Friday, August 28, 2015

The KDKA Shortwave Story: Before the Beginning

(psu edu)
Back in the early days before European colonization in North America, the Pittsburgh area in Pennsylvania was the haunt of the Shawnee Indians.  The Shawnee Nation were described as a semi-migratory cluster of tribes who moved around the eastern and central areas of what is now the United States.  Their language, Shawnee, belongs to the  Algonquian family of languages, and it is an endangered language with these days only 200 fluent speakers, mostly elderly adults.

            The first European to visit the Pittsburgh area was Robert de la Salle, a French trader and explorer, who led an expedition down the Ohio River from Quebec in Canada in the year 1669.  Robert de la Salle claimed all of the areas he traversed as part of the French colonial empire in North America, a claim that France considered valid up until 1758, nearly 90 years.  A counter claim was lodged by the British in 1681, a claim that they considered valid up until 1781, exactly 100 years. 

In 1758, the year the French claim expired, the settlement of Pittsburgh was named by the Scottish army general, John Forbes, in honor of the eloquent British statesman William Pitt.  Back in those days the pronunciation was Pittsburrow, similar to the Scottish city Edinburgh (Edinburrow). 
            Five years later, during the siege of Fort Pitt by Shawnees loyal to Chief Pontiac, there was an early attempt at biological warfare by the British garrison who tried to spread smallpox among the native Americans with the use of infected blankets.  This attempt was largely inconsequential however, because the disease had already been rampant among the Shawnee tribe during the previous year; it is estimated that as many as half a million may have eventually died from this epidemic.
            The Blockhouse at Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh was constructed in 1764, and this is the oldest building still standing in Pittsburgh.  In 1769, Pittsburgh was claimed by two states, both Virginia and Pennsylvania; though 11 years later, the new Mason-Dixon Line on the map of the United States settled the issue and Pittsburgh was legally absorbed into Pennsylvania.  The locale was incorporated as a town in 1771, and as a city in 1816.
            The city was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1845, and it was rebuilt during the next two years, complete with an enormous total of new factories numbering 1,000.  A score of years later one writer described the city as hell with the lid off.  In 1890, the spelling of the city name, Pittsburgh, was modified, dropping off the final letter h.  However, the h was officially returned to the city 21 years later.
            These days Pittsburgh Pennsylvania is a large modern city with a population of rd million covering an area of 60 square miles.  It is a very hilly city, with 446 bridges, and some 712 sets of outdoor pedestrian stairs including hundreds of paper streets as they are described; that is streets that are composed entirely of stairs and steep sidewalks rather than regular suburban streets.
            It was on January 8, 1886 that George Westinghouse established a factory in East Pittsburgh for the manufacture of turbine generators, large electrical coils, and electric railway locomotives.  This was the largest Westinghouse factory and at its height, it employed 20,000 people.  The factory subsequently manufactured home appliances and radio receivers also.
            Interestingly, 23 years after the factory was established, the management ousted its founder George Westinghouse.  This important industrial factory was closed during its 100th anniversary year 1986.
            Electrical Engineer Frank Conrad, who was closely involved with the development of radio broadcasting over mediumwave and shortwave stations KDKA, was born in Pittsburgh on May 4, 1874.  At the age of 16 he began employment in the Westinghouse factory, where he soon demonstrated a remarkable capability and expertise in many areas of electrical and electronic development.  He invented for example, the circular watt meter which is still in use to this day.
            In 1912, at the age of 28, Conrad constructed a wireless receiver in his home at Swissvale on the edge of Pittsburgh so that he could receive regular time signals from the Navy wireless station NAA at Arlington in Virginia.  He also heard Morse Code signals on his new wireless receiver from a neighbor John Coleman, so he built his own amateur transmitter so that he could communicate with other experimental wireless operators.
            Subsequently, he moved to another locale near Pittsburgh, a two story house in Wilkinsburg, and he installed all of his wireless apparatus in the room above the detached garage.  He was granted a license for his amateur station as 8XK in August 1916, two years into the First World War in Europe.  After the United States entered the war, all experimental wireless stations were silenced in April 1917.  However, Frank Conrad was permitted to continue his experimental work with radio in conjunction with the Westinghouse factory and they were granted two special licenses for this purpose: station 2WE at the Westinghouse factory, and 2WM at his Wilkinsburg home. 
            Two and a half years later in the aftermath of the European war, the ban on amateur radio activity was lifted and Conrad resumed transmissions over his amateur radio station under the original callsign 8XK.  Thus, in the evening of Friday October 17, 1919, Conrad entertained local listeners for the first time after the war with a music concert made up from his own record library together with announcements about each rendition.
            Thus began a continual series of semi-regular radio program broadcasts, compiled from music records borrowed from the Brunswick Shop in Pittsburgh; and the shop reported an increase in sales due to this form of informal advertising.  Then too, there were occasional live broadcasts presented by family members, relatives and friends who had a talent for vocal and instrumental music.  
            During this era of informal program broadcasts, Conrad re-applied for his former amateur license with the same pre-war callsign 8XK.  In due course, he received the official license, dated January 21, 1920.  His renewed license was listed as License No. 236½.
            The local newspapers often gave coverage to the various program broadcasts from Conrads amateur station 8XK, describing what was broadcast, and giving also the expressions of appreciation from the listening public.  Then, in the edition of the local paper for September 29, the Horne Departmental Store included an item in their display advertisement stating that their own staff had listened to a Conrad broadcast on their own radio receiver.
            The Westinghouse Vice-President, Mr. H. P. Davis, read this advertisement and he saw a commercial advantage in the usage of radio, and so he set procedures in motion to establish their own radio broadcasting station at the factory.  This new radio broadcasting station was quickly constructed and temporarily installed under a tent on the roof of the Westinghouse factory.  
            In the meantime, there was a presidential election in the offing, and ARRL the American Radio Relay League had invited amateur station 8XK to participate in the dissemination of news and information.  Westinghouse and Conrad combined their involvement for radio coverage of the election results with the use of their new factory station which was licensed under the callsign 8ZZ.  Test broadcasts were made in advance, and the new station was ready for the official event on November 2, 1920.
            The main election broadcast on November 2, 1920 were made from the new station 8ZZ at the factory, though Conrad was at home with his own station 8XK, ready to put it on the air with the official programming relay via a telephone line in the event of a problem at the factory station. 
            Interestingly, another amateur radio station in Pittsburgh, 8ZD operated by a Mr. Williams, carried the official ARRL broadcast of the election results, due to the fact that Conrad and Westinghouse were tied up with the operation of their own new radio station.
            And thats how it all began.  A couple of days later, the official license to use their land station KDKA as a broadcasting station arrived; and thus a new era in the history of radio broadcasting began.  More next time.