some for work on the above-mentioned Signal Corps transmitters and receivers. Yet Conrad seemed just instinctively to know what to expect of them and how they functioned.
After the war ended, I went to work for Westinghouse. All this time Dr. Conrad was an active radio amateur. The call letters of his amateur station were 8XK. I spent some time in Dr. Conrad’s workshop. He built a telephone transmitter which was rather rare in those days and communicated by voice with other radio amateurs around the Pittsburgh area.
The story, I guess, is well known about how he became interested in radio over an argument about correct time with someone in Westinghouse. One of his associates had a watch that he claimed was very accurate and Conrad said, “Well, just how accurate is it? I’ll bet it isn’t any better than mine.” Conrad’s watch was a relatively cheap model. The argument went on from there and Conrad decided the only way to find out was to receive the time signals by radio from Washington and check his watch every day to see how accurate it was. He built himself a receiving set—the story goes—for that purpose, and that’s how he became interested in radio in the first place. That was about 1916.
Westinghouse thought there might be a use for radio telephone in dispatching and controlling tugboats around a harbor like New York. Accordingly, arrangements were made with the New Haven Railroad, which operated a fleet of tugs around New York, to try out the idea.
One set was installed on shore at the terminal of the old Westchester Electric Railroad at 125th Street and the Harlem River. The other set was installed on a New Haven Railroad tug. Our experiments were not particularly successful. We communicated with the tug at a distance of possibly a mile, but that was about the limit. The antennas were small and low and the space on a tug for an antenna for wave lengths around 500 meters was just not suitable. The tug was too small and the antenna was too small to be an efficient radiator of those frequencies.
The same sets were used again a little later. One of them was installed at the Bush Terminal of the International Radio Telegraph Company in Brooklyn and the other put on one of the Fall River Line steamers that went nightly to Newport and Boston. The experiments there were more successful, probably because larger and higher antennas were possible. We were able to communicate at night between the ship and Bush Terminal to a distance of roughly 100 miles, which was pretty good for those days.
Broadcasting when started was done in an amateur way with Dr. Conrad’s own equipment for communicating with amateurs. In order to save his voice, he rigged up an old phonograph and played records in front of the microphone and the amateurs apparently told him they liked to hear music, so it became a regular Saturday night event from Conrad’s radio station. I think he started this in the summer and fall of 1920.
There was usually a crowd of interested people around, and I was one of them. I believe the first announcer, aside from Conrad himself, was a brother-in-law of Conrad’s named Taft Hewitt. Hewitt was a librarian, I believe, at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, handling technical books, and he was a very good talker.
People in Pittsburgh were not buying receiving sets so far as I know—except amateurs. Most of the amateurs had made their own from radio parts bought at electric shops in downtown Pittsburgh. I think there were not more than 100 or 200 amateurs in the vicinity. By phone calls and postal cards, they let Conrad know that they had heard his program.