Westinghouse and Pittsburgh Make Radio History


Westinghouse and Pittsburgh Make Radio History
Westinghouse and Pittsburgh Make Radio History
"This is KDKA, of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, in East Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania. We shall now broadcast the election returns."
hose words spoken on Nov 2, 1920, made radio history and started a service that continues today.
That first KDKA radio announcement had its genesis with Westinghouse employee, Frank Conrad.
Because of his significant amateur radio experience, he supervised the manufacturing of military radio
receivers during World War I.
A snippet from Frank’s early life: He was Pittsburgh born in 1874. He left public school in seventh grade to
work for this father. At age 16 Frank, who yearned to do more complex mechanical work, started as a benchhand at Westinghouse. At age 23, resulting from his mechanical ability, he moved to the Westinghouse
Testing Department. In this position he invented several pieces of equipment, most notably the circular type
home watt-hour meter which is still used. His technical abilities enabled him to advance from the testing
department, to general engineer, and finally to assistant chief engineer.
From 1910 through 1919, Frank crafted crystal radio sets. In the garage of his Wilkinsburg home at the
corner of Penn Avenue and Peebles Street, he constructed a device to receive time signals from the Naval
Observatory located in Arlington, Virginia. Then, he constructed a transmitter, using bare wires, crackling
spark coils and homemade vacuum tubes, which led to his receiving amateur station license, 8XK. Most
radio transmissions in this time were merely science experiments between crystal radio set operators, and
most transmissions were performed in Morse code.
Encountering difficulty communicating with other amateurs via Morse code, Frank started to use the
microphone that he designed and built. He first played a 78 rpm record on his phonograph, and picked up
the music with his microphone that was connected to his station 8XK transmitter. Voila! He received
feedback from a few buffs, who asked for more music. Keep in mind, there were yet no radio stations for the
general public. However, entrepreneur Frank Conrad remarkably was sending music over the airwaves to
amateur radio buffs who listened in on crystal radio sets.
n 1917, the United States entered World War I, and amateur radio operations were ordered closed, but
Frank was requested to test Army radio apparatus through his station. Following the war, he resumed
music broadcasting on his station 8XK on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, and gradually increased
each broadcast time to three hours from what started as a few minutes. Listeners requested music he didn’t
own, so he borrowed records from a local record shop. Fulfilling a verbal agreement, he announced the name
of the record shop several times during his bi-weekly music broadcasts. By 1919, Frank Conrad’s station
8XK had become so popular in the Pittsburgh area that newspapers wrote about him.
At that time, Frank was assistant chief engineer at Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh. Harry P. Davis, a
Westinghouse vice president and Conrad’s direct supervisor, became aware of Frank’s popular broadcasts,
when he saw a September 1920 newspaper ad from Joseph Horne’s Department store. The ad offered $10
wireless radios to pick up the music broadcasts.
Davis recognized the economic potential of radio. Why not market to a mainstream audience rather than
have limited listeners? Consequently, Davis asked Conrad to build a 200-watt transmitter, which would air
programming intended to create widespread demand for Westinghouse receivers. The KDKA call sign was
assigned sequentially from a list maintained by the U.S.-registry maritime stations. Plans were finalized with
the Pittsburgh Post morning newspaper to acquire election returns by telephone to the shack, atop of the K
building, the tallest Westinghouse Electric building in East Pittsburgh. The election night broadcast was to
begin at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 1920.
Four Westinghouse employees manned that first broadcast: Leo Rosenberg was radio’s first announcer;
William Thomas, Engineer; John Frazier, telephone line operator; and R.S. McClelland, a standby. Frank
Conrad was standing by in his garage to use Station 8XK as an emergency back-up if there were problems
with the KDKA transmitter.
estinghouse also sent invitations to its Pittsburgh employees to hear the results of the election
from a loud speaker in the auditorium of the Edgewood community library on Nov 2, 1920. The
auditorium was filled that night with 300 people listening to the first radio report of an election.
The election results were relayed to many more listeners, who learned through this incredible new medium,
that Warren Harding beat James Cox in the race for the Oval Office.
That original broadcast was reported to be heard as far away as Canada. Soon after the successful KDKA
election coverage, Westinghouse continued KDKA programming often featuring live musical performances
from a Westinghouse band.
Along with RCA and General Electric, Westinghouse was a co-founder of NBC in 1926, and thus KDKA
became affiliated with NBC. KDKA was the first station to be licensed by the U.S. government to operate as
a general broadcasting service.
rank Conrad retired from Westinghouse in 1927 after 37 years of extraordinary service. He received
more than 200 American, English and German patents covering a broad range of mechanical and
electrical devices from televisions, refrigerators, radio transmitters, clocks, air conditioners, vacuum
tubes and even grenades. From his experimental radio station, 8XK, Frank was the whiz kid for a change in
communication that would have everlasting impact. Many called him the “The Father of Radio
In 1928 Frank Conrad received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1930, Dr. Conrad received the prestigious Edison Medal from The Institute of Electrical Engineers. The
Edison Medal is the oldest award in the field of engineering or electrical arts.
He suffered a heart attack in Florida in November 1941. Frank passed away on December 11 of that year.
To honor his contributions to the broadcast industry, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
approved a historic marker to be erected adjacent to the Conrad garage at Peebles and Penn Ave in
Wilkinsburg. Dedicated on Dec. 1, 1990, that marker was later removed and placed in storage when the
property and garage were sold in 2000 to make way for a fast-food restaurant. The garage was also
dismantled piece by piece and stored with the hope that it would be rebuilt.
A re-dedication ceremony of the Frank Conrad memorial marker was conducted at 2 p.m. on Oct. 17, 2014,
in Wilkinsburg, and the marker placed at the corner of Trenton and Penn Avenues. Many former and current
radio commentators attended and spoke at the rededication. Effort is under way to raise sufficient funds to
re-erect the garage near the Conrad Memorial marker.
The Heinz History Center has a recreation of the original radio shack atop the K Building at East Pittsburgh,
which includes a recording of the original election returns by Leo Rosenberg on November 2, 1920. The
display is in the Pittsburgh Room: A Tradition of Innovation Exhibition on the second floor.
Radio broadcasting has come a long way from its pioneer days in Frank’s
Wilkinsburg garage. Entrepreneurs such as Frank Conrad helped make America
an exceptional nation.
(Material for this article was derived from articles previously published and prepared by: Casey Powell, research of Frank
Conrad biographical information, for the New York Times and Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: [email protected].; Obituary, New York Times, Dec 12, 1941)