A universal speaking service: the role of Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in the development of National Network Broadcasting, 1922-1926.

Author:Crawford, Amy Graban

Radio transmission evolved into something new on November 2, 1920. On Election Day a recently established radio station in East Pittsburgh, KDKA, reported the election results to a public that was becoming increasingly interested in radio. How to define "the first broadcast station" is still debated, but on that day Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, the company that owned KDKA, transmitted a general purpose program designed to reach a mass, general-interest audience of casual listeners.

As the decade progressed, corporate powers in radio manufacturing battled for prominence as the industry headed in a potentially lucrative new direction. The patent pool that had been in effect during the war was lifted, leaving corporations vying to become the bellwether of the industry. The battle for leadership and dominance in the largely experimental and unregulated world of radio broadcasting led to legal arbitration, corporate negotiations, personal animosities and, eventually, cooperation and cross-licensing (Bilby, 1986; Hilmes, 1997; Spalding, 1964; Sterling & Kittross, 1978). In his biography of David Sarnoff, Kenneth Bilby writes, "The years between 1922 and 1926 were the most crucial in the development of American broadcasting. The service matrix that exists today, for television as well as radio, was configured then" (Bilby, 1986, pp. 68). As the dominant broadcasting and communications companies of the day struggled to establish a regular, national broadcast presence, Bilby notes that "in security-sealed corporate board rooms and Manhattan legal offices, and at secret arbitration hearings, the penumbral drama unfolded" (Bilby, 1986, pp. 68).

The story of how Radio Corporation of America, General Electric, and Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company worked together, if occasionally at cross-purposes, to build the structure of national network broadcasting has been told, but not from each company's perspective. The personal and business correspondence of Westinghouse Vice President and broadcast pioneer Harry Phillips Davis illustrates how Westinghouse planned to enhance and, later, preserve their leadership position as the industry evolved. If the drama unfolded behind closed doors, then these documents provide a window into the negotiation from Davis's and Westinghouse's perspective.

H. P. Davis's Broadcast Proposals

Broadcast history texts tell the familiar tale of how Frank Conrad, an engineer at Westinghouse, set up an experimental radio station at the Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At Westinghouse, Conrad had been in charge of the governmental wireless experiments during World War I. After the end of wireless restrictions imposed during the war, Conrad began airing programs of music, lectures, and sports scores that were picked up by wireless enthusiasts with receiving sets. As the broadcasts grew in popularity, a local department store, the Joseph Horne Company, ran an advertisement promoting Conrad's station and the store's radio department. The advertisement read that "Mr. Conrad will send out phonograph records this evening for amateurs with radio receivers" ("First Radiophone Station," 1922, p. 7; "Great Men of Radio," 1922, p. 6; "Story Told of Birth of Broadcast," 1922, p. 7).

Conrad's supervisor, H. P. Davis, an engineer and vice president at Westinghouse, saw the advertisement and inferred that if the broadcasts found an audience with little promotion, an organized, high-quality program designed to reach a wide, mass audience could be very effective (Barnouw, 1966; S. J. Douglas, 1987; Head, 1956; Sterling & Kitross, 1978). Davis later recalled thinking that if there was entertainment on the air, people would demand "ears," or Westinghouse could establish a wide market for radio receiver sets. ("Great Men of Radio," 1922). Davis sent for Conrad and informed him that Westinghouse was shutting down Conrad's experimental station. A two-part installment in The Chicago Evening Standard on June 17, 1922, describes Davis's recollection of the conversation.

Frank, my idea is that you stop sending from your station and we will start a regular service from our experimental station here at East Pittsburgh. We can arrange for a suitable wave length, and I believe if we do this it will be the beginning of radio broadcasting public service which seems to me to have wonderful possibilities. ("Story Told of Birth of Broadcast," 1922, p. 7). Whether Davis did foresee the full impact of radio as an industry and public service on that day in 1920 cannot be said for certain. As an advocate for a permanent radio station with a daily program schedule, Davis did articulate in internal correspondence his view that radio should not be limited as a point-to-point medium. Rather, Davis envisioned radio as a mass medium designed for the information, entertainment, and public service of the masses (Davis, 1928; "First Radiophone Station," 1922; "Story Told of Birth of Broadcast," 1922).

Harry Phillips Davis was born July 31, 1868, in Somersworth, New Hampshire. Davis studied electrical and mechanical engineering and joined Westinghouse's engineering department in 1891. A biographical essay in The Story of Electricity quotes Davis on his interest, beginning in the late 1880s, with "the various applications of electricity then being undertaken" (Martin & Coles, 1922, p. 1). Davis's work early in his career focused on the electrification of mass transportation systems, a field in which Davis holds more than 100 patents. Davis then turned his attention to radio, an endeavor that would make him one of the most influential Americans of the time.

In the 1920s H. P. Davis was celebrated in the popular press as "the Father of Radio Broadcasting" ("Father of Radio Broadcasting," 1922; Foster, 1923; "Great Men of Radio," 1922; Krumm, 1922; Maclaurin, 1949/1971; Martin & Coles, 1922; The National Broadcasting Company, 1931 ; "Radio's Version," 1970; "Story Told of Birth of Broadcast," 1922). In a press release issued by the National Broadcasting Company announcing Davis's death, radio pioneer and inventor Ernst Alexanderson of General Electric addressed Davis's influence.

The growth of the technical arts follows lines that can be foreseen to some extent. Science shadows invention. But how will these inventions be adapted to human society and how will they change it. It takes a leader who is more than a scientist or an inventor to blaze those trails. It is in that broader sense that we have come to know H. P. Davis and when we call him the "Father of American Broadcasting" it is the greatest tribute we can give. (The National Broadcasting Company, 1931, p. 1) In 1922, Davis wrote about the new promise of the broadcasting public service company. The radio, he wrote, offers great promise. Davis was among the first to foresee radio's practical possibilities. It was Davis's view that radio offers entertainment through its programming, but it is also a serious service for the good of the public. Davis likened the role of the radio to that of the newspaper but noted one difference. "The newspaper has been developed to a wonderful state of perfection and wields a tremendous influence in our lives today--yet that influence is more or less local." Radio had the potential to unite a nation (1922, January, p. 3).

Davis noted that when KDKA went on the air, the public response was dramatic and immediate. After 9 months of continuous operation, KDKA relayed its signal to stations WJZ in Newark, and WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts, with a fourth station, KYW, in the works in Chicago. Still there was public demand for wider reach and more programming. Davis asked,

And where will it end? What are the limitations? Who dares to predict? Scientists and inventors are working on relays that will permit one station to pass its message on to another and we may easily expect to hear from an outlying farm in Maine some great artist singing into a radiophone many thousand miles away.... It is not a question of possibility--it is rather a question of "how soon." (1922, January, p. 5) Davis also saw problems in the fast growth of early radio. The number of broadcasters on the air grew dramatically, numbering almost 600 stations in 1922 on only two wavelengths. There were no proposed plans to deal with this congestion and no clear call for action to restrict start-ups. Those who were established in the industry, like Westinghouse, looked at this chaos and feared that interference from newcomers would threaten their established stations. One idea being examined by Davis and others was a way of creating an efficient distribution system. This would be a way to reap the benefits of economies-of-scale and produce high quality programming. It would be a way to receive programming, perhaps live, from across the nation or globe. Davis called this a "universal speaking service" (Davis, 1922, April, p. 1). Others were developing this same concept and calling it chain broadcasting or network broadcasting (Barnouw, 1966; G. H. Douglas, 2002; Sterling & Kittross, 1978).

Westinghouse's Early Proposals for Networks

By 1925, the considerable interference brought about by the...

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