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Happy 100th Birthday To The Consumer Technology Industry! Part 1

It all began with a small, wooden box from East Pittsburgh

Westinghouse RA-DA

Our consumer electronics industry is now 100 years old. We were born on November 30, 1920, in a factory building in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when the first Westinghouse RA-DA radio rolled off the assembly line at the sprawling 92-acre Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing works. We know the exact date and place because affixed to each of the plain wooden boxes of the two-piece radio – the RA was the tuner/receiver, the DA the detector/amplifier – was a small metal plate that identified its manufacturing particulars. It was this unprepossessing product, backed by Westinghouse’s corporate business commitment toward the creation of a consumer radio business, from which grew the mass communications age and our industry.

Westinghouse RA-DA ID plate

In this age of instant media access to the world on demand, it may be hard to understand the impact of radio a short century ago. Through this small wooden box, the world was suddenly delivered live into American homes. We could hear events as they happened, learn what was happening all over the world, hear the voices of the president of the United States and other prominent leaders, and be entertained by the world’s greatest performers and artists, all without leaving the comfort of our living rooms or kitchens. The shift on how we experienced and understood the world was seismic, which made radio the greatest disruptive technology in history – the first in a long line over the next century.

From a more parochial point of view, for its first 30 years of existence, what we now call the “consumer technology industry” was known as the radio industry, and what we now know as CTA was originally founded in April 1924 as the Radio Manufacturers Association (RMA).

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Admittedly, there was a cornucopia of radio equipment for sale in the fall of 1920, able to receive irregular audio transmissions from dozens of local amateur and “commercial” stations. But this radio gear was aimed at radio enthusiasts and hobbyists with engineering backgrounds or interest, and equipment comprised mostly of disparate radio parts such as vacuum tubes, crystals, transformers or headphones, kits, hand-assembled receivers from hobbyists or small kitchen table start-ups or from established suddenly radio-curious companies.

The RA-DA, however, is acknowledged as the first radio set to be mass manufactured with the uninitiated mainstream consumer as the target buyer.

Westinghouse RA-DA

More substantive than the RA-DA’s arguably singularity or primacy, however, is the role it played as a component of Westinghouse’s overall business strategy to enter – more accurately, to create – a commercial radio business. To accomplish its goals, Westinghouse, along with General Electric and RCA, established what would become a familiar innovation introduction template for the consumer technology industry: making sure the technology was packaged and ready-for-prime-time, creating content/hardware symbiosis and availability, dealing with government regulation, forming a variety of mutually beneficial IP and OEM/ODM partnerships, establishing a sales and distribution network, building and executing a marketing and sales strategy, and dealing with copy cat competitors. Over the ensuing century, remarkably little of Westinghouse’s business ways and means to create and sell radio has changed in how innovative subsequent entrepreneurs and established manufacturers develop and sell new technology products to consumers.

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What about the phonograph, you ask? In 1920, the phonograph was not an electronics device – it was purely mechanical. Much like a jack-in-the-box, phonograph players, aka gramophones and Victrolas, first had to be wound up to play. Record players wouldn’t run on electricity until 1926, and it was radio that radically altered both the nature of phonograph hardware and the establishment of the modern content-hardware ecosystem that created a three-way symbiotic relationship between the broadcast, hardware and record industries.

Our device-dominated industry was actually almost an afterthought, the lesser-known sibling of the establishment of a broadcasting business. On November 2, 1920, a handful of experimental radio stations around the country broadcast the returns of the Harding-Cox presidential election. Among these stations was the Detroit News’ 8MK (now WWJ) and Westinghouse’s own 8ZZ, better known as KDKA, mythically and mistakenly referred to as the U.S.’s first commercial radio station.

KDKA’s historical misdirection of its role in the birth of mass communications has obscured Westinghouse’s far more substantive role in the simultaneous birth of our consumer technology industry – how consumers got easy-to-use hardware to tune into the increasing number of radio broadcasts.

Westinghouse RA-DA

We know what triggered the birth of our business. But who were the parents? We usually credit the spread of consumer technology to the work of colorful iconoclastic inventors such as Guglielmo Marconi, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Edwin Howard Armstrong, and Lee de Forest. But few iconoclastic inventors other than Edison ever made a product sold to a consumer, much less wrote a business plan, set up a production line, hired a sales force or executed a marketing or distribution plan. It was two bookish buttoned-up corporate executives who, simply looking for better business opportunities to profit their companies, begat the consumer technology business: Owen D. Young, general counsel of General Electric, and Westinghouse vice president Harry Phillips (H.P.) Davis, both visionaries who would seem very familiar to their iconic consumer technology successors.

Over the next week, we’ll be presenting a short history of how these two men spearheaded the creation of our billion-dollar consumer technology industry.

The Age of Wireless

What we today call “radio” and “broadcasting” was not what the colorful iconoclastic inventors of wireless technology were actually working on.

For most of the first two decades of the 20th century, “radio” was called “wireless,” and 99.9% of wireless traffic consisted of Morse code transmitted from one station and received by another, essentially a one-to-one connection. Not only was neither sound nor broadcasting – one-to-many communication – a thing, the word “broadcasting” hadn’t yet been used to refer to wireless transmissions simply because the “casting” wasn’t “broad.” In the inaugural issue of Radio News (then called Radio Amateur News) in July 1919, founding editor Hugo Gernsback, perhaps better known as the founder of several science fiction magazines and the namesake of the Hugo Award, noted that the future of wireless was undoubtedly the “radio telephone” for wireless person-to-person chatting. The idea of using wireless for mass communications never crossed his or anyone else’s mind at the time.

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Wireless was also primarily limited to maritime communications, ship-to-ship, as we all remember from Titanic, and ship-to-shore, by commercial cruise and shipping fleets, and the military, or, more specifically, the Navy.

Westinghouse RA-DA

Before World War I, wireless sound transmission was purely experimental. Wireless telegraphy operated on “spark” or “spark gap” technology that produced short or long electrical pulses that translated into Morse’s dots and dashes, and is why so many telegraph operators were called “Sparks” or “Sparky.” Sound could not be transmitted using spark technology. Transmitting audio requires a steady, so-called “continuous wave,” technology collectively referred to at the time as “radiotelephony,” a name reflective of its supposed one-to-one purpose.

The most commonly reported first use of continuous wave technology to transmit sound came on Christmas Eve 1906 when Reginald Fessenden used his own equipment, including his own co-developed amplitude modulation technology (yes, that AM), to send the sound of himself speaking and playing the violin from his home made studio in the coastal town of Brant Rock, Massachusetts, to ships out in Cape Cod. The veracity of this first audio radio broadcast, however, has been called into question. But during the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century there were numerous experimental radio telephone experiments, most prominently by Fessenden and Lee de Forest, inventor of the audion tube, which morphed into vacuum tubes, which would power all electronics for the next four decades. While few of these rare radio sound experiments morphed into any actual commercial activities, radio transmission and receiving equipment development was pursued by a growing army of wireless enthusiasts.

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Most non-military radio development came to a screeching halt, however, on April 6, 1917, the day the U.S. entered World War I. Simultaneous with President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war came an executive order, directing that “…such radio stations within the jurisdiction of the United States as are required for naval communication shall be taken over by the government…” Wilson directed Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels to seize all amateur wireless “radio stations,” which amounted to around 8,500 licensed amateur Morse transmitters and an estimated 125,000 wireless receiver owners around the country.

Wilson’s seemingly drastic action wasn’t really that drastic. Spark wireless Morse transmission was notoriously vulnerable to interference and eavesdropping, and German saboteurs and spies had already used wireless to wreak terror in the U.S. In June 1915, for instance, a German-owned radio station in Sayville, Long Island, New York, was caught sending coded messages to German submarines off the U.S. coast. And on July 16, 1916, German agents spectacularly blew up a U.S. munitions storage facility on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor, an explosion extensively damaging the Statue of Liberty on neighboring Liberty Island.

Once the war ended, a battle ensued between Congress, who wanted to encourage commercialization of this promising new radio technology, private industry that saw radio as a critical business tool, and the U.S. Navy, which wanted monopoly control over the vital and still vulnerable military communications technology. We know how this battle turned out, but it was the loser who made sure radio became a business.

Next: A National Priority

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