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Men Who Made Radio - Frank Conrad
June 1930 Radio-Craft

June 1930 Radio-Craft

June 1930 Radio Craft Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Craft, published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

The name Frank Conrad probably does not sound familiar to most people in the electronics communications field today, but at one time he was the assistant chief engineer to the Westinghouse Company. Back when voice radio (as opposed to Morse code, aka CW) was being pioneered, Mr. Conrad was widely known for his efforts in commissioning the country's first commercial broadcast installation - KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His arranging for live coverage of election night results in 1920 is credited for launching a huge interest by consumers in purchasing radio sets for their homes (Warren Harding beat James Cox that night, BTW). Toward the end of his career, Conrad was active in helping develop television broadcast standards. Fortunately for us, his electromechanical system gave way to a fully electronic system.

Note: A.E.F. in the article refers to the American Expeditionary Forces, a fighting group under the command of Pershing during World War I. B.C.L.s were 'BroadCast Listeners.'

See other "Men Who Made Radio" : Sir Oliver Lodge, Reginald A. Fessenden, C. Francis Jenkins, Count Georg von Arco, E. F. W. Alexanderson, Frank Conrad, Heinrich Hertz, James Clerk Maxwell

Men Who Made Radio - Frank Conrad

Men Who Made Radio - Frank Conrad, June 1930 Radio-Craft - RF CafeThe Ninth of a Series

"Amateur" does not imply that the bearer of this title is a newcomer or unskilled in his favorite field of activity; he may be a veteran and a master of his chosen art. Young or old, master or tyro, he is one who works for the pure love of doing things to the best of his ability, because he has within him an urge for action that must find expression.

The subject of this month's cover of Radio-Craft is a man whose professional activities for forty years have been prolific with important inventions; yet all of them put together have not had so astonishing an influence upon the daily habits, and even the thoughts, of the human race,. as the infection of his amateur zeal for radio.

Frank Conrad has risen from a shop bench to a commanding position among electrical engineers by the exercise of extraordinary natural ability and ingenuity; he grew up with electricity in the days of its earlier commercial application, when everything needful had to be invented while the process of manufacture was being worked out. He was active in the conception and design of equipment for arc-lamp operation, alternating-current power relays and voltage regulators, rectifiers, automotive ignition, starting and lighting equipment, and the ubiquitous electric wattmeter. His more than two hundred patents cover almost every form of electrical appliance. This versatility in his position, that of assistant chief engineer to the Westinghouse Company, has won what might be called a roving license; and the latitude granted him in his work has led to that wonderful development of radio broadcasting in which he was the successful pioneer.

Radio was already well established as "wireless," the art and mystery of a select body of telegraphic operators, when Conrad entered into it as one of the numerous, unsung amateurs. His interest, it is related, began in a trifling incident; an argument as to the respective accuracy of watches (another of his many hobbies) led him to establish a small home receiving station for time signals. It was not long before the upper story of the Conrad garage became an amateur "shack," where many radio novelties were being tested and devised.

The war came; and like other leaders of his profession, he devoted all his time and ingenuity to its pressing problems. The radio services of both army and navy acknowledge his many contributions to their technical demands; in fact, instruments of Conrad's design, for both transmission and reception, were the only radio equipment to reach the front of the A. E. F. in considerable quantities.

With the return of peace, his radio enthusiasm was not demobilized. In his home at Wilkinsburg, Pa., near Pittsburgh, he carried on his amateur activities, seeking to improve the radio telephone which was still but a technician's plaything. Around him, fellow amateurs picked up his frequent transmissions - of phonograph records and voice - as amateurs today pick up television tests; not a finished program, but a delightful novelty. And the receiving amateur had then something that his lay friends could listen to; not dots and dashes, but intelligible voice and music. Like the stone in the pool, of which every radio book tells us, Conrad's experiments had started a wave of popular interest in radio as a means of entertainment. The ranks of amateurs became augmented by "listeners." From outside the ranks of his little circle of coadjutors, there came the first "fan" letters. Twice a week that little program was broadcast for the first "invisible audience." The newspapers gave an occasional brief notice to the novelty.

The enthusiasm of Conrad communicated itself to his superiors; the vice-president of the Westinghouse Company, H. P. Davis, was induced to throw his influence in favor of a bold stroke. A transmitter was constructed in the East Pittsburgh works of Westinghouse, and hardly completed before Election Night in 1920. On this occasion the engineer, apprehensive of a failure, stood he fore his own little transmitter at home, ready to carryon if the new equipment should break down. But it didn't: the election returns were read out; into the ears of a thousand radio listeners.

What the "SOS" of the Republic was to marine radio, that election broadcast was to home radio reception. Everywhere in the United States, otherwise staid citizens acquired a new interest in life. They were busy winding coils and stringing wires; standing in queues, endeavoring to purchase a new contraption known as a "tube"; or probing a bit of reluctant mineral patiently with the end of a cat whisker. The public had discovered radio, with the sensations of Balboa stumbling into the Pacific ocean.

The new Pittsburgh station, shortly to become familiar to two hemispheres and several twilight zones as KDKA, was not to remain the world's only broadcaster for long. Other stations were built and equipped by the Westinghouse and other companies; even the navy undertook for a short time to give popular entertainment. In those days, not only the engineering side of radio, but the entertaining, was an amateur's job. The first ten years, undoubtedly, have been the hardest; but this is no place to tell the full story of the growth of Frank Conrad's idea.

While broadcasting, as it is today most familiar to the public, was becoming an institution, the ingenuity of the Pittsburgh enthusiast was going on to a possibility even greater. As an amateur, he knew the possibilities then being realized in short-wave operation. (You see, when the broadcast stations began to spread out on the dial, they speedily crowded the genuine amateur into the range below 200 meters; and the amateurs, thus driven to short waves, speedily proved the international range of those from 80 meters down.) While the commercial development of broadcasting was being carried on by others, Conrad was working away at a problem which is of still greater international importance. When KDKA with its long-wave broadcasts was talking to the American public, he sent out the same programs from short-wave transmitters to the world at large.

These short-wave programs were unsuspected by the "B. C. Ls." who had superseded the original amateur audience; but they were heard with rejoicing by lonely operators on far seas and remote islands, by exiles in tropical deserts and jungles; they penetrated even into the polar night. It became known first to those men who go into strange and mysterious places, that there is a radio link binding them to there home countries.

The results of these short-wave broadcasts are at last becoming known to the general public, just as did the first transmissions of KDKA ten years ago. They have as by-products the trans-oceanic telephone; the international relay broadcasts, whereby five continent may hear the words spoken in a single room. Today, the public is becoming short-wave conscious, and thereby internationally-minded; as country after country becomes a speaking voice, instead fo an overlooked area on the map. Nation after nation is adding to the number of short-wave broadcasters; since in the static-ridden tropics, or among the widely-scattered inhabitants of such great regions as Central Africa and Northern Asia, only a short-wave station can cover the needed area. Perhaps the short-wave audience will entirely supersede the present groups of radio listeners. In any event, we may check against Frank Conrad's radio hobby the second great success.

We have yet a little while to wait for the accomplishment of the third. The illustration at the head of this article shows Dr. Conrad (the self-educated boy has had the richly-earned robes of a doctor of science laid on his shoulders by the university of his city) standing beside the projector head of the television transmitter of W8XK (KDKA) which is repeating moving picture images to the scattered, select group of amateurs who are working to anticipate universal television broadcasts; just as their predecessors of ten years ago formed his first little broadcast audience. It is only the short-wave broadcaster which can make television in the theatre and the home practical; if we have to wait till 1940 for this, it will be a fitting climax to half a century of Conrad's inventive activity and enthusiastic labors for electrical progress.



Posted November 24, 2023
(updated from original post on 9/7/2015)

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