Radio Gets A Policeman

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In the years immediately following the First World War, I had a boy who, like all boys of that period, had gone daft on wireless; and the house was cluttered with the apparatus which he had assembled. It was demanded of me that I listen in on his crystal set, which I did, so I had some interest in wireless before I became secretary of commerce.

On January 15, 1921, some six weeks prior to my taking that office, I delivered an address from the Duquesne Club of Pittsburgh. That speech was broadcast. It was probably one of the earliest broadcast speeches.

Before I became secretary of commerce, I was very much aware that I would control broadcasting as a part of my administrative work. I had examined the functions of that department before I went into it.

Wire and wireless transmission had been put under the department by the law of August 13, 1912. At that time the use of wireless was in the international telegraph area to some extent, but was mainly used for ship-to-shore communications. The law at that time provided for the licensing of operators; punishment for unlicensed operators; and the regulation of wave lengths—although it was a pretty vaguely phrased law. It was not, of course, adapted to the general broadcasting. That had not yet been heard of.

When I came into the department no special policies had been determined by my predecessors. They were administering the law through, I think, the Bureau of Navigation. As I said, it was mostly confined to ship-to-shore use.

I soon became aware of the importance of broadcasting. Two stations had been erected, one by the Westinghouse Company of Pittsburgh and one by the General Electric Company of Schenectady. There were probably at the time that I came into the Department of Commerce less than fifty thousand full-sized receiving sets. They were not too good.

The American boy, however, had enthusiastically taken up radio and his crystal sets and earphones were spreading interest all over the country.

Suddenly a great public interest awoke in radio and my recollection is that in six months after I came into office there were three hundred and twenty broadcasting stations. Fortunately, in view of interference difficulties, most of them were of low power and short range.

The law proved a very weak rudder with which to steer the development of so powerful a phenomenon as this, especially as it so rapidly developed over the next few years.

I was, of course, at this moment—when we had three hundred and twenty stations—greatly impressed with the immense importance of its contribution to the spoken word and the vital necessity of seeing that new channels of communication should be under public control. We in the department realized the difficulties of devising such control in a new art and in some phases of vital importance.

The radio world was anxious for regulation to prevent interference with each other’s wave lengths. A good many of those then broadcasting were insisting on the right to a title to the channels through the air as private property. I concluded that it would be a monopoly of enormous financial value and that we had to do something about it.

In order to do something, I called a conference of the representatives of all of the radio people—the broadcasters, the manufacturing industry, the representatives of the Army and Navy, the amateurs—in general, all of the interested groups. This conference was called for February 27, 1922. About a year after I became secretary of commerce I stated in my address to that conference, “We have witnessed in the last four or five months one of the most astonishing things that has come under my observation in American life. The department estimates today that there are over six hundred thousand persons—one estimate being a million—who possess wireless telephone receiving sets, whereas there were less than fifty thousand of them a year ago.*

* The fantastic development of radio cited by Mr. Hoover in 1922 had barely begun. By 1954, 50 million American homes were radio-equipped; in all, 127 million radio sets were in use.

“The comparative cheapness of receiving sets bids fair to make them almost universal in the American home.” I went on to say, “I think it will be agreed at the outset that the use of the radio-telephone for communication between single individuals, as in the case of the ordinary telephones, is perfectly hopeless. Obviously if ten million telephone subscribers are crying through the air for their mates, they’ll never make a junction. So that wireless telephone between individuals must be suppressed, or, limited to very narrow use.

“We are here primarily interested in broadcasting. It becomes a primary public interest to say who is to do the broadcasting and under what circumstances and with what type of material. It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service and for news, for entertainment and education and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter.”

I continued in that address, saying: “The problem is one of the most intensely technical character, and even if we use all the ingenuity possible, I do not believe there are enough permutations to allow an unlimited number of sending stations. So this is a problem of regulation. Regulations will need to be policed, and thus the celestial system, or at least the ether part of it [we always referred to the medium as “ether” in those days] comes under the province of a policeman. Fortunately the art permits such a policeman, by licensing it, to detect those who either hog or endanger the traffic.

“There is in all of this the necessity to establish public right over the radio bands. There must be no national regret that we have parted with so great a national asset.”