Birth of commercial radio broadcasting Science

It all started with a bet

In this week's 'An eye for an i', tune into the story of how a bet shaped the future of a man and commercial radio broadcasting. Photo: B.Velankanni Raj   | Photo Credit: B.VELANKANNI RAJ

Last week, we saw how two mathematicians, Urbain Le Verrier and John Couch Adams, worked out the position of the planet >Neptune even before it had even been observed. They didn’t bet against each other as to who would arrive at it first, but if they had, that would have been one tough bet to resolve!

Today, we will be looking at how a bet shaped the future of a man. In fact, it eventually went on to mark the beginning of commercial radio. And maybe it is for this reason that Frank Conrad is widely referred to as the father of radio broadcasting.

Conrad, born to a railroad mechanic in 1874, ended his formal education when he was in his seventh grade. His desire to work with tools began to take shape when he started out as a bench-hand in the Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh at the age of 16.

Notable contribution

What he lacked through formal training, Conrad more than made up with his mechanical abilities, prompting his promotion to the Westinghouse testing department. It was during this period that he started out inventing, his most notable contribution being the circular type watt-hour metre, which later became a household item to measure the consumption of electricity.

His interest in radio sparked from an incident in 1912. In order to settle a $5 bet (over $100 in today’s money) regarding the accuracy of his watch, Conrad built a wireless receiver to hear the time signals transmitted from the Naval Observatory broadcast station NAA in Virginia. He not only won the bet, but also moved on to bigger things.

Station in garage

After the crude receiving device, he built his own transmitter, enabling him to open an amateur radio station from his Wilkinsburg garage. Licensed as 8XK, Conrad started broadcasting and soon became extremely popular in the Pittsburgh area where he could be heard.

After helping test military radio apparatus during World War I, Conrad resumed work with his radio station after the war. Radio, which was initially perceived as a two-way point to point medium, was soon turned into a medium wherein a single transmitter could be used to reach out to a large audience with receivers.

He started playing music from gramophone records in his station, and he soon started receiving requests for specific music. And when the Joseph Horne department store placed an advertisement on this day in 1920 in the Pittsburgh Sun for radio receivers that were ready to use, his audience only grew larger.

Harry Davis, Westinghouse Vice President, saw huge potential in broadcasting, prompting him to apply for a commercial license. The license for the arbitrary call letters KDKA, which was formerly 8XK, was assigned in mid-October.

KDKA went live on November 2, 1920 and went on to be a pioneer broadcasting station. It was the first station to reach out to the audience with a regular schedule and achieved many more firsts as commercial broadcast model picked up across the globe.

Conrad received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Pittsburgh and also the Edison Medal in 1930 from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers among other awards. As for the radio communication that he established, it reigned for decades till the advent of satellite radio and podcasts.

Write to the writer at ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Oct 25, 2021 6:14:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/it-all-started-with-a-bet/article6461908.ece

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