Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

For those of us living in the 21st century, it is hard to imagine a world without radio, television and the internet. The free flow of information, music and entertainment programming across the country and the world is taken for granted in modern society but was a revolutionary development 100 years ago, when KDKA made communications history with a radio broadcast from Pittsburgh in 1920. The rise of commercial radio broadcasting did much to help create a national American culture where ideas and music are easily shared across regions. More importantly, radio broadcasts allowed critical news, alerts and warnings to be shared almost instantly.

On November 2, 1920, KDKA became a pioneer in the radio industry when it successfully broadcast the results of the Warren Harding presidential election from a hastily constructed shack atop an eight-story building in the Westinghouse Electric Co. plant in East Pittsburgh. The transmission of voices across radio frequencies was a distinct departure from the previous use of Morse code to transmit signals that had to be decoded. In the early years of the 20th century, experimentation with radio transmission occurred in several locations scattered across the country.

KDKA, with the sponsorship and support of the influential Westinghouse company, helped popularize the idea of a radio in every home. This amazing leap of technology was made possible by the innovative work of Frank Conrad (1874–1941), assistant chief engineer at Westinghouse. As an early proponent of the possibilities of voice radio, Conrad designed transmitters and receivers for use by the U.S. Signal Corps during World War I. Continuing his work in his home garage laboratory in Wilkinsburg, he and his two sons experimented with radio signals and programming as radio ham operators. As interest in home radio operation grew, Conrad made arrangements to sell Westinghouse radio sets to the public for $10 in Pittsburgh’s Horne’s Department Store in September 1920. Noting the potential market for home radios and radio programming, Westinghouse asked Conrad to build a transmitter on the roof of Building K of the East Pittsburgh plant. Westinghouse’s immediate goal was to broadcast the presidential election results on election day, with a program of regular public broadcasts following to attract more listeners and radio owners. Westinghouse applied for a broadcasting license from the U.S. Department of Commerce, receiving the randomly assigned call letters KDKA just a few days before the election.

So, with the broadcast from a 100-watt rooftop transmitter designed by Conrad, radio history took a giant leap forward. The transmission of the announcer’s voice reading the election results as phoned in by reporters from the Pittsburgh Post was an instant success. In the following days congratulatory calls poured into the company’s telephone switchboard. Westinghouse continued to broadcast on a regular schedule, at first just a single hour daily from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Soon programming expanded to include music performed live by Westinghouse employees or from phonograph records, and a new 500-watt transmitter was built allowing the station to be heard hundreds of miles away. KDKA’s popularity led to the growth of radio broadcasting and the licensing of hundreds of commercial radio stations around the country in the next few years. Westinghouse installed broadcasting stations at three other locations in 1921, WJX in Newark, New Jersey; WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts; and KYW in Chicago.

In 1934 KDKA moved its office and radio antenna to the Grant Building, a 40-story Art Deco skyscraper designed by noted architect Henry Hornbostel (1867–1961) in downtown Pittsburgh. Of distinctly modern and restrained design, the Grant Building, as depicted in this postcard, was far less ornate than the architect’s preliminary drawings calling for a Beaux-Arts style showplace. Hornbostel’s signature Beaux-Arts buildings at Carnegie Mellon University remain campus icons. The Grant Building offered its own flash and dazzle with a neon rooftop aerial beacon flashing out P-I-T-T-S-B-U-R-G-H in Morse code. The flashing beacon remains as a local landmark and a testament to Pittsburgh’s early radio significance, as does the 50,000-watt KDKA Westinghouse transmitter tower constructed in 1939 on a hill in nearby Allison Park. Building K in East Pittsburgh was demolished to make way for a new industrial park at the site of the Westinghouse plant, but historic markers note the location of KDKA’s historic 1920 radio broadcast.

 

Pamela W. Reilly is a historic preservation specialist in PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.