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Charles D. “Doc” Herrold began test voice
transmissions in 1909. From 1912 to 1917, he made weekly broadcasts from this
station at the Herrold College of Engineering and Wireless in San Jose,
California. His “arc-phone” transmitter (seen here in a 1913 photo) was a
continuous electrical arc suspended in an alcohol bath. (Photo courtesy of Mike
Here are Professor Reginald
Fessenden (right) and assistants at his Brant Rock radio station.
From this location, Fessenden made his
famous Christmas Eve broadcast in 1906.
(North Carolina Office of Archives and
Reginald Fessenden used this
alternator to generate the signal for his Christmas Eve, 1906, broadcast.
(“American Telephone Journal”,
January 26, 1907)
The Precision Equipment Company operated
station 8XB in Cincinnati, beginning in January, 1920.
This newspaper advertisement promoted an October 31 phonograph music
concert by the station. 8XB became
WMH in 1922 and operated until the end of 1923.
On May 20, 1920, the Marconi Wireless
Telegraph Company’s station XWA in Montreal broadcast a live concert that was
received at a meeting of the Royal Society of Canada in Ottawa.
The 500-watt transmitter seen here operated on 1200 meters (250 kHz).
XWA became CFCF in 1922.
(“Radio News of Canada”, March, 1929)
The American Radio and Research
Corporation (AMRAD) in Medford Hillside, Massachusetts, commenced experimental
broadcasts over its station 1XE in 1919, in association with Tuft’s College.
The station was relicensed as WGI in
1922, and continued to broadcast through 1925. (Author’s
Radio inventor Lee de Forest operated
experimental broadcasting station 2XG at High Bridge, New York, beginning in
1916. In 1920, when his station was
closed by the local radio inspector, he moved the equipment to San Francisco and
opened 6XC, “The California Theatre Station”.
It made daily live music broadcasts from April of 1920 through the end of
1921. The transmitter seen here operated
on 1260 meters (237 kHz) with a power of 1 kW.
(“Radio News Magazine”, June, 1921)
Dr. Frank Conrad operated an
experimental radio station from his home in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, beginning
in 1916, using the call sign 8XK.
During World War I, Conrad worked for his employer, the Westinghouse Electric
Company, in the development of vacuum tube transmitters for the military.
After the war, he installed a tube transmitter at his home station and
started a regular schedule of phonograph music broadcasts in October, 1919.
His experiments caught the attention of top Westinghouse management,
leading to the construction of the company’s station KDKA.
On November 2, 1920, Westinghouse
opened its new broadcasting station in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, announcing
the results of the Cox-Harding presidential election.
That night’s broadcast used the temporary call sign 8ZZ, but Westinghouse
began regular broadcasts the following week with the permanent call sign, KDKA.
(Westinghouse Photo, Author’s
On August 20, 1920, the Detroit News
began transmitting regular programs of news and entertainment over its new
broadcasting station, using the amateur call sign 8MK.
The broadcasts were made from the 50-watt de Forest OT-10 transmitter,
seen here. The license was
converted to a “Limited Commercial” station classification on October 13, 1921,
assigned the call letters WBL. In
March of 1922, this call sign was changed to WWJ.
This original transmitter is now on display at the Detroit Historical
This 1921 photograph shows the first
WWJ antenna on the roof of the Detroit News Building.
2020, we will recognize the official 100th
anniversary of the start of radio broadcasting in the United States.
But is that an accurate statement?
If the truth be known, by 1920, experimental
broadcasting had already been happening around the country for many years.
Let’s take a look at the country’s transition
from that early experimentation to formal broadcasting.
For many decades, the prevailing
myth has been that broadcasting in the United States first occurred on the night
of November 2, 1920.
According to this general conviction, no
broadcasting took place anywhere before that date, but then - in a brilliant
stroke of genius - it was suddenly invented that night by the Westinghouse
Corporation when its new station KDKA broadcast the Harding-Cox election
could be farther from the truth!
reality, by the time that KDKA made its
debut, broadcasting had already been taking place for
a number of years.
A few dozen radio experimenters had been
tinkering with the notion of broadcasting as far back as 1912.
That was the year that Charles “Doc” Herrold
started transmitting a weekly program of phonograph records to local ham radio
operators in San Jose, California.
Except for the period of 1917-19, when all
private radio activity was shut down by the government during World War I,
experimentation with the broadcasting of news and entertainment to a unseen
audience had been taking place on a regular basis in different cities.
What began as random transmissions of
phonograph music by a few ham radio operators was gradually and continuously
refined, copied and improved upon by others over the span of nearly a decade.
As technologies improved, these experimental
broadcasts increased in regularity. Many of these early pioneers were operating
“in the dark”, unaware of what others were doing and oblivious to the
significance of their efforts.
By the time the American government finally
recognized broadcasting as a distinct category of station and issued its first
broadcast license in 1921, the new medium had become firmly established.
And so, KDKA’s debut, while an important
milestone in this process, was just a stopping point along the way.
first ask ourselves, what is the definition of a broadcasting station?
At what point does experimentation stop and
According to one scholar’s definition, there
are four conditions needed:
It must be the audio transmission of the human voice. Radio telegraphy is not
entertainment must be transmitted to a dispersed and unknown mass audience.
Point-to-point communication is not broadcasting.
The transmissions must
take place on a regular schedule. Programs must be available to an audience at
predictable times and on a known frequency. Many early stations operated as
either as a one-time special event, or on irregular and unpredictable schedules.
That is not true broadcasting.
The station must
transmit to a “citizen audience”. In order to serve the general public,
transmissions should not be limited to the exchange of program content among
experimenters using specialized equipment.
This last point is the hardest
one to qualify because there were no factory-built consumer radios before the
One of the first factory-built receivers
available to the public – the Westinghouse RA and DA pair – went on sale in
April 1921, and it was just a repackaging of the company’s commercial receiving
As a result, most listeners built their own (primarily
crystal sets), and a few well-heeled individuals used very expensive
professional communications gear.
At the start, ham operators and radio tinkerers
were the primary audience, and there is no single point at which the audience
morphed from hobbyists to consumers – it was a gradual process spread out over
Many experimenters built receivers for friends
and neighbors, and some of these turned into garage operations churning out
small quantities of primitive radio sets.
Then, in the year 1922, radio suddenly exploded
into the public’s consciousness.
A radio craze swept over the country that year,
and more than 500 new stations came on the air.
Receivers and parts flew off the store shelves
as fast as they could be manufactured.
this time, we can say without too much doubt that there was indeed a “citizen
first documented broadcast of the human voice was made by Prof. Fessenden on
Christmas Eve, 1906.
Transmitting from his experimental station at
Brant Rock, Massachusetts, he used a specially-built high-speed 50 kHz
alternator to create a continuous RF waveform, and inserted a carbon microphone
in the antenna circuit to modulate the signal.
His program consisted of a short speech, some
phonograph records, and his own violin solo.
the Radio Act of 1912 was enacted, experimental broadcasting stations needed to
obtain a special license from the Department of Commerce.
(An experimental station call sign began with a
number indicating the station’s operating zone, followed by an “X” for
experimental, and then subsequent unique letters.)
Beginning in 1912, Charles Herrold in San Jose,
California, was making weekly broadcasts of phonograph music to ham radio
operators using a modulated arc transmitter, using the call sign 6XE.
weekly broadcasts continued until 1917, when World War I forced all private
stations off the air.
New York City, radio inventor Lee de Forest was also broadcasting before the
first he also experimented with arc transmitters, but then in 1916 he built his
station 2XG in High Bridge, New York, utilizing his
development, the “Oscillon” transmitting tube.
broadcast both live and phonograph music, and -- on November 7, 1916 – relayed
the election returns of the 1916 Wilson-Hughes presidential election.
(Unfortunately, he signed off at 11:00 PM
erroneously declaring Hughes the winner.)
the United States entered World War I, all private radio stations were ordered
off the air effective April 17, 1917.
operators were instructed to take down their antennas and disassemble their
The public was prohibited from operating radio
As a result, no private radio activity took
place until 1919. Herrold,
de Forest, and all other early broadcast experimenters were placed on hold.
the war effort needed radio men, and thousands of young ham radio operators
joined the Army and were sent to Europe, where they were trained to use the very
latest in radio technology.
Herrold’s wireless school alone turned out
several hundred radio operators for the war effort.
Radio patent restrictions were suspended during
the war, and so the technology advanced rapidly without the restraints of patent
Higher power transmitter tubes and more stable
receiver tubes were soon developed.
At the end of the war, these radio men returned
to civilian life with an enhanced knowledge of radio.
ban on radio receiving was finally lifted on April 15, 1919, and the
restrictions against transmitting ended on September 26.
Amateur operators were eager to rebuild their
stations, and many of these began experimenting with voice transmissions and
are dozens of anecdotal stories of ham stations around the country transmitting
phonograph records or live music.
vacuum tubes at that time were hard to come by, but some war surplus tubes made
it back into the hands of these operators.
A few others, such as 9XM at the University of
Wisconsin, designed and built their own tubes.
Forest reactivated his High Bridge station in 1919, and broadcast the
play-by-play results of a Wesleyan-New York University football game on November
In early 1920, he moved 2XG to the World Tower
Building to gain better coverage, and he invited the well-known singer Vaughn de
Leath to sing on the air.
But soon after, the New York radio inspector
shut him down for relocating the station without permission.
Undaunted, he packed up his equipment and took
it to San Francisco, where he opened 6XC in the California Theatre, the city’s
most opulent motion picture house.
From there, he made daily broadcasts of live
music by Herman Heller’s Orchestra from April 1920 until late 1921.
The transmitter was then moved to Oakland and
was relicensed as KZY, the “Rock Ridge Station”, where it continued to operate
until the end of 1922.
in New York, one of de Forest’s employees, engineer Robert F. Gowen, built his
own station 2XX at his home in Ossining, broadcasting phonograph and live music
each night at 11:00 PM.
He operated from December 1919 to May 1921 with
300 watts on 330 meters, and was being heard by amateurs around the country.
his part, Charles Herrold was unable to return to the air with his now-obsolete
He finally acquired a tube transmitter and
began broadcasting again in 1921 under the call sign KQW.
The station’s call sign was changed to KCBS in
the country in 1919 and 1920, there were dozens of other experimental broadcast
In Melford Hillside, Massachusetts, regular
broadcasts from Tufts University began in November, 1919, over station 1XE.
The call sign was later changed to WGI, and the
“Amrad Station“ continued serving the Boston area until 1925.
February of 1919, the Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, began broadcasting
phonograph music on an irregular schedule over its station WWV.
An audience of listeners gathered in an
auditorium to hear the first demonstration broadcasts.
By the summer of 1920, these broadcasts were
being made on a regular schedule – every Friday night from 8:30 to 11:00 PM on a
frequency of 500 meters (600 kHz).
on October 17, 1919, Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad scheduled weekly
broadcasts of phonograph music over his station 8XK, operating from his
Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, garage.
These broadcasts continued through the end of
1920, and eventually inspired his employer to construct its own station, KDKA.
in Pittsburgh, the Doubleday Hill Electric store operated an amateur station,
The store sold radio components, and whenever a
salesman wanted to demonstrate his products, they would turn on the transmitter
and broadcast some music.
Eventually, the operating schedule became more
regular, and in January, 1921, the station acquired a new license with the call
That pioneer station operated continuously for
96 years until leaving the air in 2017, but reportedly there are plans in the
works to bring KQV back onto the Pittsburgh radio dial.
Seattle, sometime in the fall of 1919, Vincent I. Kraft’s 7XC began regular
broadcasts of phonograph and live music concerts.
In March of 1922 he relicensed his station as
KJR, which continues in operation today, 100 years after its humble beginnings.
Cincinnati, the Precision Equipment Company began transmitting wireless concerts
over 8XB in February, 1920.
In October, it advertised that “Wurlitzer
presents new November Victor Records by Wireless Telephone” on 275 meters (1090
Then on November 2, station 8XB relayed election
returns as they were received from 8ZZ (KDKA) in Pittsburgh.
Later relicensed as WMH, that station continued
to broadcast until January, 1923 when the company was acquired by Crosley
Electric Company operated an experimental station from its New York City
was first established to experiment with ship-to-shore communications, but it
also began transmitting phonograph concerts in March, 1920.
Soon, a second Western Electric station - 2XJ
in Deal Beach, New Jersey - also took to the air.
two stations were broadcasting on a nightly basis through the end of 1920.
In 1922, the 2XB installation was rebuilt to
become the company’s flagship broadcast station, WEAF.
April 1, 1920, the Western Radio Electric Company in Los Angeles received a
license with the call sign 6XD.
In 1921 the magazine “Pacific Radio News”
listed 6XD as broadcasting on 325 meters (920 kHz) two nights a week.
December, 1921, 6XD was relicensed as KZC on 360 meters.
It changed its call sign to KOG in February of
1922, but went off the air and was deleted March 9, 1923.
May 20, 1920, XWA in Montreal, operated by Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company,
broadcast a live concert by vocalist Dorothy Lutton.
The singular broadcast was presented for a
meeting of the Royal Society of Canada in Ottawa, where a receiver and
loudspeaker was set up for the occasion.
XWA became CFCF in 1922, and then CINW in 1999
before leaving the air in 2010.
October, 1920, Dr. William “Doc” Reynolds began broadcasting a regular schedule
of music from his station 9JE in Denver.
The call sign was changed to 9ZAF in 1921, and
it then became KLZ in March, 1922.
there are many other anecdotal reports – too numerous to list here – of other
amateur and experimental stations that were broadcasting on a regular basis in
different parts of the country.
look back today at this tumultuous period of experimentation, we are easily
confused by the question of station licenses.
Until 1922, the Department of Commerce, which
regulated all radio transmissions from 1912 to 1927, did not recognize
“broadcasting” as a class of station.
Instead, these experimenters operated under a
variety of different license classifications:
But by 1921, the Department of
Commerce was becoming concerned that too many stations of these classes were
being used for transmission of programs intended for general public, and so in
December, 1921, it created a new license class specifically for broadcasting
that it called “Limited Commercial”. 3
There were just two frequencies on which these
stations could operate – 360 meters (833 kHz) for broadcasting “news, concerts,
and lectures”, and 485 meters (619 kHz) for “weather and market information”.
This probably seemed like enough spectrum in
March of 1922, when there were just 61 broadcasting stations in the entire
country, but by the end of that year there were over 500 stations sharing the
In the larger cities, stations had to work out
frequency time-sharing arrangements among themselves.
For example, in Los Angeles, 16 stations
divided their time on 360 meters.
the above into consideration, it’s impractical to identify the “first” broadcast
station based on its class of government license.
As radio historian Prof. Gordon Greb once
pointed out, we recognize the Wright Brothers as being the first to fly an
airplane – and not the first person to be issued a pilot’s license.
also difficult to identify the “first” broadcaster from this large and poorly
documented list of early pioneers.
Most of the early tinkerers disappeared from
the air within a few months and left only traces of their efforts.
A more practical exercise is to identify the
“oldest” broadcaster among the stations that are still on the air today, in
order to recognize their upcoming 100th
But then, some stations began as amateur or
experimental stations operating on irregular schedules, and gradually expanded
into full-service broadcasters.
The majority of these were poorly documented
and underfunded, and so we can only guess at what date in their development they
could be classified as broadcast stations.
this author’s opinion, there are three significant stations still broadcasting
today that can claim to be the “oldest” - WWJ in Detroit, KNX in Los Angeles,
and KDKA in Pittsburgh.
WWJ made its first
broadcast on August 20, 1920, using the amateur call sign 8MK.
From the beginning, it was operated by the
Detroit News as a commercial public service operation –an adjunct to the printed
It was well funded and professionally operated.
At that time, amateur stations were not prohibited from broadcasting, and the
8MK amateur license was the easiest for the Detroit News to obtain.
in 1921, when new rules forbid amateur stations from broadcasting, a “Commercial
Land Station” license was obtained with the call sign WBL.
Dated October 13, 1921, this was the 8th
such license to be issued in the country.
Within a few short months, the call sign was
again changed to WWJ.
Today, WWJ broadcasts with 50,000 watts on 950
kHz, and has been continuously broadcasting since August 20, 1920.
Meanwhile, in Los
Angeles, amateur station 6ADZ started broadcasting to the public on September
10, 1920. The
little 5-watt station was licensed to Fred Christian, manager of the Electric
Lighting Supply Company.
Although it was being operated for the benefit
of the company, the license was issued to Christian as an individual.
After the December, 1921, rule change, a
Commercial Land Station license was obtained under the call sign KGC.
on May 4, 1922, an additional license was obtained by the Electric Lighting
Supply Company under the call sign KNX.
a while, both stations operated separately, although they used the same
transmitter and studio equipment.
Having two stations was a way for the company
to get more shared air time in the crowded Los Angeles spectrum.
But eventually, KGC was absorbed into KNX and
the former station license was abandoned.
Even though it was a new station in terms of
its license, KNX was functionally the same station, tracing its origins back to
KNX is a 50 kW all-news station broadcasting on 1070 kHz.
mentioned, Frank Conrad had been broadcasting weekly phonograph concerts from
his station 8XK in Pittsburgh since October, 1919.
popularity of these programs inspired his employer, the Westinghouse Electric
Company, to construct its own station at its East Pittsburgh factory.
On October 16, 1920, Westinghouse applied to
Department of Commerce for a license to begin regular broadcasting service.
They wanted to be on the air in time to
transmit the results of the presidential election returns on November 2.
Shortly thereafter, Westinghouse received
permission by telephone to use the amateur call 8ZZ in case the formal and
written license was not received in time.
On October 27, the call letters KDKA were
assigned, and the station met its goal of broadcasting the election returns, but
apparently used the call sign 8ZZ that night.
Following that auspicious night, regular
broadcasting began from 8:30 to 9:30 PM nightly, now using the KDKA call sign.
Today, KDKA is a 50 kW all-news station
operating on 1020 kHz.
In an interesting
Communications today owns all three of these pioneer stations - KDKA, KNX and
KDKA TO THE RADIO BOOM OF 1922:
1921 and the first
months of 1922 were a transitional period for broadcasting.
A few stations abandoned their experimental or
amateur licenses and obtained “Commercial Land Station” licenses with
three-letter call signs.
And some important new stations came on the
in Boston, KYW in Chicago (later relocated to Philadelphia), WJZ in Newark; WEAF
in New York; and WGY in Schenectady.
On March 1, there
were 61 licensed broadcasting stations in the country.
By June, this number had grown to 378, and by
the end of the year it had surged to well over 500.
It was an amazing time - never before had a new
technology been adopted so quickly by the public.
Radio’s growth in 1922 debatably exceeded the
growth of the Internet and cell phones in modern times.
It became a point of pride for the pioneers to
brag that they had foreseen the radio’s mass audience potential.
Westinghouse, a major manufacturer of radio
equipment, bragged the most of all.
Blessed with nearly unlimited resources, the
company’s publicity department spread the word far and wide that KDKA had
invented the art of broadcasting.
That information made its way into history
books and public lore, and it was generally accepted as fact despite much
Even in recent years, Westinghouse has
vigorously defended its “first station” position.
In 1945, the NAB (National Association of
Broadcasters) was quoted in “Time” Magazine as stating that WWJ had preceded
KDKA by ten and a half weeks.
This resulted in an angry exchange that ending
with Westinghouse Broadcasting dropping out of the NAB for eight years.
In the end, we
should probably recognize that no one person or organization “invented” radio
It was an obvious application of the radio art
that was conceived and developed in parallel by hundreds – if not thousands – of
individuals over a period of about ten years.
The progressive development of the technology,
government regulation, and world politics, all played a role in the timing of
its creation and mass acceptance.
The most important thing we can do today is to
celebrate the amazing century of broadcasting’s development and influence.
Now that we have broadcasting, the world will
never be the same again.
originally appeared in the December, 2019, issue of the "Spectrum Monitor"
1 There are some who question
whether this broadcast actually took place, and few, if any, documented cases of
its reception have been identified.
2 WHA at the University of Wisconsin
in Madison was transmitting news and market reports as early as 1919, but the
information was being sent by Morse code.
WHA did not begin voice broadcasts until January, 1921.
3 The term “commercial” referred to
a station’s operation as a commercial enterprise.
It had no reference to commercial advertising.
A Tower in Babel by Erik Barnouw
Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 by
Susan J. Douglas
Lee de Forest, King of Radio, Television, and Film
by Mike Adams
“Time”, September 3, 1945
“Broadcasting”, October 15, 1945
“Oldest Station in the Nation” by R. Franklin Smith,
“Journal of Broadcasting”, Winter 1959-60
“Radio in the United States”, Wikipedia
“Chronology of AM Radio Broadcasting, 1900-1960” by
“The First 100 Stations in the United States” by Barry
“Post War Experimentation and Development” by Thomas H.
“Today in Ottawa’s History”,
“The Rise and Fall of WGI, the First Station in
Massachusetts”, by Donna Halper