- Historic Sites
Dr. Conrad Founds Kdka
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
One of the stores downtown in Pittsburgh advertised in the newspaper radio receiving equipment to receive Conrad’s Saturday night broadcasts. This fact was made known to Mr. Davis.* Somehow the thought materialized that if this broadcasting was of sufficient interest to the community for a well-known store to advertise receiving sets, maybe there was something to it. From there, Mr. Davis, I believe, decided to build a more powerful transmitting station than the one used by Dr. Conrad at home, and try it out a little more thoroughly just to see what there was to this business—the thought being, I believe, to promote the sale of home receivers rather than to engage in the general advertising business which radio now does.
* Harry P. Davis, who encouraged Conrad’s experiments, was vice-president of the Westinghouse Electrical and Manufacturing Company, in charge of engineering.
During the fall of 1920, Dr. Conrad had me design and help the model shop at the works build the transmitter. The transmitter had a power of about 100 watts. They built a room on the roof of one of the taller buildings at the East Pittsburgh works and put up an antenna and counterpoise from a steel pole on that building over to one of the powerhouse smokestacks. The antenna and transmitter were completed only a few days before the presidential election of November 2, 1920.
I don’t know just how long before election day the plan to broadcast the election returns was made. Anyway, an arrangement was made with a newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post , I believe, for them to telephone to the station at East Pittsburgh the election returns as they came into their wire services room. At our transmitter, an announcer would speak into the microphone there, putting the information on the air.
In order to make it legal to transmit on the air, a licensed operator had to be obtained. In addition, a member of the publicity department, a Mr. Rosenberg, was the so-called announcer who actually talked into the microphone, and I was the so-called engineer of the station. I didn’t have an assistant. That was the full staff for KDKA when it first appeared.
It was thought that election news would not occupy the whole time so a hand-wound, spring-driven phonograph and a selection of records were provided for fill-in purposes. I arrived at the station about 6 P.M. the night of November 2, 1920, in plenty of time to be sure all would be in readiness to start the program at, as I remember it, 8 P.M. To my dismay, I found that the gooseneck of the phonograph tone arm had disappeared. It was never found and to this day I do not know whether it was maliciously stolen or simply mislaid accidently. It was obviously up to me to provide some sort of substitute which I did by rushing down to our laboratory and putting together a clamp and hinge gadget that hinged the microphone to the tone arm. It was quite satisfactory and was used for the opening program and several later ones. A separate microphone was used by the announcer.
At that time we had no studio; everyone was in the same room with the transmitter. There was only one microphone other than the phonograph pickup. The first program, which ran from about 8 P.M. to some time after midnight, consisted only of the election returns repeated into our microphone by Rosenberg from what he heard by phone from the Post downtown, interspersed with recorded music.
The company received quite a lot of mail on this broadcast. Our election night broadcast was also picked up by a receiver and a loud-speaker which Mr. Chubb, newly appointed manager of the new radio engineering department, and I installed at the Edgewood Club—this was in Edgewood, just outside of Pittsburgh. The club had an auditorium and a good many of the club members congregated there on the evening of November 2, as it was pre-advertised that they would get election returns. From time to time during the evening Mr. Chubb phoned us comments on how the program sounded and I recall he told us once that the audience preferred less music and more election returns.
(And so regular broadcasting began for many Americans. WWJ, Detroit’s first station, disputes the claim to priority made for KDKA, but its case, while recorded, has yet to be submitted in final form to the Oral History Research Office.)