Monday, September 21, 2015
The KDKA Story - In the Beginning
Right at 8 pm on Friday evening October 17, 1919, just 2½ weeks after the ban against all amateur and experimental radio transmissions in the United States was lifted, Frank Conrad began a two hour program of recorded music over his amateur station 8XK in Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania. The low power longwave transmitter was installed on the 2nd floor above the family garage next to his home on the corner of Penn Avenue and Peebles Street in Wilkinsburg.
The antenna wires stretched between two wooden poles, one placed at the edge of the garage and the other at the back corner of the family property. Also stretching between these two wooden poles was a set of earth wires acting as a counterpoise, a dozen feet above the ground.
Thus began a spasmodic series of entertainment programs, consisting of live and recorded music, together with announcements and items of information that were heard not only in the Pittsburgh area, but further afield, wherever there was an amateur radio operator tuning cross the bands on his untidy home made receiver. Informal reception reports came in by phone, by mail, and by wireless, and many of them were answered in kind.
A few months later, early in the following year 1920, Fred Conroy at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh took the institute’s experimental radio transmitter 8XC to the Westinghouse factory at East Pittsburgh, and there he gave a demonstration of radio transmission and reception to their top officials. At the time, the 8XC license was held by the Carnegie Institute of Technology, though quite soon afterwards the license lapsed, and the call was re-issued to an amateur experimenter in Cleveland Ohio.
Due to the local interest that was developed by the Conrad 8XK entertainment and information broadcasts, the Joseph Horne Department Store in Pittsburgh had a local radiotrician build a few sets which were advertised in the local newspaper for sale in the store. Westinghouse Vice President Harry Davis recognized the sales potential, and he called a conference of Westinghouse officials, including Frank Conrad, to discuss the possibility of establishing a radio broadcasting station in their factory complex. That was in September 1920, and they soon set a target date for the launching of the new radio broadcasting station at the time of the presidential elections scheduled for November 2.
Westinghouse already held a wireless station license, just recently received, for a communication station under the callsign KDKA. This license gave approval for Morse Code communication between the East Pittsburgh factory and other interstate Westinghouse facilities.
A wooden shack was constructed on the roof of factory Building K at East Pittsburgh, eight stories above ground level, and a new 100 watt mediumwave transmitter was built and set in a corner of the room. The single wire antenna was stretched between Building K and a nearby chimney stack.
Test broadcasts were radiated from the new radio transmitter a few days in advance of the inaugural election day broadcast and these were noted on 550 meters, equivalent to 545 kHz at the low end of the now recognized mediumwave band. The Pittsburgh Gazette Times announced in their daily newspaper on October 24 that the new Westinghouse radio broadcasting station would be inaugurated on Election Day, eight days later.
In the meantime, Westinghouse had submitted a license request to the regional office of the Department of Commerce in Detroit for approval to broadcast the election returns on November 2. However, because of the close proximity of time, Westinghouse received an official phone call that gave them approval to broadcast under the special and temporary amateur callsign 8ZZ. Apparently the paper work did not follow, and the Department of Commerce (intentionally or inadvertently?) re-issued the call 8ZZ quite soon to an amateur radio operator in Michigan.
The inaugural broadcast from the new radio broadcasting station 8ZZ, began at 6:00 pm on Election Day, Tuesday November 2, 1920. It was a stormy almost wintry night, and four men crouched over their equipment in the hurriedly erected wooden hut on top of the eight storied K Building in the Westinghouse factory complex at East Pittsburgh, in the American state of Pennsylvania.
As the progressive news came in by voice over the phone from a reporter in the newspaper office at the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, it was written down by R. S. McLelland and John Frazier, and it was then handed to Leo Rosenburg who read the information into the 8ZZ microphone. Caring for the operation of the technical equipment was radiotrician Donald Little.
In between the snippets of election news, two banjo players strummed away to provide an interlude of musical entertainment. Then too, Announcer Rosenburg made frequent requests for reception reports on the transmissions from the new station, and these reports came in from lots of locations within North America, and even from a ship at sea.
And where was Frank Conrad on the occasion of the inaugural transmission; he who had designed and built the equipment? He was at home 5 miles away, ready to use his own low powered longwave transmitter 8XK in the room above the garage as a back up unit if the main transmitter on top of the Westinghouse K Building should malfunction.
However, all went well, and 8ZZ performed admirably. In fact, it stayed on the air all that night right up until noon next day with the broadcast of election news, even though the loser, Governor James Cox, had already conceded victory to the new President Warren Harding.
One of the Westinghouse executives, Dr. L. W. Chubb, Manager of the Radio Engineering Department, installed a receiver with two loud speakers in the main community room at the Edgewood Club, some 4 miles distant from the transmitter location. The large crowd who had gathered for the Election Day broadcast included many senior Westinghouse executives and their wives. It is estimated that the total audience tuned in to station 8ZZ for their election results numbered anywhere up to a thousand.
Following the successful inauguration of the new radio broadcasting station at the Westinghouse factory at East Pittsburgh, the station adopted a regular daily schedule with entertainment and information programs each evening, beginning usually around 6:00 pm. The original temporary mediumwave callsign 8ZZ was quite soon replaced by the more familiar KDKA a day or two later. And that’s our story on another occasion here in Wavescan.