Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County
The Father of Radio Broadcasting, Frank Conrad invented the first station that broadcasted publicly.
Frank Conrad was born in 1874 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At 16, Conrad left the seventh grade and became a bench-hand at Westinghouse. Through his mechanical aptitude, he worked his way from the testing department, to general engineer, and finally to assistant chief engineer. The construction of his station, 8XK (the precursor to general public broadcasting), in his Wilkinsburg garage led to the founding of KDKA. His station was the first station to appeal to the masses with the hope of selling thousands of radio sets from Westinghouse. After 51 years at Westinghouse, Conrad held over 200 American, English, and German patents along with numerous awards. Conrad died December 11, 1941, in Florida.
On May 4, 1874, Frank Conrad was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Conrad is widely known as the father of radio broadcasting and was responsible for the founding of the first broadcast station in the world, KDKA. Conrad was a son to Herbert M. Conrad, a railroad mechanic, and Sadie Conrad. His formal education ended when he left the seventh grade at the Starrett Grammar School. At the age of 16, Conrad filled his desire to work with tools as a bench-hand in the Westinghouse plant on Garrison Alley in Pittsburgh. By working as a bench-hand for Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, he began working toward his future career as an engineer and inventor.
At the age of 23, because of his mechanical abilites, Conrad was promoted and began working in the Westinghouse Testing Department. While holding this position, he developed many important inventions, most notably the circular type watt-hour meter. This invention measured the consumption of electricity and became a standard household installation. This success led to the beginning of a bright future for Conrad. On June 18, 1902, Conrad married Flora Selheimer and they later had three children: Francis, Crawford, and Jane. By 1904, Conrad was promoted to general engineer of the Westinghouse Company.
Conrad's interest in radio was first sparked in 1912 by a bet regarding the accuracy of a watch. In order to prove his watch's accuracy to second, he built a wireless receiver to transmit time signals from the Naval Observatory broadcast station NAA, in Arlington, Virginia. After creating a crude receiving device, Conrad constructed his own transmitter, which enabled his amateur station in his Wilkinsburg garage to be licensed as 8XK. By 1916, 8XK could be heard around the Pittsburgh area and became extremely popular. To meet the high demand for his broadcast, Conrad began broadcasting every Wednesday and Sunday night for two hours. When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, all civilian amateur radio operations were ordered to close down, but Conrad was permitted to test military radio apparatus through his station. He aided the Army Signal Corps by creating transmitters and receivers (SCR-69 and SCR-70), which were also tested in his garage. Additionally, Conrad made a wind-driven generator that was attached to a plane's wing and powered the radio transmitter. After the war ended in October 1919, Conrad resumed work on his radio station.
At first he had trouble communicating through Morse code with other amateurs, so he began to use a microphone to make communication faster and easier. He played music from phonograph records on his station, which helped him gain popularity and newspapers began to write about his station. An advertisement in the Pittsburgh Sun for amateur wireless sets for $10 caught the attention of the Westinghouse Vice President, Harry P. Davis. Davis realized a great opportunity lay before him in regards to Conrad's experimental station. In order to compete with an AT&T, GE, and RCA alliance, Westinghouse joined with the International Radio and Telegraph Company. The impetus to create KDKA, the former 8XK, was the prospect of increasing the sale of thousands of radio receiving sets for homes. At that time radio sets were limited to the technically savvy amateurs who built their own. Therefore, it would be innovative to market easy to use sets to the general public.
Davis, Conrad, and other officials held a meeting regarding constructing a transmitter at the Westinghouse plant in time for the Harding-Cox presidential election on November 2, 1920. A 100-watt transmitter was built atop a Westinghouse building, and Westinghouse applied for a license from the United States Department of Commerce. The application was accepted and the station was licensed as KDKA. On November 2, 1920, at 8 P.M.., KDKA broadcasted the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election. Only 100 people listened to the first broadcast in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Conrad stayed in his garage in case he needed to use his transmitter as a back up to report the results. Then KDKA began broadcasting for a single hour, 8:30-9:30 P.M., and later the schedule was expanded. By 1921, Conrad was promoted to assistant chief engineer at Westinghouse, a position he held for the remainder of his life.
Although there had been other small radio stations, KDKA is considered the pioneer broadcasting station. It was the first station to reach the general public with a regular schedule and also achieved many of the industry's other "firsts." Previous stations reached amateurs only on an experimental basis. KDKA was the first station to be licensed by the U.S. government to operate as a general broadcasting service. It was the first station that carried a remote broadcast of a church service, the first to report baseball scores, and the first to cover an address by a national figure, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (January 15, 1921). It was also the first to cover a broadcast by a congressional representative, Alice Robertson.
With the success of KDKA, Conrad and Westinghouse turned to further experimentation and focused on shortwave radio. The broad use of shortwave was unclear at the time because of a previous misconception. It was thought that frequencies above 1,500 kilocycles would be useless because the ground loss was so high, but Conrad sought to prove this theory inaccurate. At that time, Alexanderson alternators were used to transport their signals across the Atlantic, but these huge machines would prove to be outdated. In 1924, Conrad attended an international conference in London regarding the formation of a radio link between Europe and South America. In his hotel room, Conrad invited David Sarnoff, a radio pioneer and employee of RCA, to witness a demonstration. By using a shortwave receiver and a hotel hanger as an antenna, Conrad transmitted extracts from newspapers in code while Sarnoff copied them down. The following day at the conference, Sarnoff presented the copied code, which revealed the effectiveness of shortwave. As a result, the proposed long-wave system was replaced by short-wave transmitters, a momentous achievement in radio technology.
In 1928, Conrad received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Pittsburgh. Following his degree, Conrad received many awards for his achievements as an engineer and inventor. The American Institute of Electrical Engineers, now known as the IEEE, awarded Conrad the Edison Medal in 1930. This was the most prestigious award Conrad received. The Edison Medal, named after Thomas Edison, is the oldest medal in the field of engineering and is presented "for a career of meritorious achievement in electrical science, electrical engineering or the electrical arts." His other awards include the Morris Liebman Prize by the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1925 and the Lamme Medal by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1936. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1953. Conrad was also a member of several organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the Army Ordinance Association, the Institute of Radio Engineers as a member and later vice-president, and the Society of Automotive Engineers.
After 51 years at Westinghouse and after accomplishing many feats, Conrad retired in 1940. While driving to his winter home in Miami, Florida, from Pittsburgh, Conrad had a heart attack on November 6, 1941. After that incident, he was under a physician's care and died at his vacation home on December 11, 1941.
Throughout his career he received over 200 American, English, and German patents on a broad range of mechanical and electrical devices from televisions, refrigerators, radio transmitters, and clocks, to air conditioners, vacuum tubes, and even grenades. Conrad was the impetus for a change in communication, which would have an everlasting impact. He will forever be known as "the father of radio broadcasting."
Recording measuring instrument, 1912.
Starting mechanism for automobiles, 1917.
Hand grenade, 1919.
Multiple electrode vacuum tube, 1924.
Radio transmitting system, 1927.
Radio sending system, 1927.
Wireless receiving set, 1928.
Short-wave antenna, 1930.
Electric clock, 1933.
Air conditioning system, 1940.
Barnouw, Eric. History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1966.
Douglas, George H. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1987.
Douglas, Susan J. Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
"Dr. Frank Conrad, Radio Pioneer, Dies." New York Times. 12 Dec. 1941: 25.
Dunlap, Orrin E. Jr. Radio's 100 Men of Science. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944.