Path not taken: wired wireless and broadcasting in the 1920s.

Author:Patnode, Randall
 
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As fanatical as Americans were about radio broadcasting in the first half of the 1920s, they had welcomed into their homes a less than perfect system. Chances were good that the radio faithful listening in on their favorite stations would have heard loud hisses and crackles from static electricity, especially in the summer. It was equally likely that at some point their entertainment would be interrupted by unwanted cross talk from one or more stations using the same frequency or by the ear-piercing howl of a regenerating receiver being mishandled by a neighbor. In addition, if they paid the least bit of attention to news about radio, they would have been hard-pressed to avoid the vexing question on the lips of almost everyone in the business: Who will pay for broadcasting?

By the end of the decade, with regulation, technical advances, and much debate, all of these challenges were being resolved. But surprisingly there was by 1922 a broadcast delivery system that appeared on its face to solve all three problems. Even more puzzling, two of the communication titans at the time--Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T)--were aware of the technology but never realized its potential) The system, called wired wireless, was based on the principle of carrier current transmission, a technique patented in 1911 by Major George O. Squier, an electrical engineer with the U.S. Army. From 1922 to the end of the decade, Squier and his associates tried to demonstrate that wired wire less could be a viable alternative to over-the-air broadcasting. Although Squier failed to seriously challenge broadcasting, his technique for providing mass wired entertainment lives on (mostly in offices and restaurants) in the form of the commercial service known as Muzak. (2)

The history of communication technology is littered with failures, but only recently have scholars made an earnest attempt to understand how these failures inform how we think about surviving technologies (Case, 1991; Cowan, 1987; Lipartito, 2003; Pinch & Bijker, 1987; Reich, 1977). Some scholars now argue that failures, because they are more common, may be more important than technological successes (Lipartito, 2003) and that failures reveal the weaknesses of histories told only by those who backed a surviving technology (Braun, 1992). Why wired wireless failed to become more of a factor in broadcasting, especially when it appeared to solve many of the problems that confounded the radio business, is the subject of this article. The answer, in large measure, lies in how social groups relevant to the development of broadcasting--engineers, business managers, writers, and even the American public--socially constructed radio, and the alternative service (Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987; Douglas, 1987; Pinch, 1996; Volek, 1992). When tested against the normative assumptions of broadcasting as a free, over-the-air service, wired wireless was found wanting, despite some of its technical advantages. This article examines primary evidence of how wired wireless was socially constructed in contemporaneous newspaper and magazine reports, oral histories, government documents, patent records, and letters of key individuals.

The idea of broadcasting news, music, and information over wires was not new in the 1920s. As early as the 1880s, entrepreneurs in Europe and the United States had experimented with subscription and on-demand entertainment services delivered over telephone wires. Probably the most successful of these was Telefon Hirmondo, which began service in 1893 in Budapest, Hungary, and continued for 14 years, eventually reaching 160,000 subscribers (Marvin, 1988; White, 2004). Two American businessmen tried to duplicate the service in New Jersey in 1911, but it quickly failed due to lack of financing (Marvin, 1988). In rural America in the 1920s and 1930s, residents strung networks of wires to share a single radio with often hundreds of homes (Gilliams, 1925; Kirk, 1923; Opt, 1992). In Great Britain, these systems were known as relay exchanges, and they remained a popular alternative to wireless reception through the 1930s (Welke, 1979).

These early wired systems were limited because they required a dedicated wire to receive the service. The genius behind Squier's system was the idea of multiplexing: enabling a single electrical wire to perform more than one function. Unlike the early experiments in wired broadcasting, in which the radio signal moved through the copper wire, the carrier current signal moved through the electromagnetic field surrounding the electric wire. Signals could be sent over existing telephone and power lines--essentially any wire carrying a current--without interfering with the wire's original use. This meant, in part, that broadcasters could transmit over the existing electrical and telephone grid rather than having to create a costly new infrastructure.

The fate of wired wireless rests in part on the business models of the two dominant players. AT&T, through its national telephone network, was the premier provider of wired communication services. As a common carrier, it provided transmission facilities to all, and charged for service based on the amount of time used. General Electric, with the endorsement of the U.S. Navy, created RCA in 1919 to offer primarily international telephone service without wires. Within 3 years, however, RCA's mission had changed. Broadcasting proved to be an amazing way to sell radio receivers (initially a secondary business for RCA). RCA shifted its strategy to provide radio listeners with something worth listening to, and its radio receiver sales took off. The broadcasting model, in many respects, was the antithesis of the common carrier model. First, it effectively limited access to relatively few senders and permitted no reply from the receiving party. Second, it provided no mechanism for the broadcaster to recover costs from the customer, unless the broadcaster (like RCA) was also in the business of selling receivers. Third, while the common carrier had no responsibility for communication content, the broadcaster was the sole content provider. Wired wireless featured aspects of both models: It placed responsibility for content on the sender but also provided a physical link to the customer, enabling the broadcaster to charge for its services.

Patents were also important to the fate of wired wireless. Not only did they protect ideas, they constrained a company's business strategies and provided a legal basis for attacking competitors. Between 1919 and 1922, AT&T, RCA, and other interested parties agreed to pool their patents in order to further radio development. Companies missing one element or another in manufacturing radio-related equipment for instance, Lee de Forest's audion tube--could license the missing pieces from other members of the pool. The patent agreements, most of them signed before anyone understood what broadcasting would become, also divided up the radio territory among the major players according to their business strengths and prohibited others from infringing on these exclusive domains. For instance, AT&T was granted rights to manufacture radio transmitters but excluded from making money from the manufacture of receivers. RCA won the right to sell radio receivers but was restrained from making money directly from broadcasting. In time, both companies came to covet the benefits of the other's patent position, but precluded from doing anything about it by a legal agreement, they both pursued anticompetitive strategies in order to defend their respective territories. When it came to wired wireless, the cross-licensing agreements were less than clear. As a result, both companies laid claim to the technology, yet neither clearly understood what to do with it.

Early Challenges to Broadcasting

In the first half of the 1920s, three primary challenges for broadcasting surfaced, one technical, one regulatory, and one economic. The first problem had to do with static electricity. Early radio reception was fraught with interference. Sunspot activity, thunderstorms, and even a passing electric trolley could produce a cacophony in listeners' earphones. During the summer, when interference was at its worst, many radio listeners abandoned their headphones.

The second challenge was interference of a different sort. This came from the fact that, initially, most radio broadcasts came over the same frequency, 360 meters (833 MHz). No one had foreseen the need for more than one frequency. However, the boom in the number of transmitting stations--from 67 in March 1922 to more than 500 a year later--led to what became commonly referred to as "chaos in the air" ("List of Stations Broadcasting," 1922; "Stations Broadcasting Market or Weather," 1923; Sterling & Kittross, 1990). Simply put, there were too many stations vying for too few frequencies. Secretary Herbert Hoover and his Department of Commerce mustered enormous amounts of effort to deal with the situation, including calling four national radio conferences. A primary thrust of the Radio Act of 1927 was to solve, once and for all, the debate over frequency allocation (Benjamin, 1990, 1998; Sarno, 1969).

The third and perhaps most contentious challenge came over paying for content (Smulyan, 1994). This challenge arose from the very nature of radio itself. Because broadcast transmissions radiated indiscriminately in all directions, it was possible for anyone with a properly tuned instrument to receive the signal. As hundreds of thousands of consumers quickly discovered, anyone who invested in a radio gained free access to entertainment. Singers, musicians, and other performers who were initially satisfied to stand before the microphone for the sheer publicity value soon began clamoring for something more tangible--money. In 1923, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers...

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