Saturday, November 11, 2017

Radio Station KDKA and the Famous 1920 Election Broadcasts

It was on the evening of Tuesday November 2, 1920 that the famous American mediumwave station KDKA made its historic inaugural broadcast; exactly 97 years ago, during this past week.  The content of that first radio broadcast from KDKA was a running commentary on the election figures for the presidential campaign between Governor James Cox, governor of Ohio, and Ohio newspaper owner Warren Harding.

            Right at 6:00 pm on that fateful stormy evening of Tuesday November 2, 1920, the new 100 watt transmitter signed on for its inaugural broadcast on 545 kHz from a temporary location in a wooden hut atop the eight storey Building K at the Westinghouse factory complex in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The official callsign for the occasion was the temporary special assignment 8ZZ, though the regular callsign KDKA had also come into use at the time. The progressive election figures were provided by telephone from the news room at the newspaper office of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times. 

            It is correctly understood that the inaugural broadcast from 8ZZ-KDKA, almost one hundred years ago, was for the broadcast of progressive statistics in association with election voting for the presidency of the United States, which incidentally was a landslide victory for Warren Harding.  However without additional information to the contrary, the generally accepted concept seems to be that the broadcast of presidential voting returns was a new and unique event presented by 8ZZ-KDKA.         However, that is not the case.  In the edition of Wavescan two weeks ago, we presented the story of wireless and radio in the broadcast of the November presidential election results in the years 1912 and 1916.

            Interestingly, the earliest known usage of wireless for the broadcast of election results occurred well over one hundred years ago, in November 1908.  This is what happened.     

            Around the middle of the year 1908, business tycoon and entertainment entrepreneur Frederic Thomson commissioned two playwrights, Paul Armstrong and Winchell Smith, to write a four act play under the title Via Wireless that could be produced and presented in a large entertainment theatre.

            The opening night for Via Wireless in the Liberty Theater was Monday November 2, the night before the voting for the 1908 presidential election between Secretary of War William Taft and lawyer William Bryan.  The plot line for Via Wireless was the story of a shipwreck, and a brave rescue as a result of emergency transmissions from the ship wireless.

             In order to enhance the effectiveness of the four act melodrama Via Wireless, a live wireless station was installed in the foyer of the Liberty Theatre at 42nd St in New York City.  This station received and transmitted electioneering information in Morse Code on Monday evening November 2, and also on November 3, (1908) when statistical results were transmitted.  We might add that William Taft obtained an easy victory.

            At the time, there were just four licensed wireless stations in New York City, as well as many licensed and unlicensed amateur stations, so it is not known which station was corresponding with the Liberty Theatre.  This is the list of officially licensed wireless stations in New York City at that time:-

                        PT       900 m  333 kH z          15 kW  Navy Yard                   Brooklyn

                        BW      450      666                    2        Waldorf Astoria           Manhattan

                        FS       450      666                    2        Hotel Plaza                  Manhattan

                        NY       Various                          2        42nd & Broadway         Manhattan

            Comes the year 1920 and Warren Harding and James Cox are fighting it out with the climactic voting taking place on Tuesday November 2.  In advance, ARRL the American Radio Relay League (of amateur radio stations) arranged with Frank Conrad that his amateur station 8XK should be the key station in the Pittsburgh area for the broadcast of the election results.

            However at the same time, Westinghouse began to plan for the launching of its own new radio broadcasting station in the evening of election day, and so recently married Burton Williams 8ZD at 3220 Orlean St in Pittsburgh agreed to act as the Pittsburgh control for amateur radio coverage of the election results.  This arrangement allowed Frank Conrad to work with the inauguration of the new Westinghouse radio broadcasting station.

            During the last week in October (1920), test transmissions were radiated by the new Westinghouse station at East Pittsburgh, 8ZZ with 100 watts on 550 metres (545 kHz).  These test transmissions were heard clearly in West Virginia and Ohio at a distance of 300 miles.  In anticipation of the inaugural broadcast during the evening of the next day, a final test transmission from 8ZZ was conducted on the evening of Monday November 1, (1920).

            The daily newspaper Cleveland Plain Dealer announced on the Thursday before election day that some 600 amateur radio operators in the greater Cleveland area would be listening to 8ZZ-KDKA for the inaugural election day broadcast.

            As is so well known, the inaugural broadcast from 8ZZ-KDKA at the Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh was a splendid success, and the broadcast of election results, music and announcements was heard quite widely.  As a standby in case of failure at 8ZZ-KDKA, Frank Conrad was at the controls of his own amateur station 8XK on the second floor of the family garage at the corner of Penn Avenue and Peebles Street in Wilkinsburg.  However as we know, the new Westinghouse station 8ZZ-KDKA did not fail, and the standby usage of amateur 8XK was not necessary.

            There was another radio broadcasting station that was also inaugurated on election day 1920 and this was station 9ZJ-WLK in Indianapolis Indiana.  Young Francis Hamilton installed amateur radio broadcasting station 9ZJ in the barn behind the family home at 2011 North Alabama Street Indianapolis and the opening broadcast was election day news. 

            Station 9ZJ transmigrated into mediumwave broadcaster WLK which folded in 1923.  The equipment was incorporated into KFGZ-WEMC at Andrews Adventist University in Berrien Springs Michigan, and that station eventually morphed into WKZO in Kalamazoo.

            Another historic mediumwave station that carried the 1920 election results was 8MK in Detroit Michigan.  This station began as 8MK in the Detroit News Building at 615 West Lafayette Boulevard with a series of test transmissions beginning on August 20, 1920, three months in advance of the first broadcasts from the more famous 8ZZ-KDKA. 

            The election day broadcast from 8MK on 200 metres (1500 kHz) was announced in advance in the Detroit News daily newspaper.  This station later became the more familiar WWJ, which is still on the air to this day.

            Another important mediumwave station that presented election news on election day in 1920 was 1XE which was on the air at Tufts College (University) at Medford just north of Boston.  This experimental station was inaugurated in 1917 as the first station in Massachusetts; it changed callsign to WGI one year after the election broadcasts; another callsign WARC was adopted in 1925; and it fell silent in bankruptcy in 1927.

            Interestingly in 1926, the noted Powell Crosley at WLW in Cincinnati Ohio announced that he planned to establish a shortwave transmitter in Cincinnati for the purpose of providing a relay of programming to WARC in suburban Boston.  But, nothing came of this matter.
(AWR WAvescan)