Let's Talk Rusty Iron

Ending the Isolation

| September 2005

Newfangled radio technology brought the world to the farm

My aunt, Louise Moore, was born in 1913. She recalls, while living in Pittsburgh in about 1924, listening with her family to radio station KDKA on a crystal receiving set. At the time, the radio station held a contest for the young girls among their listeners. The young ladies were to write a letter to the station recounting a good deed they had recently performed. A weekly drawing was held and the winner was proclaimed the "KDKA Sunshine Girl." Louise sent in a letter telling how she had helped her mother with a household chore, and her name was drawn! She still remembers getting a card in the mail and the thrill of hearing her name announced on Saturday as the reigning "Sunshine Girl."

Radio broadcasting didn't really take off until the 1920s, well within the memory of many folks living today. In the years leading up to World War I, amateur radio stations transmitted semi-regular programs, broadcasting phonograph records and news bulletins. There were, however, no receiving sets available to the general public. Only radio enthusiasts, who built their own receivers, heard these broadcasts.

Wartime restrictions shut down most amateur stations, but several resumed transmitting after the war. One of the most prominent was Station 8XK, run by Dr. Frank Conrad, an engineer for Pittsburgh's Westinghouse Electric Co., out of his garage in Wilkinsburg, Pa.

Conrad broadcast music from records several nights each week and word soon spread. In September 1920, a Pittsburgh department store, Joseph Horne Co., announced plans to sell "Amateur Wireless Sets, $10 and up," so Pittsburghers could hear Conrad's programs. At last, one didn't have to be a radio "nut" to listen in.

Conrad's boss at Westinghouse quickly saw the potential to make money by building and selling radio sets. He proposed setting up a radio station and transmitter to broadcast the results of the upcoming presidential election. On Oct. 27, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued the new Westinghouse station the first commercial broadcasting license, and the call letters KDKA, giving KDKA bragging rights ever after as the "pioneering broadcasting station of the world."

Although it took some doing, the new station went on the air at 8 p.m on Nov. 2. That first broadcast ended after midnight with Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge declared the clear winners over Democrats James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt.