A valued reader thinks KDKA in Pittsburgh was our first radio broadcasting station, and there's no great necessity to quarrel about that. I'm guessing that KDKA is sister station to our WBZ in Boston, and that both were Westinghouse and began about the same time with clear channel output of 50,000 watts and permanent licensing. There was only AM radio then, no tape recording, everything was live, and often amusing, and there was no TV.
In the 1920s, the few broadcasting stations by no means covered the country, and more than a few people had radios and couldn't reach anything to listen to. So I was on the air well before KDKA and WBZ, and if anybody is the pioneer, 'tis I. I became a broadcaster the same way a melted chocolate bar in a shirt pocket led to the discovery of the microwave.
Wireless, as a plaything for ham operators, was common enough then, but Freeport didn't have a radio until Ike Skillin read about it in Popular Mechanics and sent away for parts from a hobby shop in New York.
He made his radio on a long board, but there was no station to listen to. The only thing Ike could get was Al Kirkwood, the local railroad telegrapher, who would go home after hours and fiddle with his ham wireless. Al talked with other hams all over the world, but only in dot-dash Morse code, which Ike couldn't understand.
Radio came along fast after that, and did go on the air. So did KDKA, WBZ, WGY in Schenectady, N.Y., and so on. Now, how about me?
The early automobiles did not have batteries and sophisticated electric systems. The Model T Ford used a magneto that worked while the engine was running. Turn off the engine, and the lights went out. Or if, while driving, you had to go into second gear, the change in engine speed could rev up the magneto and the surge might burn out the filaments in the lamp bulbs.
Under the dashboard, the Model T had four spark coils wired in sequence that caused the four cylinders to explode in order and power the machine. A timer controlled this sequence, and soon was replaced by a "distributor."
Somehow, I came to own a cast-off Ford spark coil, and, with the long-long thoughts of youth, I wondered what to do with it. In this profound wonderment, I was ably assisted by my chum Eddie Skillin, the son of Ike Skillin of Freeport's first radio. You can almost see how things are going to work out!
Ortho Bean liked to pitch horseshoes, and he'd made a rink beyond Ike Skillin's lawn and rose garden. Every day in good weather, Jim Cushing and Ortho Bean would run off two or three games of horseshoes, and if anybody cared to watch, there was a big overstuffed lounge chair to sit in.
Pursuing our close study of electronic communications, Eddie Skillin and I snitched from his father's radio bench, and we wired this lounge chair. Using a six-volt dry cell and my Ford spark coil, we arranged things to our liking. From a safe distance we could touch two wires together and cause a spark under the upholstery, similar to those that sent Model Ts o'er hill and dale. All we needed was a customer, and shortly Harry Merrill came and sat in the loaded chair.
Mr. Merrill was a heavy-set man of dignified carriage, and Eddie and I touched together the two wires. Mr. Merrill levitated and pronounced a yell that caused Jim Cushing to let fly his horseshoe overzealously. Mr. Merrill looked at the chair, but didn't know what to look for. He offered, "Must-a been a yeller-jacket."
Eddie and I were taught never to overwork a willing horse, so we dismantled our surprise before anybody caught on and investigated, but we did shock enough citizens so our contribution to science was substantial. And, I became a broadcaster.
ONE Saturday, Eddie was in the house watching his father tinker with the radio. His father had the earphones over his head. (Loudspeakers hadn't been thought of yet.) I came alongside the Skillin house, saw across the lawn that Homer Weston was in the chair watching a horseshoe game, and I sneaked into the Skillin shed and touched two wires together.
The usual success prevailed, but later Eddie told me what had happened in the house. He said a tremendous squawk accrued in the earphones on his father's head, a blast that left his father crumpled to the floor in a disoriented posture.
Then he said, "What was that!?" But when I stepped in, moments later, Eddie put two and two together and he asked, "Did you just surprise somebody?" I said that I got Homer Weston. My coil broadcast; the radio received!
In this simple way, radio broadcasting was born. Every evening after supper, Eddie would snap the switch on his father's radio, and I would CWO with my Ford spark coil to tell him what I had in mind until bedtime. I was thus a pioneer broadcaster.
Except for Eddie, who could read my code, people with radios thought I was "interference," a word that came into use about that time. And about that time, Eddie and I had grown up some, and we turned our interests to less scientific subjects, like girls. Which was good, else I'd be a radio broadcaster today. Are there any questions? Yes: The lady in the front row asks about CWO. CWO is "continuous wave oscillation," a radio term for dots and dashes of code transmissions.
I thank you all.