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WSHU Chief Engineer Paul Litwinovich explores aspects of vintage radio, from the radio sets themselves to the people and technology that made it all possible.

Order Out of Chaos

John Jenkins/ sparkmuseum.com

While perusing the shopping mall this holiday season in pursuit of last minute gifts, I came upon an advertisement depicting a popular video game. The ad pictured the game as having just two controls; one labeled “ON/OFF”, the other was labeled “MAYHEM”.  Reflecting upon this, I thought that perhaps it would have made for good labeling on radios manufactured during the early 1920s.

Just what would you have heard on the 1922 set pictured here,  or the ones  featured in my recent articles?  Let's take brief look at the history of early broadcasting to get a feel for what the airwaves were like in the beginning. The first major commercial use of radio technology was for communication with ships at sea, and this was done exclusively with Morse code. In the beginning, amateur radio operators could operate whenever and on whatever frequency they desired, also using Morse code.

The first radio rules in the United States were enacted by the US Navy. These primarily consisted of the requirement that all non emergency communication must stop for a period  of five minutes at the top and bottom of each hour during which all stations must listen for possible distress traffic from ships at sea. Back then almost all communication took place on or just below what we now know as the AM broadcast band. There were no assigned frequencies because spark gap transmitters such as the one used on the Titanic splattered energy over most of the band anyway. Although all stations were required to  yield to emergency traffic, if your boat sprang a leak on a busy night at six minutes after the hour you might have a problem.

As the technology progressed, clean transmitters that could be centered on a specific frequency were developed. 400kHz became the first frequency assigned exclusively for distress traffic. Further developments led to the ability to modulate the radio signal with audio. This opened new opportunities not only for marine and amateur traffic, but for broadcasting to the general public as well. By 1912, the airwaves were becoming so overcrowded that the US government enacted legislation giving the Department of Commerce (DOC) the power to regulate radio transmissions (radio act of 1912). The Titanic also played a role in this legislation. The new rules included a requirement that ships at sea must have a radio operator on duty 24 hours a day. The freighter Californian was estimated to have been about 30 miles from the Titanic when it struck the iceberg, about half the distance that the Carpathia was, and capable of reaching the Titanic before she sank. The Californian’s radio man had retired for the night, about an hour before the fateful distress call was sent.

The first broadcasts to the public were made by radio amateurs, who were defined at the time as anyone not conducting land or marine communications for commercial purposes. One of the more notable amateurs  was a Frank Conrad,  who began playing music over his amateur radio station 8XK from a garage in Pittsburgh,  Pennsylvania  in 1916. He began receiving requests to play more music from people listening with crystal radios and soon was borrowing records from a local music store in return for on air promotion. This new broadcasting concept caught on quickly and soon stations were popping up all over the country. As technology improved, transmitters became more powerful. Broadcasters would often increase power or switch frequencies to overpower a potential competitor. By 1920 the airwaves were quite a mess and something had to be done. The DOC restructured radio regulations. A new broadcast class license was introduced. Amateur operators lost their privilege to play music or broadcast to the general public (now they could only communicate directly with other amateurs) and were restricted to frequencies above 1500 kHz that were considered to be "worthless" for serious communications.

Credit Copyright Bettman/Corbis
Early KDKA transmitter

The first broadcast license was issued to Westinghouse for their station KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA in 1920. Pictured here is the original KDKA 100 watt transmitter. Note the Edison hand crank phonograph to the right of the transmitter.  The phonograph has been outfitted with a homemade microphone pickup that replaces the traditional horn.  Frank Conrad was now working for Westinghouse as assistant chief engineer. On November 2, 1920, KDKA went on the air. Its first broadcast being coverage of the Harding/ Cox presidential election.  Despite Mr. Conrad’s first foray into the world of “commercial broadcasting” with his records for promo trade, advertising was not the driving force in early radio. Radio manufacturers were building stations to encourage people to buy their radios. In fact, direct advertising was prohibited by DOC regulations. A few stations skirted the law by doing “trade ads”  similar to what Mr. Conrad had done as an amateur. Some were cited or given cease and desist orders by the DOC for selling airtime. The commercial restriction was dropped in 1923. By now a reasonable order had been established and the broadcast industry began to grow. There were still some problems to overcome. The DOC was often challenged in court as to whether they had the authority to issue licenses or regulate the airwaves at all. For the most part, they did not have the technical expertise to oversee what stations were doing and there was still a lot of nonsense occurring, mostly involving power increases by stations attempting to step on their competition.

The DOC continued to regulate broadcasting until 1927 when an act of congress created the Federal Radio Commission to specifically regulate the broadcast industry. The DOC continued to regulate other radio communications until congress enacted the Communications Act of 1934, creating the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and placing all forms of radio communication under its jurisdiction. The FCC  was given strong authority to create, regulate and enforce communications laws and continues to do so to this day.

Paul was a design engineer and engineering manager in the broadcast industry for14 years before coming to WSHU in 1990. He holds an FCC commercial radio license, and an extra class Amateur radio license.
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