A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

KDKA begins to broadcast

Photo: Beginnings of KDKA, with entire staff of four

On Christmas Eve, 1906, wireless operators on ships off the New England coast wondered if they'd had a religious experience. Out of the midst of Morse code dots and dashes beeping through their headsets came the sound of a voice reading the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke and a violin playing "Silent Night." The voice wished them a merry Christmas, and then the dots and dashes started up again.

The voice was that of Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932), an inventor and engineer who had been working on producing voice radio since Marconi's first wireless broadcast across the Atlantic. After his Christmas experiment, Fessenden continued working to make voice radio practical. In 1907, Lee de Forest invented a new radio tube called the Audion. It soon made transmitting sound modulations much more effective and became standard radio equipment. The radio tube was gradually improved upon by other inventors, to increased clarity and power.

For 15 years or so, voice radio was the purview of engineers and hobbyists called hams. To most people it seemed amusing, but a novelty that would have no practical application. One obstacle to radio's acceptance was that the equipment was cumbersome and required a fair amount of knowledge and attention. After World War I, prosperity and technological advances -- some the offspring of the war effort -- brought more appliances into the home and created more technologically minded people. Radio companies formed to build and sell ready-made machines.

In 1920, Westinghouse, one of the leading radio manufacturers, had an idea for selling more radios: It would offer programming. Radio began as a one-to-one method of communication, so this was a novel idea. Dr. Frank Conrad was a Pittsburgh area ham operator with lots of connections. He frequently played records over the airwaves for the benefit of his friends. This was just the sort of thing Westinghouse had in mind, and it asked Conrad to help set up a regularly transmitting station in Pittsburgh. On November 2, 1920, station KDKA made the nation's first commercial broadcast (a term coined by Conrad himself). They chose that date because it was election day, and the power of radio was proven when people could hear the results of the Harding-Cox presidential race before they read about it in the newspaper.

KDKA was a huge hit, inspiring other companies to take up broadcasting. In four years there were 600 commercial stations around the country. To keep up with the cost of improving equipment and paying for performers, stations turned to advertisers. In August 1922, the first radio ad, for a real estate developer, was aired in New York City. Networks of local stations developed to share programming and became big business. In 1926, RCA (Radio Corporation of America) formed the first national network, called NBC (National Broadcasting Company). Their first nationwide broadcast was the 1927 Rose Bowl football game from Pasadena. The burgeoning industry made the airwaves so jammed and chaotic that the Federal Radio Commission was established in 1927 to assign frequencies to broadcasters.

The entry of mass communication into American homes meant, among other things, the development of a mass culture. The same songs were heard across the country, news travelled fast, and heroes like Charles Lindbergh or Joe Louis were, in a new way, accessible to all. Technological refinements in radio continued. Early in the 1920s, headsets were replaced with speakers. In 1929, FM radio became available. The development of the transistor in the late 1940s paved the way for the transistor radio's appearance in 1952. Stereophonic sound and personal stereos would continue radio's evolution.

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