June 1930 Radio-Craft
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
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
See other "Men Who Made Radio" :
Reginald A. Fessenden,
Count Georg von Arco,
F. W. Alexanderson,
James Clerk Maxwell
Men Who Made Radio - Frank Conrad
The 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 September 7, 2015