Friday, October 27, 2017

Presidential Election Results on Radio

KDKA - the early years
For the past nearly one hundred years, the history of the medium wave station 8ZZ-KDKA in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania has been closely linked with the broadcast of voting results for the American presidential campaign in November 1920.  This event was the grand occasion for the inauguration of the now historic medium wave broadcasting station KDKA on November 2.

            A major result of this programming emphasis in 1920 catapulted KDKA to an all time historic high.  Even though KDKA was not chronologically the first radio broadcasting station on the air in the United States, yet their inaugural broadcast on November 2, 1920 is seen without doubt as a major turning point in the progressive development of radio broadcasting, not only in the United States, but also right throughout the world.

            However, it is not so well known, that a large number of other radio stations in the United States have also broadcast the progressive count of voting results in American presidential campaigns, not only at the same time as the KDKA event in 1920, but also during earlier campaigns as well.  In our program today, we investigate the usage of radio in giving wide coverage to voting counts in presidential campaigns way back a hundred years ago.

            From the middle of the 1800s onwards, the nationwide network of wire telegraph systems in the United States began to grow, as did also the transmission of news and information in Morse Code, including progressive figures in presidential voting every four years.  When wireless telegraph stations were installed in various areas across the nation, then presidential voting news was also transmitted, sometimes informally, sometimes officially.

            During the year 1910, the New York Herald newspaper established a wireless station in the United States Barge Office at The Battery in New York City, which operated on longwave 640 metres (470 kHz) under the self chosen informal call sign OHX.  A contemporary photograph in the New York Herald showed the antenna system at station OHX stretched across a wide street between two buildings.   

            The main purpose for establishing station OHX was for the transmission of daily bulletins of newspaper news in Morse Code for the benefit of other newspapers.  In addition to the broadcast of these daily news bulletins from wireless station OHX in New York City, two other longwave wireless stations also carried a relay of these same transmissions. 

            These two additional relay stations, both Marconi stations, were station CC across the waterway from Cape Cod Boston in Massachusetts, and station PH at Hillcrest in San Francisco California.  The program feed in Morse Code was carried by the regular landline telegraph system from station OHX in New York City to station CC in Boston and to station PH in San Francisco.

            The presidential campaign during the year 1912 was a strange four way contest, though the main contenders were the governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson and the previous president Theodore Roosevelt.  Wilson won that race with a landslide victory.

            The New York Herald wireless station OHX provided wide area coverage of the progressive vote counts as they came in, beginning in the evening of Tuesday November 5, 1912.  Other wireless stations that carried similar progressive news information in Morse Code were two navy wireless stations; station NAD in Building 10 at the Massachusetts Navy Yard in Charlestown Massachusetts and station NPH on Mare Island California.

            The amateur station 1AF at Harvard University in Massachusetts, acknowledged as a control station in the Boston area in 1912, also sent out the November election results in Morse Code.

            However, for the first time ever, the progressive vote count was presented live by voice, from the Charles Herrold broadcasting station in San Jose California.  Just a few months earlier, during the evening of July 22, 1912, Herrold had begun a regular series of radio program broadcasts over his self-made 15 watt Arcphone longwave transmitter, operating without call sign at the time, just below 600 metres (500 kHz).

            This new transmitter was installed with the Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering in the Garden City Bank Building at the corner of First and West San Fernando Streets in downtown San Jose, which itself is a conjoined city on the southern edge of San Francisco in California.   The wireless station, with its water-cooled microphone, was installed on the top floor of the seven storied bank building.  The longwave antenna system, described as a carpet aerial, was made up of two miles of bronze wire which was strung like an umbrella from the Garden City Bank Building across three other adjoining buildings.

            On the occasion of the broadcast of the voting returns for the presidential election on November 5, 1912, the University of California in nearby Berkeley on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay set up a receiver in their gymnasium so that students could hear the progressive news counts.  Although not claimed as such, this was the first occasion in which the progressive voting results were broadcast by voice in the United States.

            Four years later, there was another presidential election in the United States, and on this occasion, November 7, 1916, contemporary newspaper reports state that several thousand amateur radio listeners heard the progressive news counts.  The 1916 election campaign was fought between the incumbent President Woodrow Wilson and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes.  As the counting figures came in, the tallies ebbed and flowed between President Wilson & Justice Hughes.

            A few days prior to the election day voting, radio inventor Lee de Forest installed a radio broadcasting station at his Highbridge Laboratory at 1391 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx New York.  This pioneer longwave radio broadcasting station was licensed under the call sign 2XG and it emitted 125 watts on 800 metres (375 kHz).   The first test broadcast from the new 2XG was transmitted on the evening of October 26, 1916, and regular programming began just a week later on November 1.               With the presidential campaign in its final stages, and World War 1 in Europe already two years old, there was much to report, although America dod not enter that war until six months later on  April 6, 1917.  Initial programming from 2XG at that stage was made up of music from Columbia disc recordings together with news and information from the morning daily newspaper, the New York American.

            Just a week later again on November 7 (1916), the new broadcasting station 2XG carried progressive reports on the voting counts from the offices of the New York American, up until 11:00 pm.  Just before closing for the night, station 2XG announced mistakenly that Justice Charles Hughes had won the election.  However, subsequent late returns from California swung the election results in favor of President Wilson, a fact that was made known early next day.

            Several contemporary newspaper reports stated that many thousands of amateur radio operators heard the news reports from station 2XG, and of course many of these radio operators also rebroadcast the news further afield from their own amateur radio stations.  The Electrical Experimenter magazine declared that 7,000 amateur radio operators heard the news from station 2XG, and the estimate from the New York American newspaper stated that 8,000 amateur radio operators heard this news from the same station 2XG.

            This figure, 7,000 or 8,000 amateur radio operators, may sound a bit like a newspaper exaggeration.  Maybe it was, but at that time, the Commissioner of Navigation in an official report stated that there was a total of 15,868 licensed amateur radio operators in the United States; double the listenership that this newspaper was claiming.

            The New York American declared triumphantly: It was the first time in the history of this wonderful world of ours that such a thing could be done.  For the first time, the wireless telephone has been demonstrated as a practical, serviceable carrier of election news and comment.

            Of course, that is not true; the 2XG broadcasts in 1916 were not the first election results that were broadcast in the voice mode.  As  we know, Professor Charles Herrold in San Jose California broadcast election reports by voice in the 1912 presidential campaign, four years earlier than station 2XG in New York in 1916. 

            We should also mention that a competitor radio station, the New York Herald station WHB (ex OHX) also carried its own programming of election results during that same 1916 presidential race.

            So, apparently several hundred, if not thousands, of radio stations have broadcast presidential election results in the years before the famous KDKA in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania performed a similar service in 1920.  Does that dethrone KDKA from its illustrious place in radio history?  No, not at all.  Station KDKA played a pivotal role in the development of radio broadcasting in the United States, and that honor can never be removed from KDKA and given to another.