s e c t i o n       

Big Business and Radio (1915-1922)
  • Next SectionBroadcasting Becomes Widespread (1922-1923)
  • Previous SectionBroadcasting After World War One (1918-1921)
  • Home PageTable of Contents / Site Search

Once the radio industry finally became profitable, major corporations -- including the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, General Electric, and Westinghouse -- moved into the field. Meanwhile, in 1919, due to pressure from the U.S. government, American Marconi's assets were sold to General Electric, which used them to form the Radio Corporation of America.
U.S. Navy / Marconi / General Electric / Radio Corporation of America -- Westinghouse -- American Telephone and Telegraph

According to Owen D. Young, the General Electric Company executive who coordinated G.E.'s purchase of American Marconi, and its transformation into the Radio Corporation of America: "Fifteen years is the average period of probation, and during that time the inventor, the promoter and the investor, who see a great future, generally lose their shirts... This is why the wise capitalist keeps out of exploiting new inventions and comes in only when the public is ready for mass demand". When, after years of losing money, radio finally started to become profitable in the late teens, then grew explosively with the broadcasting boom in the early twenties, the "wise capitalists" at major industrial corporations like G.E. began to enter and dominate the industry, in particular by buying up most of the major patents. In contrast, after nearly two decades of pioneering work and struggling companies, in 1921 Lee DeForest abruptly sold most of his radio interests and moved on to other fields. DeForest later explained that he felt the time had come when "the building up of this technique and institution might better be left in the hands of those with greater capital, influence and personnel to carry on" and further noted that broadcasting "grew amazingly, once the large organizations with ample capital took hold of it".


During World War One, the radio industry was placed under the temporary control of the U.S. government, and (most) government officials planned to return the companies and stations to private ownership after the end of the conflict. However, as reviewed in the Attempts to Establish a United States Government Radio Monopoly chapter of Linwood S. Howeth's 1963 History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, during the war the Navy Department plotted to circumvent this, and tried to convert the radio industry into a permanent government monopoly. To this end, the Navy quietly purchased the Federal Telegraph Company stations plus a majority of the Marconi stations located in the United States, meaning that the government now owned most of the U.S. commercial stations. The Navy belatedly reported its actions to the United States Congress, which was not amused. Congress challenged the Navy's purchases, and directed the Department to return the stations to their original owners.

The return of American Marconi's stations restored that company's domination of U.S. radio, which it had held since its 1912 takeover of United Wireless. However, in spite of its name American Marconi's ownership and management was largely British, and, because of national security considerations, the U.S. government -- especially the Navy Department -- wanted to avoid foreign control of U.S. international communications. Led by the Navy's S. C. Hooper and its Director of Naval Communications, W. G. H. Bullard, in mid-1919 the U.S. government applied extensive pressure on American Marconi to sell its operations to a U.S. firm -- at the same time General Electric was convinced to purchase the former American Marconi holdings. (The government selected G.E. because it was a major electrical firm, and it also manufactured the Alexanderson alternator-transmitters which seemed poised to dominate international radio communications. Development of these transmitters dated back to the high-speed alternators G.E. had built for Reginald Fessenden beginning in 1906.) Details about the events surrounding the formation of this new company, patriotically named the Radio Corporation of America, appear in The Navy and the Radio Corporation of America chapter of Linwood S. Howeth's 1963 History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy.

In the November, 1919 Wireless Age -- which was published by an American Marconi subsidiary -- an announcement appeared outlining an American Marconi stockholders meeting, to be held on November 20, 1919, in order to approve the sale of most of that company's assets to form A New and Powerful Wireless Company. The sale was duly approved, and, as the successor to American Marconi, the Radio Corporation of America inherited the position of the dominant U.S. radio firm, and advertisements for the new General Electric subsidiary, such as the one which ran in the July, 1920 issue of The Consolidated Radio Call Book, informed customers that RCA was "an all-American concern" holding "the premier position in the radio field". Shortly after its creation, RCA began to build a showcase international facility, Radio Central, at Rocky Point, Long Island. The site's original plans outlined a huge enterprise, the core of which was to be ten Alexanderson alternator-transmitters, surrounded by twelve huge antennas arrayed in spokes each approximately 1.5 mile (2+ kilometers) long. In 1922, with two of the antenna spokes built and two alternator-transmitters entering service, Charles William Taussig reviewed the fledgling Radio Central operations in The World's Greatest Radio Station chapter of The Book of Radio. Taussig enthusiastically reported that Radio Central incorporated "all of the wonders of radio which have transpired in the last twenty-five years". However, only about 20% of the planned alternator facilities were ever built, because within just a couple of years the longwave alternator-transmitters became obsolete, due to the development of far more efficient and compact vacuum-tube transmitters operating on shortwave frequencies.

Although RCA was initially envisioned as an international communications company, it also quickly moved into the developing broadcasting field. RCA made its broadcast debut on July 2, 1921 with a heavyweight boxing championship, as Jack Dempsey defeated Georges Carpentier. The bout took place in Hoboken, New Jersey, and was broadcast by a temporary longwave station, WJY, with a transcript of the fight commentary telegraphed to KDKA in Pittsburgh, for rebroadcast by that station. Because of the lack of radio receivers, a majority of the listeners were in halls, where volunteer amateurs set up radio receivers, charging admission for the sponsoring charities. RCA did much of the technical work, and covered the broadcast in its magazine, Wireless Age, announcing the event in July 2nd Fight Described by Radiophone, which appeared in the July, 1921 issue, and reviewing it in detail in Voice-Broadcasting the Stirring Progress of the "Battle of the Century", which appeared the next month. (A color scan, provided by Ross Allen, shows the WJY Participation Certificate which was issued to C. R. Vincent, Jr. for his help with the broadcast.) J. Andrew White, Wireless Age's editor, took the lead in coordinating the technical side of the broadcast, as reviewed by his internal report, Radiophone Broadcast of Dempsey-Carpentier Fight on July 2, 1921, which provided much of the information that appeared in the Wireless Age review. The original idea for the fight broadcast, and much of the coordination of the participants, came from Julius Hopp, manager of concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York City. But since then, to an almost grotesque degree, history has been rewritten multiple times, as the roles of some participants, especially RCA's David Sarnoff, have been greatly exaggerated, at the expense of those who actually deserve the credit. I've put together a review, "Battle of the Century": The WJY Story, which covers the activities surrounding the broadcast, plus a review of how in later retellings some of the original events have been distorted almost beyond recognition.

The "broadcasting boom" of 1922 expanded RCA sales into a national consumer market, with a resulting increase in advertising. Readers of The Country Gentlemen were informed that "We want the farmers to know something about radio and the Radio Corporation", according to an ad in the December 9, 1922 issue, which noted that RCA's goal was firmly to establish America's leadership in Radio.


The Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, based in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also became one of the expanding radio industry's most prominent leaders. Westinghouse was a major, and well-respected, manufacturer of electrical appliances for the home, and would become the first company to broadly market radio receivers to the general public. Although the company had been involved in radio research to a limited degree during World War One, after the war Westinghouse began to greatly extend its operations, including the purchase of the International Radio Telegraph Company -- the struggling successor to Fessenden's National Electric Signaling Company (NESCO). In 1912, following a losing initial decision in a lawsuit initiated by Reginald Fessenden, NESCO had gone into receivership, reported in Marconi Competitor Bankrupt from the August 6, 1912 Wall Street Journal. During World War One, NESCO exited bankruptcy and was renamed International Radio Telegraph -- its subsequent purchase was reported in Westinghouse Company Enters Wireless Field from the October 16, 1920 Electrical Review. This article noted that "special attention would be paid to the development of new uses" of radio, and the very next month, inspired by Frank Conrad's broadcasts over 8XK, Westinghouse inaugurated a public broadcasting service, designed to promote the sale of radio receivers. The October 28, 1920 Cleveland Plain Dealer announced that the formal start of the new service would be To Give Election Returns by Radio on November 2, 1920, from a station located at Westinghouse's main plant in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For the first few days the East Pittsburgh broadcasts went out under the Special Amateur callsign of 8ZZ, after which it switched to KDKA. In December the station began daily broadcasts of varied offerings which proved increasingly popular, and in the June 4, 1921 Scientific American, company engineer Leo H. Rosenberg reviewed broadcasting's accomplishments and bright future in A New Era In Wireless, with the prediction that "in a few years we will wonder that we were ever able to exist without enjoying its many benefits". After KDKA had been in operation for close to a year, Westinghouse set up three additional broadcasting stations: WJZ, Newark, New Jersey; WBZ, Springfield, Massachusetts, and KYW, Chicago, Illinois, predicting that "this service will prove of expanding value and distinctive interest to mankind" in Westinghouse to Cover Country With Radio Entertainment, from the December 10, 1921 Electrical Review. In the December 25, 1921 Pittsburgh Press, the company boasted in Radio Telephony Appeals to All Classes that its four stations meant "Westinghouse leads the world in radio broadcasting". A review of the company's broadcasting efforts through mid-1922, Development of Radiophone Broadcasting by L. R. Krumm, appeared in the July/August, 1922 Radio Age. The Westinghouse stations quickly became some of the most popular in the country. No review of early radio broadcasting was complete without a recap of their extensive pioneering work, for example, How Radio-Phone Broadcasting Came About from Austin C. Lescarboura's 1922 book, Radio For Everybody. Meanwhile, Westinghouse soon found that competing against RCA in the international communications field was a difficult task, and less than a year after it bought the International Radio Telegraph Company it sold that firm for a block of RCA stock, reviewed in Radio Corporation and International Merge in the September 1, 1921 Wall Street Journal.


Lescarboura also covered the significant contributions made by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, noting, in When a Rival Became a Partner, that "it was only when the engineers of the wire telephone came to take an interest in wireless telephony that this art made real progress". Wireless Telephone Wonderful Scientific Developments By Americans During War, from the January 19, 1919 Boston Globe, proudly reviewed "the work conducted by a notable body of telephone engineers connected with the Bell System under John J. Carty and Col. F. B. Jewett, chief engineer of the Western Electric Company". In the July 1919 issue of The Telephone Review, an AT&T advertisement, Pioneering Wireless Speech, highlighted the company's groundbreaking advances in audio transmissions, including the 1915 transoceanic tests and 1919 Victory Liberty Loan Drive. In 1920, AT&T opened the first radiotelephone link used for telephone service, "bridging by wireless" the California mainland and Catalina Island, as recounted in Radio Telephone Exchange for Avalon Island, Calif. from the June 19, 1920 Telephony. (One deficiency in the initial setup was that persons who knew the operating frequencies could listen in on conversations, and, even worse, a few with radio transmitters even interjected their own comments, according to "Tuning In" on the Wireless from the October, 1920 Pacific Radio News.) On October 21, 1920 AT&T showed off its growing technical prowess with a "sea to shining sea" test, successfully demonstrating before an international audience the interconnection of two radiotelephone links with a cross-country landline, to provide voice communication between the S.S. Gloucester, located off the coast of New Jersey, with Catalina Island, as described in From Ocean to Ocean by Telephone from the January, 1921 Telephone Engineer.

AT&T also developed the use of multiple radio signals, guided by wires, to increase the message carrying capacity of telegraph lines, reviewed in Carrier Telegraph from Coast to Coast, from the March, 1922 issue of Long Lines magazine. The company's extensive research and development also made it a leader in radiotelephone transmission, and Radio's Place from the October, 1921 issue of Long Lines covered the wide and growing range of applications, noting that "as an agency for communicating over wide stretches of water, with moving conveyances generally, for a host of maritime and military purposes, and for the broadcasting of information, radio to-day is rendering services of the greatest value, and all considerations point to the conclusion that in these fields its use will become of ever greater importance". AT&T used its expertise to quickly claim a major role in the developing radio broadcasting industry. In early 1922, it began constructing a broadcasting station in New York City, with the unusual policy that its airtime would be leased out for others to use -- this was called "toll broadcasting" -- which was announced in Our Latest Job from the March, 1922 Long Lines magazine. This station, WBAY (later WEAF and now WFAN), soon gained a reputation as the best engineered radio outlet in the country. AT&T's next innovation drew on its experience in interconnecting radio transmitters with long-distance wires, when it announced, in Bell Experiments Looking to Nation-Wide Radio Service from the April 15, 1922 Telephony, its plan to develop the first radio network.

WJY's 1921 broadcast of the "Battle of the Heavyweights" was an apt metaphor for the future of much of the broadcasting industry. The next few years would see a battle for dominance by some of the largest companies in the United States, with the "main card" consisting of AT&T vs. RCA.

"During the war, de Forest manufactured triodes under government immunity; but at the conclusion of hostilities some sort of working compromise with the Marconi company was essential. For a brief period the two companies tried to work together. But quarrels soon developed. And when in 1920 RCA acquired rights to the triode through cross-licensing agreements with the telephone company, it was no longer necessary to deal with de Forest. In the competitive struggle that ensued, de Forest's company was no match for GE, Westinghouse and RCA."--W. Rupert MacLaurin, Invention and Innovation in the Radio Industry, 1949.