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Dr. Conrad Founds KDKA

May 2024
5min read

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.

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.)

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