"Battle of the Century": The WJY Story

Thomas H. White -- January 1, 2000

On July 2, 1921, Julius Hopp's "brilliant idea" to broadcast the Dempsey-Carpentier heavyweight championship prize fight, was realized. Hopp's inspiration and groundwork had led to one of the most celebrated experimental broadcasts in U.S. radio history. But you've never heard of him. The idea was so successful that others rewrote history in order to claim credit for Hopp's work, and their misrepresentations have been repeated as fact up to today. Some have also been given credit for the efforts of a number of other hard working individuals. This is a review of the history -- or more precisely, the histories, exaggerations, distortions and myths -- that arose out of Hopp's original idea. It is also an attempt to piece together an accurate record of what really happened, including, to the best of my ability, who did what, in contrast to who later claimed credit.
 
Sections


Beginnings

The most comprehensive account of this historic broadcast, and also the only one I've found which mentions Julius Hopp's pivotal role, is "Voice-Broadcasting the Stirring Progress of the 'Battle of the Century'", which appeared in the August, 1921 issue of Wireless Age magazine. This account doesn't say what sparked Hopp's proposal. However, it may have been prompted by the April 11, 1921 broadcast of the Johnny Ray-Johnny Dundee fight, reported live from ringside by Westinghouse's KDKA in East Pittsburgh, PA. In any case, Julius Hopp suggested that KDKA's broadcasting "first" be duplicated in a big way in the New York area, by reporting the upcoming "Battle of the Century" -- the World Heavyweight Championship bout pitting American Jack Dempsey, the champion, against France's Georges Carpentier, on July 2, 1921.

At this time Hopp was manager of Madison Square Garden concerts. According to the Wireless Age account, Hopp's first step was to gain the approval of the fight's promoter, George Lewis "Tex" Rickard. At this time Rickard was operating Madison Square Garden under a ten-year lease signed the previous year, with the financial backing of circus promoter John Ringling. Both Rickard and Madison Square Garden treasurer Frank E. Coultry were enthusiastic. Now all Hopp had to do was find a radio transmitter and an audience. At this time the only people in the New York area with transmitters and receivers were the government, amateurs and commercial firms. There were some on-going experimental broadcasts in the area, but nothing that was well organized. KDKA had been on the air in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for about half a year, and Westinghouse was in the process of setting up WJZ in Newark (now WABC New York), but it had not yet begun regular service.

According to the Wireless Age account, after receiving Rickard's approval, "Matters were left in Mr. Hopp's hands, and he set about the task of securing the required apparatus and personnel. Manufacturers, individual amateurs, clubs and radio organizations of all characters were made acquainted with the plan". The chronology is a little vague, but Hopp appears to have first approached the local amateurs. According to the Wireless Age account, Hopp had been favorably impressed by their Second District Convention, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York from March 16th to 19th, which had been designed to introduce radio to the general public. (The Convention Committee chairman was J. Owen Smith, and one of the banquet speakers was Major J. Andrew Smith, both of whom would play important roles in the fight broadcast.)

Amateurs

Then as now the most prominent U.S. amateur organization was the American Radio Relay League. Hopp contacted an individual who is not named, but sounds a lot like ARRL president Hiram Percy Maxim, asking for help with the proposed broadcast. Hopp was turned down, on the grounds that the scheme was impractical. This is unfortunate, since it would have been valuable to have had a full and independent report by the ARRL of the events. Instead, the only mention of the fight broadcast in QST, the ARRL's official publication, is a single paragraph report in the September, 1921 issue, which noted that "Amateurs in many nearby cities copied the returns and presented them to assembled audiences whose admission fees were turned over to charitable works under arrangements made by the Madison Square Garden Corporation". Fortunately for Hopp there were a couple of other amateur organizations in addition to the ARRL. One was the National Amateur Wireless Association, sponsored by Wireless Age magazine. According to the book "Two Hundred Meters and Down" NAWA wasn't particularly dynamic or well organized, and it disappeared a few years after the fight broadcast. However, J. Andrew White, NAWA's "Acting President", who was also editor of Wireless Age, offered to help with Hopp's proposal. (Guglielmo Marconi was the nominal president of NAWA; Harry L. Welker served as the Association's secretary.)

Wireless Age had originated as Marconigram, an American Marconi publication. In 1919 the U.S. government, fearing foreign domination of a key industry, had convinced Marconi to sell its American subsidiary to General Electric. This resulted in a new General Electric subsidiary, the Radio Corporation of American. At the time of the fight broadcast Wireless Age was published by Wireless Press, Incorporated, an RCA subsidiary. White, a Wireless Press vice president, approached the parent company for support with the proposed broadcast, but found only limited interest. An exception was RCA's General Manager David Sarnoff. Sarnoff, who White knew was interested in broadcasting, found $1,500 to help support the project. RCA also loaned the services of a number of engineers.

One of these engineers, J. Owen Smith, proved to be a real dynamo. A month after the New York amateur convention Smith became director of the Correspondence Division of RCA's Radio Institute of America. Because of his new position he had been required by ARRL's constitution to resign his seat on the ARRL Board of Directors. According to "Two Hundred Meters and Down", as an experienced amateur (2ZL) one of Smith's first jobs was to help revitalize NAWA, which had been nearly dormant since World War One.

Since few people had radio receivers at this time, it was decided to equip theaters and halls with receivers connected to loudspeakers, charging a entrance fee for persons wanting to hear the live fight report. (At this time it was common to rent theaters and halls and charge boxing fans admission for bout reports from direct telegraph lines, much as later theater audiences would pay to watch fights via closed-circuit television). According to the Wireless Age account "arrangements for securing theatres and halls were entrusted to Mr. Hopp by the American Committee for Devastated France and the Navy Club, and this feature of work was from then on directed from the office of the former organization". An initial report on the preparations, appearing in the July, 1921 Wireless Age, said theaters, halls and auditoriums were to be engaged in sixty-one cities. (A later New York Times report placed it at "upward of seventy halls".) Individual amateurs were encouraged to set up receivers for local groups in localities where the charities did not have sites.

There was also an plan, canceled at the last minute, to send out the broadcast of the main bout to a crowd in Times Square around the New York Times building. A direct connection of the receiver to loudspeakers wouldn't work for some reason, so the plan was to write down the commentary and repeat it over the loudspeakers. Later the Times announced that, to avoid reducing attendance at the theaters hired by the charities, it would not use the broadcast reports. Instead, its loudspeaker announcements would be based on telegraphed summaries. The results were also posted on bulletin boards for persons beyond the range of the loudspeakers. (For publicity purposes, newspapers in many cities across the United States and Canada posted or announced telegraphed reports to assembled crowds.)

Initial Steps

It fell to White, through NAWA, to find a transmitter and amateur clubs to install the aerials and receivers needed to pick up the broadcast at the halls and theaters. According to White, Owen Smith gets credit for discovering that General Electric was building a high power 3 1/2 kilowatt ship transmitter for the Navy, which might be available for the broadcast. Getting permission from the Navy proved difficult -- until one day Smith brought former assistant Navy secretary Franklin Roosevelt to White's office and got permission to use the transmitter as a "test" of its capabilities. (At some point the planned broadcast became linked with fundraising for the American Committee for Devastated France. It's not stated in the Wireless Age account how this link originated, but it seems likely it can be traced to Hopp and his Madison Square Garden associates. A few months earlier Rickard, at the request of committee chairman Annie Taylor "Anne" Morgan, had staged a lightweight championship fight between Richie Mitchell and Benny Leonard at Madison Square Garden as a charity fundraiser for the committee. In contrast to this earlier fight, the Dempsey-Carpentier theater revenues were to be shared with the Navy Club. Since Roosevelt was president of the Navy Club, it's likely one of the conditions for use of the Navy transmitter was support for its fundraising project).

The transmitter's delivery, by tug from General Electric's Schenectady plant, was arranged by White. General Electric also sent an engineer to help with the installation. Arthur Batcheller, the government's Radio Inspector of the Second District, was lauded for having "accomplished wonders" in securing a temporary transmitter authorization, assigned the callsign WJY.

Through NAWA, Wireless Age, and a general circular issued June 10th, amateurs were recruited to handle the sets in the theaters. (E. Howard Armstrong was listed as being in charge of the Yonkers Elks Club installation. With characteristic attention to accuracy and fairness, Armstrong later wrote in to note that Paul Hobe actually deserved most of the credit). Although heartened by the number of volunteers, there were "numerous cases of 'cold feet'" on the part of amateurs who decided the task was too demanding, and dropped out. The amateurs also required a certain amount of support and education. Most at this time used headphones for reception, and mainly listened on the standard amateur wavelength of 200 meters (1500 khz). WJY would operate on a longwave wavelength, 1600 meters (187 khz), and in order to entertain a theater full of people the receivers had to operate in conjunction with loudspeakers, which at this time were very temperamental and difficult to adjust. The amateurs provided the receivers and constructed aerials to receive the fight, in most cases paying the costs out of their own pockets. For those who didn't have loudspeakers Smith and others "worked day and night" to assemble amplifiers attached to hearing aids, which were mailed along with instructions to the amateurs in charge of the theater sets.

Ringside Setup

The initial plan was to install the transmitter and temporary wooden masts for an aerial next to the boxing ring, which was located within a 91,000 seat octagonal arena built at Boyles Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey. However, according to White, Rickard's silent partner John Ringling objected to the proposed broadcast and wanted it canceled. A compromise was developed -- the broadcast would still take place, but the transmitter and aerial would be located outside the arena.

Fortunately there was a good transmitter site available, located two and a half miles (four kilometers) away, at the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railway terminal in Hoboken. A telephone line, installed by American Telephone & Telegraph, would be run from ringside to the transmitter, so that the ringside announcements could go directly over the air. A huge aerial was strung between the terminal clock tower and a radio tower that had been constructed for tests a few years earlier. The railroad provided for use of the end of a hallway within a shack, normally used by Pullman porters, in order to house the transmitter. (Smith slept in the shack at night to protect the equipment from vandalism).

The goal was to broadcast a good signal over a 200 mile (320 km) radius. Beginning June 24th the transmitter was tested by sending to the amateurs, whose telegrams and telephone calls reported on signal quality. The initial results were dismal -- the signal was far weaker than expected. Changes were made, but the transmission was little better. Finally on July 1st, the night before the fight, the transmitter started working properly.

Telephone Line Problems

According to White's accounts, the three months of preparation were a period of tremendous tension. White and Smith stayed up late many nights getting everything ready, resolving one crisis after another. However, just when everything appeared to be under control, a final crisis appeared. AT&T refused to connect the ringside telephone line to the transmitter. The whole project was in jeopardy. White was caught by surprise by this final crises. There was no reason for him to expect the telephone company would place restrictions on the phone line. In April it had supplied a line to KDKA for the Ray-Dundee fight, so it could be broadcast directly from ringside. What had changed? The reasons given by the various accounts for AT&T's action are vague, but it appears this was an opening shot between AT&T and RCA over the right to use telephone lines in conjunction with radio.

Beginning in 1920 a series of cross-licencing agreements were made between AT&T and a number of other companies, including General Electric, over the use of radio patents. The agreements also carved up which areas the various companies would be allowed to pursue, a feature that eventually was found to violate antitrust standards. Under the agreements AT&T was assigned exclusive rights to "public service" uses of radio. Giving this a broad interpretation, the telephone company would later claim this gave it the exclusive right to interconnect phones lines to radio transmitters. According to the book "The WEAF Experiment" the telephone company had been closely monitoring KDKA's pioneering requests of phone lines for remote broadcasts. At first Westinghouse's requests were met, although as far as the telephone company was concerned it was merely extending a courtesy. Later AT&T would deny Westinghouse use of remote phone lines, under its interpretation of the agreements. Apparently AT&T decided there was no need to extend a similar exemption to RCA for the fight broadcast, and so denied the direct ringside connection. Once more a compromise was developed. Instead of being connected to the transmitter, the ringside line would run to an ordinary telephone handset located in the transmitter shack. There the ringside reports would be recorded and read over the air.

"The Battle of the Century"

White, a former amateur boxer, practiced announcing the fights -- there were six preliminaries scheduled in addition to the main event -- by commentating as he "fought himself" in the mirror. The Navy promised its stations would keep the longwave wavelength used by WJY clear of interference during the broadcast. According to the account in "This Fascinating Radio Business" White, Smith and Harry Welker (misidentified in this account and others based on it as "Walker") stayed up the entire night before the broadcast preparing the transmitter. Then White and Welker set things up at ringside, and once they surrendered their tickets they had to stay within the enclosure. A photograph of the two at ringside appears in the Wireless Age account. White would soon celebrate his 32nd birthday. Welker, described as "an auxiliary observer", appears to be in his twenties. There is a humorous story associated with Welker, which White mentions in a sidebar included the Wireless Age account. It was a hot sunny day, and White started announcing non-stop beginning around 11:30 AM. Welker had a thermos of ice water, which he was supposed to share with White. However, according to White, it was two and one-half parched hours into the four hour broadcast before Welker remembered to provide him with water.

Most early accounts, including Wireless Age, agree on one point -- because of the AT&T restriction it was Owen Smith's voice that went out over the air, reading typed bulletins produced by an unnamed "high speed telegrapher" listening to White over the ringside telephone line. However, there are numerous apparent contradictions to the claim that White's voice wasn't being broadcast. Many of the reports printed in Wireless Age mention distinctly hearing the opening and closing bells, and one claimed to hear crowd noise. Since the transmitter was a long distance from the ring it's hard to imagine how arena sounds could have been audible within the enclosed transmitter shack. In his 1924 Radio Broadcast interview White claimed a special gong had been placed and sounded within the transmitter room, but this doesn't explain the crowd noise. Another oddity is that in the Wireless Age account White thanks the amateurs who copied the broadcast verbatim and sent transcripts to him, noting "It's only through these that I know what I said". What did Smith do with the bulletins he read over the air -- burn them? Also, if White's words were merely being typed for rebroadcast, why did he feel he couldn't take a short break to retrieve the water bottle from Welker? In addition, the account that appears in "This Thing Called Broadcasting" notes that Owen Smith was "partially blinded for days" from the glare of the transmitter tubes during the broadcast. Since the front of the transmitter was a solid panel, this places Smith in the narrow gaps at the sides and in back of the transmitter, an odd position for someone reading bulletins over the air, especially since photographs show the transmitter microphone on a table in front of the transmitter. And when a tube burst during the last round of the main event, it was Smith who replaced it, burning the palms of his hands so badly that he later had to go to the hospital to get them bandaged. It seems strange that one of the other engineers wasn't in charge of monitoring the transmitter and replacing tubes, if Smith was busy reading the announcements over the air.

Thirty-four years after the historic broadcast White supplied the missing information. Reader's Digest carried his account of the fight, entitled "The First Big Broadcast", in its December, 1955 issue. (It received the Digest's $2500 "First Person" Award.) In this article White noted that, thanks to Owen Smith's ingenuity, it actually was White's voice from ringside which went over the airwaves. In order to get around the telephone company's restriction on connecting the phone line directly to the transmitter, "Smith put a five-inch diaphragm into the receiving telephone and hooked another telephone with a big diaphragm to the radio transmitter" so that White's voice could "leap the gap" and go out over the airwaves. (It's doubtful that AT&T would have applauded Smith's ingenuity, which explains why the Wireless Age account had Smith doing the broadcasting).

Results

WJY range In spite of all the crises, traumas and fears of failure, the broadcast seems to have gone off well. (Dempsey retained the championship by knocking out his foe in the fourth round.) White did have one final moment of panic, however -- after the broadcast ended he momentarily became fearful that he had in fact been speaking for four hours into a dead phone line. Many of the reports carried in Wireless Age mentioned the high quality of WJY's signal, and the range of the reports suggests the transmission coverage met all expectations. However, Wireless Age can't be expected to have highlighted problems, which is why the lack of an independent QST report is a loss. A number of newspapers carried a short note that a radio enthusiast, one Casper Risley in Margate City, NJ, was badly shaken up while listening to fight returns (presumably WJY) when his aerial was struck by lightening, destroying his receiver. Somehow this was left out of the Wireless Age account. Wireless Age reported attendance figures for the halls and theaters "operated under contract" by the two charities. Thirty sites are listed -- ten in New York City, with the other twenty located as far north as Springfield, Massachusetts, as far west as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and as far south as Wilmington, Delaware. There were also sites listed in New Jersey and Connecticut. Total attendance for these theaters was just over 10,000, or about 340 per site. It's not clear if this was a large enough attendance to be considered a fundraising success, especially if the theaters and halls were rented. For example, although 500 attended at the Queensboro Athletic Club, its seating capacity was 8,000. According to the Wireless Age account, the largest crowd was the 1,200 gathered at Loew's New York Roof Theater. (There may have been additional, unreported theaters and halls, since thirty is less than half the number of theaters and halls originally planned).

According to the reports listed in Wireless Age, the broadcast was heard by individual amateurs as far north as Maine, and west to Ohio. The more distant receptions would have been using headphones, since at the farthest points the signals would have been too weak for loudspeaker reproduction. Many later accounts of the fight state that the broadcast was received as far south as Florida, and in his 1955 review White even claims that a theater crowd listened to it in Saint Augustine. However, none of the Wireless Age reports, which fill six pages, came from farther south than Jessup, Maryland, and that one was an individual amateur who reported hearing the broadcast through "heavy static". Although "Maine to Florida" is a catchier phrase than "Maine to Maryland", it's doubtful any boxing fans in the Sunshine State actually heard the historic broadcast. One of the more innovative receiving setups was located on the Asbury Park, NJ boardwalk. W. Harold Warren, who according to Wireless Age contributed $13 to the cause, operated a "roller chair" that was equipped with a radio receiver, so passengers could listen to the fight broadcast. Warren was adept at getting publicity for his roller chair receiver -- a year earlier he, his chair, and two sisters had appeared on the August, 1920 cover of Radio News. At that time chair occupants were being entertained by voice and phonograph transmissions from 2XJ, an experimental station located in Deal Beach, NJ and operated by AT&T subsidiary Western Electric.

The estimates of the number of WJY's listeners ranged from 200,000 to 500,000, with the Wireless Age account and the amateur's certificates placing it at 300,000. Even today it's hard to measure an "invisible audience" and avoid the tendency to be caught up in the enthusiasm and inflate its size and significance. (For example, according to the Wireless Age account the attendance at Kruger's Auditorium in Newark, NJ was 303. However, in the September, 1921 Club Gossip section of Radio News, the Irvington New Jersey Radio Club, which had operated the auditorium receiver, claimed that "This auditorium holds two thousand five hundred people and was packed long before the fight began"). Since only amateurs and those in the theaters had the receivers needed to hear the broadcast, the size of the audience can be estimated from the Wireless Age reports. I personally think an estimate of 20,000 to 50,000 -- in other words somewhat smaller than the crowd gathered at Boyles Thirty Acres -- is more realistic.

Significance

As with many other exciting events, the impact and significance of the WJY broadcast has increased with each retelling of the story over the years. Many later accounts vastly overestimate the importance of this experimental broadcast, as having brought "radio to the millions". Actually, at the time it was barely noticed by the general public. One problem limiting its impact was a lack of publicity. In his 1955 account, White complained: "We needed advance publicity, but we did not get it. The only newspaper to pay us any attention was the New York Times". And even the Times accounts were only brief references on inside pages. In the tremendous hoopla surrounding the fight, the broadcasting experiment was only a minor, and little noticed, sideshow as far as the public was concerned. In fact, it is very difficult to find contemporary reports of the broadcast, especially in general circulation publications. Overall the fight broadcast seems to have created less notice than some earlier broadcast "stunts", especially compared to the international attention given to experimental broadcasts from Clemsford, England the previous year. The Clemsford series had been highlighted by a June 15, 1920 concert by world famous opera star Madame Nellie Melba, sponsored by the Daily Mail of London, which was heard as far away as Paris. Also, radio was not the only technological advance vying for attention. At the time it was eclipsed by flashier innovations -- airplanes swooping over the arena, racing to deliver fight photos to distant newspapers in time for Sunday editions, and circling Paris ready to signal the outcome; "motion picture machines" on a special stand filming the bout's progress normally and in slow motion; and scores of telegraph lines running to ringside sending up-to-the-minute reports to Canada and the United States as far away as California, while other telegraph and cable lines were used to transmit photographs to newspapers beyond the range of the aircraft. In addition, promoted by the New York World, there was the magnificent "giant Underwood Typewriter", typing telegraphed fight results in three-inch (7.6 cm) letters for an appreciative crowd. (It's occasionally wistful to read about forgotten mechanical marvels in newspapers now defunct, both destined to be killed off by radio and its evil twin television).

The broadcast also doesn't seem to have had much impact in the boxing world. In his autobiography Dempsey mentions it only in passing, noting it was conducted with "Nat Fleischer and Andrew White nervously manning the controls". Nat Fleischer was a sports reporter for the New York Press -- a few months later he would start The Ring magazine. Fleischer's role in the broadcast actually seems to have been minor. He doesn't even mention the broadcast in his own autobiography, and in his biography of Jack Dempsey he devotes exactly two sentences to the topic, noting that "Major Andrew White was at the controls and I was his assistant" without specifying what that entailed.

Overall the fight broadcast was only a one-shot publicity stunt, the latest in a series of experimental broadcasts in the New York area dating back to DeForest in 1907. It actually had a relatively small audience and impact, especially compared to the millions that radio would command in just a few years. Although the Wireless Age account said additional broadcasts by WJY were planned, no others were ever made. Broadcasting would only begin to gain widespread visibility in Gotham three months later, when Westinghouse's WJZ began daily operation from Newark in early October, prompting the public at large to began to buy radio receivers for their homes. Unlike the fight broadcast, which went out on a government longwave wavelength of 1600 meters, WJZ operated on the mediumwave wavelength of 360 meters (833 kilohertz), which shortly thereafter was formally set aside as the standard entertainment wavelength for broadcast stations. (The similarity of the callsigns for the fight's temporary Hoboken longwave authorization, WJY, and Westinghouse's WJZ in Newark was probably only a coincidence. To make things more confusing, RCA later took over operation of WJZ and moved the station to New York City, where it is now WABC-770. In 1923, RCA built a second New York City broadcast station, christened WJY, which lasted until 1927. There is no direct link between the two WJYs, although the reuse of the historic call probably commemorated the earlier temporary longwave station).

The fight broadcast was much more important in establishing careers within the emerging broadcast industry, J. Andrew White's in particular. In late 1921 RCA opened a short-lived broadcast station, WDY, in Roselle Park, NJ. (Some accounts incorrectly have WDY using WJY's old transmitter -- it actually had its own 500 watt set). J. Owen Smith was in charge of setting up WDY -- White was station manager. White served until 1923 as RCA's "director general of broadcasting". He also continued to announce, specializing in sports events and political conventions, and in a 1924 Radio Broadcast article was described as the "most famous announcer in radio". In 1926 White became the first president of the Columbia Broadcasting System, although he was eventually eclipsed and then ousted by William Paley.

Certificates and Credits

The amateurs who participated in the broadcast were issued certificates of appreciation. A sample, issued to "Mr. American Amateur", appears in the Wireless Age account. The certificate noted that money raised in conjunction with the broadcast went to "The contribution of financial and material aid in the task of rehabilitating the war-torn and devastated regions of France and bringing relief to an heroic people" and for "Aiding establishment and maintenance of a home, hotel and club for enlisted men of the United States Navy and Marine Corps". This raises the question of exactly how much money was raised for the two causes. Wireless Age reported that independent amateurs had donated about $600, and the theater figures would appear in a later issue, but they never did. According to "The General" the broadcast provided the French Committee "its single biggest windfall". But according to a George H. Clark quote in "History of Radio", although the broadcast was a scientific success, "financially it benefited the two club organizations in name only". Eight (facsimile) signatures appear on the sample certificate: J. Andrew White, Acting President of the National Amateur Wireless Association; Anne Morgan, Chairman, Executive Committee, American Committee for Devastated France; Franklin D. Roosevelt, President, The Navy Club, plus Jack Dempsey, G. Carpentier, G. L. Rickard, Frank E. Coultry -- and Julius Hopp. The Wireless Age account hailed the broadcast as "a co-operative effort toward an achievement worthwhile". Moreover, "Every individual who participated earned as much credit as the next one". Well, maybe initially -- but that would soon change.

Rewriting History -- Part I

The October, 1924 issue of Radio Broadcast featured an article reviewing the career of J. Andrew White. Not surprisingly, a major topic was the broadcast of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight three years previously. It is described as a "brilliant idea", but not Julius Hopp's -- he's never mentioned. Instead, White claimed credit for having originated the idea of broadcasting the fight, said to have been triggered by reading a newspaper account of the coming bout. According to the Radio Broadcast article, White had mused: "This whole country has become interested in the Dempsey-Carpentier fight. Now why can't my radio be tied up with it. Why can't I send this fight broadcast?". The broadcast is described as White's personal project, designed "to introduce radio telephony to the nation at large". In fact, the broadcast's whole complexion has changed. Missing are not only Julius Hopp but the Committee for Devastated France and the Navy Club. In this account White personally recruits the amateurs, and they in turn secure the halls and theaters. No mention is made of the charitable underpinning. (To White's credit, some of the missing participants, although not Hopp, do reappear in his 1955 Reader's Digest account).

Next Stop -- Sarnoff

The August 7 and 14, 1926 issues of the Saturday Evening Post, featured the reminisces of David Sarnoff, "as told to Mary Margaret McBride". This article has already gained notoriety for embellishing history. Sarnoff's review of his role during the Titanic disaster has been roundly attacked for vastly exaggerating his own importance. In addition, in this account his November, 1916 "Radio Music Box" memo is back-dated to 1915, apparently to disguise the influence of DeForest's High Bridge broadcasts on Sarnoff's thoughts. And I have some doubts about the accuracy of his recollection of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight. Again Hopp and the two service organizations are missing -- the implication is that White originated the idea. But there is an addition, completely missing from the Wireless Age account and White's two accounts -- Sarnoff places himself at White's side during the fight. There are a couple of other references which have Sarnoff at ringside, but neither is conclusive. A write-up of the broadcast appeared in the August, 1921 issue of Radio News, produced by RCA publicist Pierre Boucheron. (Boucheron had been Associate Editor of Radio News until a few months earlier. In 1928 he would publish a comprehensive radio history, "The Electric Word", under the pseudonym "Paul Schubert". Surprisingly, it doesn't mention the Dempsey-Carpentier broadcast). Boucheron's Radio News account states that "Mr. D. Sarnoff, General Manager of the Radio Corporation of America, and Mr. J. A. White were located at ringside in the press stand and took turns at reporting the most important features..." However, not even Sarnoff himself ever claimed to have reported the fight. In addition, a short notice appearing on page six of the July 3, 1921 New York Times closes with the following: "The phones at ringside were operated by J. N. White, David Saranof and H. L. Welter". However, it hard to give a lot of credibility to a short reference which manages to misspell the names of all three participants. No other first-hand accounts, including the Wireless Age photograph, place anyone besides White and Welker at ringside. In the Saturday Evening Post account Sarnoff also claims first hand knowledge of "water bottle incident". Poor Harry Welker, who from earlier accounts appears to be have been an RCA technician, is reduced to a nameless "boy who had been brought along expressly with iced water" for Andrew White. Sarnoff states that while ringside with White, he witnessed White's fruitless signals to "the boy" for water. Sarnoff does not explain why, if he was in fact there, he didn't go ahead and retrieve the "precious fluid" from Welker and hand it to White. Also, Sarnoff states that the WJY transmitter "went smash" immediately after White finished announcing the main bout, and White "could not have transmitted another syllable over it". Although according to a number of accounts the transmitter was somewhat worse for the wear after the broadcast, this seems a little more dramatic than what actually happened, since one of the Wireless Age reports mentions hearing the station send out the fight results in telegraphic code after the main bout had finished.

Interestingly, Sarnoff credits White, not himself, with initiating the broadcast, and with coming up with the idea to transmit to a theater audience. That would soon change. In 1938, Gleason Archer wrote "History of Radio", a comprehensive review of the industry. By now seventeen years had passed since the fight, and White was no longer with RCA. Although Archer tried to be accurate and impartial, he was at a disadvantage because he had little background in the radio industry. Thus, he was susceptible to any "disinformation" that his helpers might choose to present. And he was heavily dependent on RCA for much of his information. This becomes clear in his account of the fight broadcast, much of which is based on the review appearing in "This Fascinating Radio Business" plus an apparently unpublished account by George H. Clark. According to Archer the person who first had the "brilliant idea" to broadcast the fight was neither Julius Hopp nor J. Andrew White -- it was David Sarnoff. Moreover, in a reverse of the earlier accounts, it is Sarnoff who recruits White for help.

Twenty-eight years later, in 1966, Eugene Lyons published a biography of David Sarnoff, his cousin. This work has drawn few accolades for accuracy or impartiality. Lyons' review of the fight is largely based on White's 1955 Reader's Digest article, understandable since Lyons was a Reader's Digest editor, but with numerous subtle changes that brighten the spotlight on Sarnoff at White's expense. (In the Reader's Digest account White noted in passing he was eighteen months older than Sarnoff, which matches their listed birthdates. However, in Lyons' account this inconvenient fact is inverted and White becomes "eighteen months Sarnoff's junior".) No use looking for Julius Hopp -- he hasn't been heard from for forty-five years. According to this account it is Sarnoff who "came up with an idea that was to make broadcasting history" when he "proposed to broadcast the championship battle on the air, blow by blow". Once again White becomes involved at Sarnoff's direction. Lyons' account also implies Sarnoff was responsible for coming up with the link of the bout to the charities. Sarnoff is placed at White's side during the broadcast, although this "fact" does not appear in White's 1955 account. Naturally, the success of the broadcast brings Sarnoff hosannas for his foresight and leadership.

Later Accounts

In the years following Sarnoff's biography a number of additional reviews of this period of radio history have appeared. Something I find disconcerting is that although they are justifiably skeptical about the accuracy of some of the RCA-slanted works, in many cases they then go ahead and give Sarnoff more credit for directing the entire industry than even Lyons' fawning biography. An example is "Empire of the Air", published in 1991. This work is clearly the result of a lot of in-depth research, and hardly uncritical of Sarnoff. In fact, it claims that the photograph included in the Lyons biography showing Sarnoff at the Wanamaker station during the Titanic disaster is a "crudely air-brushed" fake. (Incidentally, I believe that the photograph appearing in "Empire of the Air", showing engineers preparing for the Dempsey-Carpentier fight, is actually from a later fight, as the microphone atop the equipment cabinet is too modern for 1921). In many cases "Empire of the Air" gives Sarnoff even more credit for broadcasting developments than Lyons did. Sarnoff is credited with almost single-handedly advancing early broadcasting and network operations, something I personally see as mainly the accomplishment of others, particularly DeForest, Westinghouse and AT&T.

With respect to the Dempsey-Carpentier fight, in "Empire of the Air" Sarnoff is again credited with independently coming up with the idea to broadcast the championship fight. Moreover, Sarnoff proves himself a great business leader by personally directing the logistics and promotion of the entire event, leading the group that gets the station's temporary permit and the transmitter, and publicizing the event. Sarnoff is credited for connecting the event to the American Committee for a Devastated France and the Navy Club. And, with help from NAWA, "Sarnoff arranged to install loudspeakers in about 100 theaters, Elks, Masonic and social clubs from Florida to Maine". Not bad for a guy who isn't even mentioned in the original Wireless Age account. All J. Andrew White gets credit for is announcing the broadcast, although even the Lyons biography assigns him more importance than that. White's name is even omitted from the list of signatures on the certificates issued to the amateurs, even though his was at the very top. J. Owen Smith's name never appears in the "Empire of the Air" account, although he does make an appearance as "an engineer at the station" supposedly repeating White's words over the airwaves. And there is still no sign of poor Julius Hopp, who by now hasn't been heard from for seventy years. Even worse, there are additional errors, original to this work. Some are minor -- Rickard's octagonal arena loses two sides, becoming a hexagon, and the "American Committee for Devastated France" becomes the "Fund for Devastated France". However, others substantially inflate the significance of the fight broadcast. The crowd around the New York Times building receiving fight results is said to be 100,000 people -- ten times the newspaper's own estimate of 10,000. And they are supposedly listening to the Hoboken transmissions, although as noted earlier the plan to carry the radio broadcast had been canceled, and they were actually receiving reports from a telegraph wire summary.

Reality vs. Myth

I put this review together because if there is a complete and accurate account of this historic broadcast I couldn't find it. And recent accounts seem to be getting even worse. Part of the problem is the natural expectation that earlier reviews are reasonably accurate and complete. Unfortunately, in many cases this is not true. Thus, later accounts have picked up and even amplified earlier mistakes and misrepresentations. In order to get an accurate view of early broadcasting events -- especially if RCA was involved -- a tremendous amount of time consuming detective work and fact checking is required. But if you don't put in the necessary work, instead of history you end up with something between "docudrama" and "myth". One benefit history can provide is a perspective on the present, by giving an accurate assessment of the past. But most accounts of this broadcast subtlety instill a sense that the United States has declined, since it no longer produces heroes like David Sarnoff, blessed with a clear and infallible vision, boldly leading the way for the bewildered masses. However, this is a false conclusion -- "hero-Sarnoff" never existed. It was actually the "bewildered masses" -- of whom we have plenty today -- who conceived the broadcast and were responsible for its success.

In my view the three who deserve the most credit for the success of the broadcast are Julius Hopp, J. Andrew White, and J. Owen Smith. Hopp, along with his Madison Square Garden associates, not only came up with the original idea and gathered various groups in support, he also had the lead in securing the halls and theaters. (And without an audience you don't have an broadcast). White appears to deserve the most credit on the logistics and publicity side -- with Smith's able help he procured and set up the transmitter, recruited amateurs to aid in the reception, and publicized the event through NAWA and Wireless Age. And Smith deserves a great degree of credit on the technical side -- putting in long hours getting the transmitter to work, setting up loudspeakers for amateurs to use, coming up with a way to get White's voice on the air in the face of the telephone company's restriction on a direct link, and most likely working as the lead engineer. Other groups and individuals also provided significant assistance. The individual amateurs and clubs, who contributed their time and money to set up aerials and get the receivers working at the theater sites, provided critically needed support. Wireless Age noted that some also set up their own sites "in small halls, in homes, or in some cases wood sheds". Another significant participant was David Sarnoff, who supplied engineers and $1,500 of funding for the project. This was one of the first actions the 30 year-old Sarnoff took after being promoted to General Manager of RCA, and in doing so he put his reputation within the company on the line. (Sarnoff's promotion was reported in the June, 1921 edition of Wireless Age, which noted he "received his honors with becoming and customary modesty, and attributed his success principally to the cooperation of his co-workers in the organization"). However, I have to stress that Sarnoff's role was as a "supporting actor". It's only in later accounts that he becomes the author, lead actor, stage manager, producer, business manager and director (while not selling tickets out front) of the entire event. Sarnoff's signature doesn't even appear on the amateur certificates -- if he really did everything that is claimed for him it would have been at the top, as large as John Hancock's. Sarnoff did have the ability to spot good ideas. This was no small achievement -- in the chaotic early days of radio it was important to separate the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, he also had a marked tendency to claim other's ideas and work as his own, while implying that no others were even remotely capable of his vision and resolve.

Many other individuals and groups, some missing from this account, also worked hard to make the broadcast a success. It's unfortunate that, in the rush by others to gain prominence, some deserving people and their contributions have disappeared from sight. Obviously, given all the rewriting of history that has taken place, there is no way I can claim to have developed a 100% complete and infallible review of what took place. In the bibliography I've listed the sources I used for my compiled account -- others might develop a different rendering of the events. I don't know of any first hand accounts by such principles as Julius Hopp, J. Owen Smith, Harry Welker, Anne Morgan or Frank E. Coultry, which no doubt would provide a better understanding of their own contributions plus the overall events. A copy of one of the verbatim transcriptions mentioned by White would be very valuable. Franklin Roosevelt's numerous biographies omit his role in the fight broadcast, reviewing his tenure as President of the United States but not his work as President of the Navy Club. I also had to work with contradictory reports, picking the version that appeared to be most accurate. By far the most valuable account is the report appearing in the August, 1921 Wireless Age. First-hand accounts tended to be more accurate than those produced by later historians.

Westinghouse's Contributions

Most histories of the fight mention only WJY's broadcast. However, KDKA in East Pittsburgh also participated, by relaying WJY's announcements. A report on the upcoming fight broadcast in the New York Times noted that Westinghouse actually planned to carry the fight broadcast over not one but two of its stations. In an article which appeared the day before the fight, after reviewing the upcoming transmission from WJY in Hoboken, it noted: "The Westinghouse Electric Company will also extend the service westward. The wireless telephone news will be picked up at the company's plant at Newark, relayed by wire to Pittsburgh, and from the big wireless telephone plant there sent out over another great circle of 200 miles radius. It will reach Cleveland, Ohio, Johnstown, Pa., and Wheeling, W. Va. where audiences collected by the Committee for Devastated France and the Navy Club will hear the description of the fight". It also noted that "The amateurs have not been forgotten, and for those whose instruments will not pick up the high wave lengths of 1,600 meters [WJY's wavelength] the news will be retransmitted from the Newark plant over wave lengths of 330 meters..." (909 khz). The "big wireless telephone plant" located in Pittsburgh was Westinghouse's KDKA, which at this time was also transmitting on 330 meters. (A few months later the Westinghouse stations would switch to 360 meters). And the Newark transmitter referred to in the article presumably was Westinghouse's WJZ, licenced in May but not yet in regular operation. At the time this report appeared there were still plans, later canceled, to receive the fight broadcast at the New York Times building and repeat it over loudspeakers. Since the "wireless receiving set" installed at the Times had been loaned by Westinghouse, it's possible they planned to tune it not to WJY in Hoboken, but to their own WJZ in Newark. It would have been an impressive start for Westinghouse in the New York area. However, I found no reports of any fight transmissions by Westinghouse from Newark.

The Wireless Age account doesn't mention Westinghouse's plans to carry the fight broadcast. This isn't too surprising because Wireless Age had virtually ignored KDKA and Westinghouse's earlier pioneering broadcasting achievements, probably because Westinghouse was seen as an upstart and competitor to RCA, Wireless Age's corporate parent. However, the Wireless Age account does contain a couple of references to Westinghouse activities. After reviewing the attendance at the theaters which had listened to the WJY transmission on 1600 meters, it noted that no reports had been received "from the six theatres arranged for in the Pittsburgh district and assigned to the Westinghouse company". Also, one of the amateur reports, from Donora, Pennsylvania, noted that "while returns of the big fight were being received from Hoboken, the Westinghouse station in East Pittsburgh, PA came on the air and announced that no fight returns had been received". It wasn't until almost a year later, in an article about WJZ, that Wireless Age finally mentioned KDKA's broadcast of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight. This later article noted in passing that Westinghouse engineers in Newark had monitored the Hoboken transmission, and that the "Newark factory picked up these results and telegraphed them to the Pittsburgh plant, KDKA, from which place they were broadcast". The Pittsburgh papers provided somewhat better coverage of KDKA's broadcast than the New York papers did for WJY. Both the Pittsburgh Post and Pittsburg Dispatch included references to KDKA's fight broadcast, with the Dispatch reporting that "Fight bulletins were wirelessed from the East Pittsburg station of the Westinghouse Company yesterday and picked up by wireless telephone stations over a wide area. Cleveland, Wheeling, Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton reported receiving the blow-by-blow report perfectly. A wireless phone at Forbes field also took the service".

The Forbes field reception actually was sponsored by the rival Pittsburgh Post, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Baseball Club. (A ballgame was being played that day at the field). Apparently there was no attempt to connect the KDKA broadcasts to the stadium loudspeakers, as the Post reported that "six megaphone men" provided a "vocalization of the fight" for fans throughout the stadium. Both the Post and Dispatch also provided results, by megaphone, to crowds around their offices, although these appear to have been based on telegraphed summaries. According to the Post, the wireless reports at the stadium beat the telegraph "by more than two minutes", while the Dispatch reported that "at the same moment that the special wire from the ringside flashed Dempsey's victory, the wireless telephone also screamed 'knockout'."

According to an advertisement, crediting the "Westinghouse Radio Broadcasting Service", that appeared in both papers, the fight broadcast could also be heard at two local theaters -- the Regent and the Liberty. The ad proclaimed: "Sit in comfort in the cool theater, watch the film feature and at 3 o'clock today we will commence announcing the fight returns direct from ringside. There will be no extra charge for the bulletin service". Unfortunately, neither paper reported any details about the theater reception.

Final Words

The ultimate success of the fight broadcast by WJY and KDKA is a tribute to innovation and hard work on the part of a large number of people. But because of the subsequent rewriting of history, there ended up being a larger than usual number of "unsung heroes" among those responsible for the achievement. I hope this work at least belatedly will provide credit for their efforts, plus give a fuller picture of one of the earliest steps in the establishment of broadcasting.

BIBLIOGRAPHY


    Archer, Gleason L. History of Radio. New York: The American Historical Company, 1938, p. 212-215.
    ------. Big Business and Radio. New York: The American Historical Company, 1939, p. 18-20.
    Banning, William Peck. Commercial Broadcast Pioneer: The WEAF Experiment 1922-1926. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946, p. 32-67.
    Barnouw, Erik. A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States to 1933. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966, p. 80-81.
    Bilby, Kenneth. The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry. New York: Harper and Row, 1986, p. 55-57.
    Boucheron, Pierre. "Reporting the Big Scrap by Radiofone", Radio News, August, 1921, p. 97+
    Chase, Francis, Jr. Sound and Fury: An Informal History of Broadcasting. New York and London: Harper, 1942, p 16-17.
    Dempsey, Jack (with Barbara Piatteli Dempsey). Dempsey. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1977, p. 146.
    DeSoto, Clinton B. Two Hundred Meters and Down: The Story of Amateur Radio. West Hartford, CT: The American Radio Relay League, 1936, p. 67.
    Douglas, George H. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 1987, p. 25.
    Dreher, Carl. Sarnoff: An American Success. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Company, 1977, p. 72.
    Easton, William H. "'Out-of-the Studio' Broadcasting", Radio Broadcast, March, 1923, p. 364-368.
    Fagen, M. D. (editor). A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: The Early Years (1875-1925). Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc., 1975, p. 424-445.
    Fleischer, Nathaniel. 50 Years at Ringside. New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1969, p. 103, 245-248.
    ---------. Jack Dempsey. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1972, p. 115.
    Goldsmith, Alfred N. and Austin C. Lescarboura. This Thing Called Broadcasting. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1930, p. 209-211.
    Landry, Robert J. This Fascinating Radio Business. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1946, p. 39-40.
    Lewis, Thomas S. W., Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. New York: Edward Burlingame Books, 1991, p. 157-158.
    Lynch, Arthur H. "Dempsey-Carpentier Fight via Radiophone", Science and Invention, September, 1921, p. 442-443.
    Lyons, Eugene. David Sarnoff. New York: Harper and Row, 1966, p. 99-101
    May, Myra. "Meet J. Andrew White, the Most Famous Announcer in Radio", Radio Broadcast, October, 1924, p. 447-453.
    Samuels, Charles. The Magnificent Rube: The Life and Gaudy Times of Tex Rickard. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1957, p. 217-251.
    Sarnoff, David (as told to Mary Margaret McBride). "Radio", Saturday Evening Post, August 7, 1926 p. 8+ and August 14, 1926 p. 24+.
    Schubert, Paul (pseudonym for Pierre Boucheron). The Electric Word: The Rise of Radio. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1928.
    Shurick, E. P. J., The First Quarter Century of American Broadcasting. Kansas City: Midland Publishing Company, 1946, p. 113-114, 123.
    White, J. Andrew. "The First Big Broadcast", The Reader's Digest, December, 1955, p. 81-85.
    New York Times (no authors listed): "700 Newspapermen Will Circle Ring", June 29, 1921, p. 11; "Big Fight Arena To Be Ready Today", "Radiophone to Tell Times Sq. of Fight", July 1, 1921, p. 9; "Crowd in Times Sq. to Hear Fight Story", July 2, 1921, p. 11; "Times Sq. Crowd Roars For Both", July 3, 1921, p. 5; "Wireless Telephone Spreads Fight News Over 120,000 Miles", July 3, 1921, p. 6; "Bolt Hits Wireless Man", July 3, 1921, p. 9.
    Pittsburg Dispatch (no authors listed): "The Radio Digest", June 26, 1921, Third Section, p. 1; "First Fight News Given By The Dispatch", July 3, 1922, p. 1; "Fight By Wireless", July 3, 1921, p. 2
    Pittsburgh Post (no authors listed): "Attention, Everybody", July 2, 1921, p. 1; "Dempsey-Carpentier Fight Returns Today at Forbes Field", July 2 1921, p. 10; "Post Supplies News of Jersey Battle By Wireless 'Phone", July 3, 1921, Section 2, p. 2
    QST (no authors listed): "The Second District Convention", May, 1921, p. 47-49; "Our Board of Direction", August, 1921, p. 19-20; and "Strays", September, 1921, p. 47
    Radio News (no author listed): "The Radiophone on Roller Chairs", August 20, 1920, p. 74.
    The Wireless Age (no authors listed): "David Sarnoff Given Important Post by Radio Corporation", June, 1921, p. 10; "July 2nd Fight Described by Radiophone", July, 1921, p. 10; "Voice-Broadcasting the Stirring Progress of the 'Battle of the Century'", August, 1921, p. 11-21 (includes "Some Impressions" by J. Andrew White on p. 12); "The Monthly Service Bulletin of the National Amateur Wireless Association", August, 1921, p. 36; and "WJZ", June, 1922, p. 36-37.


Afterword: The review of the history of station WMSG, in New York City, appearing in The Airwaves of New York by Bill Jaker, Frank Sulek and Peter Kanze, includes the following note about Julius Hopp: "In May, 1927, Julius Hopp sued Rickard, Frank Coultry, and J. Andrew White, charging that he had been forced out of their partnership. He stated that he 'was the first to perfect measures to use wireless telephones and telegraph in the dissemination of news, addresses, sporting events and other public matters' and that he had exclusive rights to such events. He wanted an accounting of all profits since 2 July 1921."