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A SociAL

Ruth Schwartz Cowan
Nt 111 York Oxfmrl
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Ku.11.1 Lumpur Mclhnurth:
Mcxtco City Nairobi PJrh Sinl$apore
Taipai Tokyo Toromo
a11d associated comptmies
Berlin lbadan
opyright C 1997 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
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All 1114lm Nt> p:m of this publication may be
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111 1111y lonn ur hy JllY clectronlt, mechanical,
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1'1101 pcrllll\\it)ll C)f University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging in-Publication Data
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz, 1941-
A social history of American technology I Ruth S. Cowan.
p. em.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-19-504606-4.-ISBN 0-19-504605-6 (pbk. )
l. Technology-Social aspects-United States-History.
1. Title.
Tl4.5.C69 1996
96-5505 CIP
1 35798642
Printed en the United States of
on acid free Jmpcr
Neil M. CoJvan

ll"', l'lh . , lllhl liliitH l. ollluH!t, \"uu 111 1 pnlnt
sdwl.ul) suppon udn1 Wlt tll I\k """ III'Jl" """'
when I flag for whkh I .1111 wtntdi''l\ly .1't llo :f11l
Glen Cove, New York
June 1996
Jt.S c
IN ' II II ! /111111 >1 I OF TJ IE EI GHTEENTH CENTURY IN EUROPE, some taxon-
1 he people who dassil)r and name the different species of animals
ri11d had an argument. Having decided that human beings, men
""' \\oiiiCII, ought to be classified with the animals, they could not agree
1111 .1 l<>r our species: Homo politictts, the primates who create gov-
:ttllllt'lll\? 1/omo scxualis, the primates who are perpetually in heat? Homo
''' fllrlll , t hl primates who think? Or Homo faber, the primates who make
11ti111',S, l'vcntuaiJy they settled on thinking as the crucial characteristic that
M:u. ltunt.lll beings apart from the orangutans and the chimpanzees, which
.lll.llumicaiJy to be our closest relatives.
' I lm hnok focuses on one of tl1e human characteristics that tile eigh-
nntury taxonomists rejected, making tllings. Our opposable
our hands, and tl1e things that we make and manipulate witll our
lwuh .11c .\'much a part of our humanity as our brains and tile thoughts
''r h,t\l' h.1d, our governments and the constraints tlley have put on our
lwh.l\ inr, l'\'Cn our sex hormones and the ways in which they have influ-
nu nl nur live'>.
In been a fact of human life as long as there have been hu-
111.11\ """' From the time that human beings emerged as a separate species
1111 tlw. t',ll th, the; h:wc been trying 10 control, to manipulate, to exploit,
.11ul \llllll tlllll'' cwn to 1 he c.lfl h wilh tools. Technological change
Ju, Knll nd ", ,,,pldly in t hl 1 wc11t icl h that we sometimes think
nl "II\ 111 .1 dw.\tttr i .. tn .tlly tc\:hllnlol-\icl l age, surroumlcd
a. \\1' h' .ul tnlltnhtfl , .uHI tmd A


11111111\ 111 '11 1!11 tlljl.hl \hn11ld 'otii\' III(C ltn\' 1 \II. I h.ll Ill H' .1111\ ,IH' 1111
(cu k's) "' lutulli)J.h.d tluu .ttl \' nl ""' l llntol ' l11 .111 IIIIH'\ .uHI .tll
hlllll.lll hn"H' ll.l\1 ,\llnllptnl in \111111 l.t,ll\1111 lllll\1 lool\
trolthc n.ltliJ.II ci\\1WI1111ll11111 tlln 1r ll\111(1. .wd 11w." ,,, ltlll'
ofthe human beings who fi r' ' k.unnl hu,\ 111 ruh 1\\0 ,, tunc\ together ln
make a spark as it is of tho:.c who (ll'.llcd the .Humic hom h.
We like to think that in times past people liH:d mmc " n;Hur::tl " lives than
we do today, but in point of fuct, log cabim, tepees, and grass huts arc a'i
"artificial" as hydraulic cement, atomic bombs, antibiotics, and computers.
They are all equally products of human hands, of human artifice, of mak
ing things, of homo faber.
Which is why we should be suspicious whenever we see the labels "hand
made" or "nattu-al" on a product, no matter what that product may hap
pen to be, no matter how "old-fashioned" it may happen to look or feel or
taste. All products are both handmade and natural because all human be
ings are natllrally equipped to make things with their hands. Is a piece of
cloth more handmade because it has been woven on a wooden loom rather
than a metal one? Is bread that has been baked in a wood-fired brick oven
more natural than bread baked in a metal oven fired by "natural" gas? And
when we acwally do encounter something that is more handmade than
something else (tor example, bread dough that has been kneaded by some
one's hand rather than a machme), why do we assume instantly that the
former is better tl1an tl1e latter? Swdymg the history of technology may
help us to understand why so many people seem to believe that being hand-
made and natural somehow means simultaneously both "bett er" and "tra-
ditional ."
A Social History of American Technology
We use the word technolggy tQ denote those things that people have cre-
ated so tl1at they can exploiLor manipulate the natural environment in
which they are living. Technology is a more general word tl1an tool. Tools
are used to produce tl1ings, but botl1 the things that are produced (like
bridges, houses, gears, woolen cloth, and clean laundry) and the things that
are used to do the job (like wrenches, hammers, drill presses, looms, and
washing machines) arc included in tl1e term technology. Domesticated an-
imals and plants are technologies that people created in order to secure
food supplies; medications arc technologies that people created in order to
improve their health. Even languages and the tl1ings that contain languages
(such as books, letters, computer software, and student essays) arc tech-
nologies: tl1ey arc things that people have created so as to better control
nd manipulate tl1e social environment.
Technological systems are arrays of technologies. Onn pnmitive human
beings had passed beyond the use of digging th1) h .Hlji.I\M.' d out ul
11he realm of technology into the realm of .d .. , \I till\ A stn)!,lt
tool, even the most primitive nftlwm
i\ "'";'til) 11111 li ttlll tflll 111 th\:.
. 11:11\ 1 . 11111'1 lt:' .lf'l'l" .\I< I \llllll tltilll' (11 1\.111 , ol
\\'ltll II l111l 1111111h I Ill 11111111(111 .I' .1 lt.IIIIIIICI 4 II 1:,,111
lh 11 t!.\ 111 tlu 1111}'.111.11 dty.y.tllf 'Ill h,l\1 tlrnlnl Ill l11'

\\itlt .1 ,111111 .\ll 11'1 lt11lll11p.11 ,1\ W\11"111"', 111 lt ,l\1 l'l'fl
h {'lllht:hh .I itt th Ill .\ lt.lllllllfl I' 11111 tr.llh .I h.111111111 1111111 .ullll"llili'
hk11 it Ill' .111d II '\\11'111" , ,111 ,.11111 \lll11li111W' du l11
l!lif q11i11 1.11 fl.l' .1111\ q11t11" 1 U111ph\ I hr \\ 1111hl lr .1 llti\PIIoll
f!!lH!HiiCI' \\hh h 11q11111 ... 111 1'111111' rln1111,tl lll' l\\lllk pill' \ \llt\\.\1\' ,

1'1111111 ' .. llt<IIIIWII'III\ ,I' \HIIt'J'IIIf.I.Hlllllll'' 111p111H' I ', tt.llll
!!I HI l\l.111111: 1d IIIII'' Ill 1tnln Ill II 1m IIIII I p11lt'll h
thr "'' ,\lid u1.1111p111.111 '' 11h 11111 "'""" .1 nl
h't h!!t ,Ill' ,1\ lllll f h .I p.lll nl Oil I' lHIIlllllll\ '' 11k,l'l \\'1'
1111d lht..: 1'"\l'lllll\l'tlh \H' th(ll th\.'\' ,\(\U 011)-\hl Ill be p.lll 11\
1!!11' \
' l'lll lll\1111 \ nltn llllulll!!.\ I\ .Ill d'lml to l'l:l'0\11\1 I hr hl\1111 \
11i'nll tl1nf,C thiul:' thm( ,llttl.tll' Wl h.wc: U\l'l' thl )'l.ll'>
I hr mr/IJ/ III !II"Y nltn o 1w \ll'Jl dll ""'
tmv '"'" thl' ""'"' Y It th.ll ohjnh
hA\(' lll.l(l' ICd 1111:." 'Y' 111 \\lmh ('rnpk 11\ lll'l'llll ,\ lllll ,
11\l!!lit ;Itt' t in'' It thq hn It ,,\.,o .INII\IC' 1 h.llt he" .1)' 111 h
jlfli!Hr lhc h,ll .1 lln tnl tlH: 1 h.\1 tlll' y inn; Ill , m.11Htf.11.1 \II'C: , .md
1\ 1!1-!!i.ll luMnl\ 111 o.,hort, ,1\\lllllC\ ,I 11\\llll.ll lw,
1\Hi:ll r. dl!l )' .unl tcdmulof,); it ,\lso ,1\\llllH:\th.ll 111 m1c 1..111, .11td
I11H C
1111lth nl1 111 the miH:r.
1\11\t' i !<;,111 '"" '"' \ It,,, from llllliW different pcr,pl'l. tiH'
11\tf tlu;t yi'.ll' h1tlf'.111pl11(1\,1:<..01Willtl, intdlcl.lll.ll, W 1\,\lllC 111\l .Ill\\
iHil hill' ftlllll I hr Pli'JKlll\ c or IClhnulog.y. Thi'l i'l odd hcOll\1.' ftlr ()\1.:1
II \'( M il 1\1m' t11.. 111 h,l, been rel'o.\rdc::d 1\sm: rk.lll\ .1nd h\
.I' h.llllll.lrk. of ()Ill' UlhllrC, one of thC II "
,lt lllil ifi\11111111 Luttll""'" hn:thr1.n .111d one. of the hKtol'
1 i I Ills\ inp, 1" 11111 n11 pro,pcrity. We "lw have hcc:n bUt n ,111d
i11 1111 t\HIIItlth ..:cntlll) 'huuld be P" tiusl.lrly intcrco.,ted in 111Hkr
t.illdltijl, illl lu.,tul \ lt11111 tim pcr.,pc:diVC we: .lrl.' II\ .1 llltHJlll p11
il ii 111 H tllllllll'hrnd hm\ pruf(nllldly .\I l h.\ll!lol. 1 h11tk 111
liiih .u1d wmputc.:ro., .tt'ketcd our\\;\)' ollsk 'vV1. .111 .ll o.,o
in 11 1111iq111', I'' 1\1111111 t111nk. nl' om cotllllrV'' o.,itl.' ,1nd mil'
HI.' IIIII '"" i11 \old \\,\r ,111d our ps' Pll.l ,\11\ to lllllkr .. t.tnd 1\fm
p! tl! it'"' lh "'"' \\'.IY ol hk ""' 1'lfccu.: d ou1 tcdliiOio&)
i ho fit hiM 111111111 till' \look 1:.\.HlliiiC:\ tht: dl.\l ,llH' I nlp.lll
tl N .. rllt \nlllll.l thr H'I'V bdn11 tlt1
ir\111 rnnl11111111 \wy .. lll .111d tl11: U1111nl "''hurl\
tltl' lt.1p1n , Ill\' t n dr.,nllw, .tlbrtl HI\ \nidh, 1h1
IIIIi' ,_,t'tll(' 111\ll' \\ l111 \\l'll tu thl llllllllll'lll bdtiiT d1
I ,111\l d1l p1ulo11t11l tl11 tnl11111lc
,.( I\\ 11 l'' 11111" ul pr111'k, 1\.IIIH 1111I 0.111 l1 I'> 1\y '' .1\ 11l I Ill 11 HI Ill
1\oll , I lt,l\1' ,,bfl ll li, l\ ''"'"'""W .tblntt tho
: I
bl.:t\\CCn Nw th Anll'll\,111 .md .111 lllklrll<n
ultim:aely plll.t lllltlJllcl} Atnl.:m .111 "I' ''" tt ntlll1 11f 11 t n 1 h.H
subsequently developcJ here.
The second chapter is devoted to 'f. "' ttl I 111 :-i nn: t \\ .\s the
enterprise in which the vast majority ofEurc>J'C"' cng.tgcd
in the years between settlement and indepcnJcnt n,urunhood In pJrl be-
cause the United States was born as an agricultural, clllturc and its
unique governmental system derived from that culture colonial agricul -
ture has been enveloped in the mists of patriotic nostalgia. I contend in this
second chapter that by examining the way in which the colonists actually
wrested their livings from the ground, we can develop a much more real-
istic w1derstanding of our national past.
The third chapter, finally, focuses on artisans: the colonists who made
the various tools with which the others tried to control their environments.
Although they were only a tiny fragment of the population, colonial arti-
sans are a historically crucial fragment, for they provided-to use an odd
but suitable metaphor-the technological womb from which industrial-
ization was born. In the second section of this book, readers will discover
that the American industrial revolution was very different from the British,
French, and German industrial revolutions. We cannot begin to under-
stand those differences-so crucial to the subsequent history of the West-
unless we undernand the unique circumstances in which colonial artisans

W.dl! 1 ,\ hI 11u /Inti'/' II! 11111/tflr J 111 1/J , Jl 1'11/o,,,/ J i lli:r ,y111 <r
(Nc'' \111k I
Seymour Melman, l't:ntfTJl011 J1Jr l'llhlfm/ /:'ntllll/11_1 '!!' II ;,,. (,Nn\: \'ut L
1971 ).
Ronald Miller and David Sawers, The Tech11wtl /)ndl/11111'11t af'.tlillltrll tll'll
(New York, 1970).
David Noble, Forces of A Social History of btdustria/ Automrmon (I I.
York, 1984).
Carroll Pursell, The Military-Industrial Complex (New York, 1972).
Alex Roland, Model R esearch: The Natiotlal Advi.sor_v Committee for
(Washington, DC, 1985).
C. R. Roseberry, Glum Curtiss, Pioneer of Flight (Syracuse, NY, 1991 ).
Merritt Roe Smith, ed., Military b1te1prise and Technological Change: Perspml!
on the American Experience (Cambridge, MA, 1985).
Robert W. Smith, The Space Telescope: A Study of NASA, Science, Tcchuo/og,v ,,.,
Politics (New York, 1989).
John Tirman, ed., The Militarization of High Teclmo/ogy (Cambridge, MA, 19111
Walter G. Vincenti , What E11jJincers Know artd How They Know I t: Analytical Stt11/
ies from Aeronautical Histo1y (Baltimore, 1990).
Donald R. Whitnah, Safer Skyways: Fedeml Control of APiation, 1926-1966 (Amr
lA, 1966).
Communications Technologies
and Social Control
111!1.) engage. Electronic devices-radio, television, computers-have had a
prufound and qui te conspicuous impact on American society in the twen-
lltth century because they have altered patterns of communication, the
w.1ys in which people convey information to one another. Like all profound
' n'-ial changes, the communications revolution has raised numerous trou-
hli ng questions; some of those troubling questions concern the issue of so-
i.1l conuol. \ Vho should be in charge of all the various technologies of
wmmun.ication? Industry? The government? Individuals? And who gets to
nmtrol the broadcasting of information when one of the media that allows
the passage of electronic waves-the earth's atmosphere-bel ongs, in
some sense, to everyone?
Wixeless Telegraphy
The history of modern American communications technology begins not
111 the Uni ted States, but in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy.
A nineteenth-century Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell , demon-
strated that light was an electromagnetic wave, and he predicted, on theo-
retical grounds, that similar waves of different frequencies (ei ther higher or
lower than light) could be generated by electric discharges (sparks). In
1887, a German physicist, Heinri ch Hertz, created an apparants to gener-
,,tc and bath high-frequency (a few centi meters bet:wccn each
w.t\' C ,-t 1'\1 ) .111d In\\ It ( '' li:w t ') \\ .I\ l'." I I !Ill ,, tlt:, il' t l .1 llrd 1
z, p.ll k F-'P I'" 1\llllltt' l',
A few yea rs l,llcr, (.; ugltclm(l M.m:otti , .1 vnung lt <ll i.ln ' ' hu 'tudyint-t
electricity, rend 3 dcscripuon or Hertz's ;md IIC>liccd ;t feature ol
the apparatus that had apparently escaped Hertz's attention: Ucrtz h.1d
sent an electric signal from one place (the transmitter) to another ( the me.1
suring device) without wires. l fit would work across the laboratory, would
it work across a field? across a river? between mountaintops? Marconi b{
gan experimenting. Over the next two years, he succeeded in sending
sages in Morse code (long sparks, short sparks) as far as two miles; he also
developed a simple apparatus that would receive the waves (an antenna )
and convert them into direct current so that, like telegraph signals, they
could be heard by someone listening to the pattern of the current through
Marconi was not the only person experimenting with "wireless telcgra
phy" at tl1e time, but he was tl1e person who figured out a way to make
money with it. First, he identified a Likely market for his invention: ship-to
shore or ship-to-ship communications, he reasoned, were markets that
could not possibly be served by tl1e existing systems that depended on
wires, the telegraph and the telephone. Marconi 's famer was a wealthy
businessman and his mother was English; the family knew precisely what
had to be done. In 1896, Marconi and his momer went to England to ob
tain a patent o n the invention. Through his parents' social connections,
Marconi was able to demonstrate his apparatus to officials of the Bri tish
Navy and to raise tl1e money tl1at was needed to manufacture transmitters,
antennae, and receivers. British Marconi was formed in 1897; a subsidiary,
American Marconi, followed in 1899.
Wireless telegraphy was an instant success. The British Navy bought
wireless equipment to communicate wim its imperial fleet , which plied
every ocean of the world; tl1e British Army wanted Marconi's invention so
that command posts could communicate with troops in tl1e field. The
United States had recently acquired the Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii , and
Puerto Rico; tl1e State Department wanted wireless systems to communi -
cate witl1 its new overseas possessions, and the American Navy wanted to
be able to stay in touch with its newly far-fl ung fl eet . Dozens of companies
whose busi ness depended on shipping were also interested. So were tl1e
owners of newspapers, who realized (after some of Marconi's more spec-
tacular publicity stunts) that repo rters could use wireless transmitters to
communicate the news from distant places, places no t served by telegraph
Within five years, Marconi had become a very rich man and wireless
telegraphy had become a turn-of-the cenn1ry popular fad. Young people
wim technical interests were fascinated . They were enthralled by their abil -
ity to manipulate mysterious waves mat could be neither seen nor felt, yer
the equipment needed was not very expensive and the techniques lor us
ing (and repairing it) were fairly easy to learn. Amateur wircle.,., upctat ol'\
l>h'" itlli llhit llll' lld' with ,,1t11nl v.ud
,l\' 1111111\lt .ltiCIII\ d .Litlilll\ \\'\t l\ ('oll lt C>thot - 11\rl lollg dt.,I.IIIU'' VPhlllll'\'l
to \ ll1111ll011 dlll.lll\ ltt' mtv.hhm' .tllllt Mot \t.: lmk.
M.lllOilt , ' "" d.,shillt,. :.mhk11l ) both very .md H'l )'
wr.thhy, w.1s a lig1n r; m.tnv youn1; men tried to emul:ltc h1111 ,
WtH'k'' telegraphy"'' 1.k.ul) .1 growth industry, and the potenti.11 toi
Rh,ktllf. ,1 great deal o l mo ney had already been demonstrated. The app.l
ntu' th.n Marconi was ma.nufucturing had its limitations :.p.\lk
_..1' t r .msmitters, for example, were dangerous, and the larger they got, the
1\tt lilT the signal they sent out). By 1900, young men in all the industn
tllilnl wuntries, many wiili degrees in physics or electrical engineering,
\\'CIT t rving to beat Marconi at his mvn game-to invent a better receiver,
l.'lllll <Kt a better transmitter, improve the charact eristics of antennae. In
\'f!IIOI''> .. vere willing to back some of those young men in the hope tl1at they
nu.,ht be able to cat away at some of Marconi's share of the market and the
As a result, tl1e first control issues that reared tl1eir heads in the new
lrmury, in me newborn world of electronics, had to do v.ritl1 the control
ul p;ltents and, through the control of patents, the control of markets.
Wireless Telephony
Winlcss telegraphy \vas invented and commerciali zed by Europeans, but
Wtrclcss telephony was pioneered by Americans. Among the thousands of
)'llllllf!; men and women who became amateur wireless operators, there
wnc a few who realized mat the next teclmically interesting and commer
o.11ly exploitable frontier would be tl1e transmission not of Morse code, but
of l'l'nl sottnds: voices and music, not just dots and dashes.
One of mese young men was Reginald Fessenden. Fessenden had been
horn in Canada in 1866; after working for several years as a schoolteacher,
ht.: lud come to tl1e United States in 1886 and had succeeded in landing
tirst in one ofThomas Edison's manufacturing companies and, tl1en,
111 the laboratory of the great inventor. Fessenden stayed with Edison for
on I\ three years, but that was enough; he had apprenticed himself to the
world's foremost master of invention and development.
lly 1 900, the mechanism of the telephone, which converts sound
1111 0 electric currents, was already wel l-known. Fessenden reasoned by anal
ll!l.V wiili wireless telegraphy tl1at wi reless telephony could also be possible;
\ollnd waves could be converted into electromagnetic waves and then pro
wncd across tl1e at mosphere just as they could be sent across \\rircs. The
pr.llt ical problems involved were immense, but in theory, they were all
' "lvable. New kinds oft r:u,c;mitter'l .1nd receivers would be required. M.1r
,on I\ c;ucccss an 1o11, I who was then teaching ;11 the
l lnt\'crsity of hq:Xn t!Xt''IIIIH'IIIinF.
In 1901, 11 111;w kutd ul rnl'iwr, .1 htte1oJy1H rv
, dvu, whk h n11tld ti'IJ(JII;: II C)' ".1\ prod tin d by \
11.111\ nlll ln\ llttoln\\ lt C\(111' 11\. \"' \\' ,1\ 'l'h, tlu lo.111d th.lf dt.IJ'l"'E.IIIS n!.;
1111.111 in l"n" 11.l,n ttlll .1 p.111111 .tll.lllnlt IIlio h11,111r"
lw ,1\ 1hr l In llh "'lgn.tllulf. ( 'out
pany. Hy 1902, he lt,,d .\bo .1 htgh 'pcnl ,p,uk tt,lll\lllttlcr,
an alternator, that would sparks w Go..t th.11 the \\,l\C' it uc.tH:d
were almost continuous (voice transmission requires W:\Vl'\
Morse code transmission involves intermittent waves) and had contractnl
with the General Electric Company to bui ld it.
Fessenden's alternators had a greater range than Marconi 's spark SJP
transmitters, making them suitable for very long distance point-to-point
wireless telegraphic communications. The company built such a
station on the Atlantic shore, in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, hoping to con
tract with merchant shipping companies and the Navy. On Christmas Eve:
1906, wireless operators on ships hundreds of miles out at sea were star
tied to hear-instead of tl1e dots and dashes that they were accustomed
to--tl1e voice of a woman singing, tl1en a violin being played, then
being read from the Book of Luke. Using equipment that would omerwise
be sending Morse code, Fessenden had succeeded in sending the fi rst "ra
dio" messages.
Fessenden was unable, however, to interest very many people in his
system. His wireless telephonic signals were very weak, amplification was
difficult to achieve, and accurate tuning to tl1e transmission frequencies was
close to impossi ble. Point-to-point voice communication on land was han
dled by the telephone system, and those who wanted ship-to-shore com-
munications had already invested whatever capital t hey were going to in-
vest in communication in wireless telegraphy, which was adequate for most
commercial purposes. Altl1ough Fessenden continued to experiment witl1
voice transmission, much of his energy in tl1e next several years was devot -
ed to perfecting his alternator and selling it to organizations that wanted
telegraphy services; he was also embroiled in a patent dispute witl1 Lee De-
DeForest was, like Fessenden, a minister's son. He had been born in
Iowa, raised in Georgia, and educated at Yale, where he had earned a doc-
torate in physics in 1899-tlle same year in which Marconi had broached
tile American market. DeForest had written his dissertation on features of
high-frequency alternating currents. Chronically short of cash, he had tak-
en a series of unsatisfactory jobs after completing his degree, but he had
also been bitten by tl1e wireless bug and had started experimenting witll
improvements on receivers. Sometime in 1901, he made patent applica-
tions for a detecting device he called a responder; with this invention and
a small amount of capital contributed by friends, he attempted to go into
business-just as Fessenden had done-in competition wim Marconi. The
responder djdn 't work very well , but in his effort to garner publicity for his
new company, DeForest caught me attenti on of a stock promoter by tl1e
name of Abraham White. Before long, White had created a new company,
DeForest Wireless Telegraphy, and had brought it public with a $1 million
stock otlering; by 1904, the capitalization had leaped to $ 15 million rc
\lutf! \<\'ltitc'b !HIIihl pJ,\Iill!lh nttd tlu: J'UI'ttl.ll it y nl
trlr p,t .1ph)
hu<."H \Uddn1h lo,' \,1111(1 \'(1'\
ti.h; ltr 1111tld .tllord to hutld .tnd st.tll
tlw IK'' l.tbol.llOIIi' l;u .uult t.:\llll!,l, new pieces o l equipment.
.md his ,\\',1\ t,llll' 1.111 1 h, I was rcspon1.ible for re-
t(.udt .tnd dcvclupnKnt 111 'hon urder, however, Fessenden sued DeFor-
1!11 lor patent infring.cmcnt , \\,hen that suit was settled in Fessenden's favor
II\ 1906, White used it a!> a pretext to do something he had probably want-
''' 10 do for a long time: drive DeForest out of the company mat bore
hi' name. DeForest, men desperate to invent someming on which he
HIUid subsequently begin bui lding another wireless empire, invented and
l'llll't\led me audion.
The audion was a device based on a phenomenon discovered several
yurs earlier by Thomas Edison: if a light bulb contains a filament and a
plate, when an electric current is run through tile filament, the cur-
rent will pass to the metal plate and, if tl1e plate is attached to its own \vire,
P''' out of the bulb. Sometime in 1906, while searching me literature for
ntw ideas for detectors, DeFo rest had come across a paper published two
\'t'.lr:. earlier by John Ambrose Fleming, a physicist who was then working
for British Marconi. Fleming had discovered that when alternating current
applied to d1e filament of such a bulb, direct current would emerge
trom tile plate. Fleming's device was called a diode: it contained two elec-
trudcs, the filament and tile plate, with me very special property of being
.1hle to convert alternating to direct current.
DeForest immediately began experimenting \vim Fleming's device and
discovered that when a third element was added to the bulb-a small wire
l'orid mat could carry its own current-me bulb could operate as a very sen-
sttive wave detector, picking up fairly faint electromagnetic signals at any
and amplifYing them. By adding a mird element to tl1e bulb, De-
Forest had created a triode, but he called it an audion to sign.if)r mat it could
detect a continuous electromagnetic wave, me kinds of wave mat made
wireless telephony possible. The audion was, in short, me ancestor of aH
the vacuum rube technology on which, a decade later, radio broadcasting
would be based.
DeForest believed that mere might someday be a mass market for wire-
telephonic receivers-and therefore a mass market for his audions-
but he also understood that a good deal of developmental work was going
to have to be done before mar day would arrive. He frequently experi -
mented with voice transmissions-playing phonograph records into a mi
in his laboratory or trying to broadcast from t he stage or the
Opera I lome- but without much success; listeners just a fe\\
blocks away could b,\tdy tll.lkl' out wh.ll was being sung or played. Had he
hec:n able to dcvuh '"""'"'' I I uti\' 10 thl' necessary developmental wmk,
it 1:. possible 1h.1t 1 11ltn "' ,-,;lilo_' tto,t inp, \\ n11ld h;wc emerged bOOncr th.ln 11
du.l , but l)el ut l1111 C!ill lt I .d l,tlt' in ,\ pc:rii1HI\ \ lot'
wn:r,, I yc.11' .1ntl <:u 11 a ndrtl 1.-, r;'lt ,-.( llh :e11, 1111un In I t) I 2, '" IM 1 , ,, t t lti
hnHill n(hj, fut.llhl.d l11 "'ld rhr JMitlllllp.hh l111 rhr .nrdllllll iJ
A"l & 1', \\hll.h \\.llllnl to'"'' I hi\ llr\ 1 \,ldl\1111 lllhl .1111pltlrn 111 1111
prove long di\t.lllll' tcll' phorw su\ kc
While was ncglctting hb audion, 110meonc else cxpcn
menting with it. As :1 child, Edwin H. Armstrong had been a devoted am
ateur wireless operator; as a student in the engineering college ofColumb1.1
University, he decided to experiment with DeForest's remarkable amplifi
er for his senior thesis. Neither Fleming nor DeForest had been able to c\
plain why the diodes and triodes worked the way they did, but Armstront\
thought that the then new theory of electric currents-that they invohcd
the flow of negatively charged subatomic particles called electrons-might
be applicable. During 1912, in the course of his experiments,
discovered something remarkable: if the current coming off the plate of an
audion was fed back into the grid of the tube-nearing what was later
called a feedback, or regenerative, circuit-sow1ds could be even further
ampli fied, making it possible to dispense with earphones.
A few months later, still experimenting, Armstrong went one, very cru
cia! step further; he discovered that, under certain circumstances, regencr
ative circuits could transform vacuum rubes into transmitters of electro
magnetic waves. This was even more startling. During the first decade of
wireless telegraphy, spark-gap transmitters and alternators had been get
ti ng larger and larger in order to meet the commercial demand that elec
tronic messages be able to travel farther and farther. The state of the an
was the Alexanderson alternator, named for the engineer who had designed
and built it for the General Electric Company: a huge disc that tw-ned
20,000 times every minute (its outer rim reaching speeds of700 mi les per
hour) when supplied with 200 kilowatts of energy. Working away in his lab
oratory at Columbia in the winter of1913, Armstrong had discovered that
a handful of specially adapted light bulbs could do the same job as the
room-sized alternator.
Armstrong graduated from Columbia in June 1913. In the fall, he ap
plied for a patent on his regenerative amplifying circuit; in the winter, for
one on his transmitting circuit. Because he had failed to interest either
AT&T or the Marconi companies in his patents, Armstrong sold the rights
to his regenerative circuit, for the then-munificent sum of$100 a month,
to the Telefunken Company of Germany. In the fal l ofl914, World War l
had started. The British had cut the telegraph cables that linked Germany
with the United States; wireless was goi ng to have to be used instead. Tete
funken needed the best amplifiers it could find.
World War I raged for two and a half years (between August 1914 and
April 1917) before the United States entered it on the side of the Allies.
During those two and a half years, it became clear to virtually everyone in
valved in the communications industry that after the war wireless telcpho
ny based on vacuum tube technology was going to become both feasible
and profitable. A mass m:trket for radio receivers, simple and durable in
strumenrs that people could use in their was likely tu dc\(:lnp. But
*h' ' \\ tllild 1'\ .1p irtilll llti!l I'"IIJIIIi,d 111.11krt \\o11tld II hl llrtll'h
Alld .\lltl'm,tll t-.1,11,111ri \\lrr 1h1 1''11 "' ' o11 l'lcnllllj;'., drodc, but
.-hnw pruhrp.ll hm1111 ,., wudr:ss would be if radio
bt' .tmt: popul.\r? ( )r \I 1', ''It"'"' nt:d the p.ttcnt1> on DeForest's audion,
'"" ''hose principal tdcphonc :.crvice, might also be diminished?
1'klore'>t, who had the patent rights to his audion, but who was legal-
It l'll tllled to manufacrure it? Telefun.ken, who owned the rights to there-
circuit on which radio amplification would be based? Arm-
tl fllllt!. , who owned the patent on the transmitting ci rcuit, but who would
.thlc to exploit it only if Telefunken chose not to interfere?
l'or the duration of the war, none of these questions could be answered.
Nuucthelcss, in anticipation of the war's end and in an effort to control the
1\'llltu marketplace-which had not at that point been either clearly defined
r mc.1sured-all the potential recipients of the postwar radio profits had
fUn I patent suits against each other. In April 1917, when the United States
dcd.trcd war on Germany and Austria, neither the outcome of the war nor
tlw outcome of those suits could have been easily predicted.
Government Regulation of Wireless Communication
In April1912, a luxury ocean liner, the TitMtic, making its maiden voyage,
hn .111 iceberg in the north Atlantic and sank. The wireless operator on the
'litmtic sent out wireless distress signals, which were picked up by anotl1-
cr twenty-five miles away, and this ship changed course in an effort
to rescue passengers. (In part because several other nearby ships had closed
,luwn their wireless receivers for tl1e night, about half tl1e passengers
drowned.) The news of the Titanic disaster reached American newspapers
lw wireless telegraphy (having been transmitted to New York by a Marconi
tll.ation in Newfoundland), and anxious relatives of the passengers began
trying to radio tl1c rescue vessel to get a list of survivors, using any trans-
nutter, amateur or commercial, that they could locate. Ship-to-shore com-
lllllnications became chaotic; every passing hour brought more false good
mws, false bad news, and totally incomprehensible news. Within days,
journalists began demanding government regulation of wireless commu-
llllJtion; within a week, Congress began taking testimony.
l'he Radio Licensing Act of 1912 was intended to cope with what then
!lt'''nled to be a pressing problem: the frequency spectrum was becoming
dunered witl1 electromagnetic signals, some of which were interfering witl1
r.t\.h other, some of which were so close together that receivers could not
lw properly tuned. Thousands of amateur operators, hundreds of com-
llll.'l cia I and de liens of governmental, educational, and military
\l.lltOil!. were all \Cilll illp The American Navy in pruticular was
hl' llll1ling dtJ'\ 11drt11 1111 winlcss telegraphy and increasingly
,oulctncd aboul lllll:tn:rJIIIl '''"' .11 111 ofit'> messages; in one
'"t , .1111.111 "'" :;,11d to h.wc sent 1:1k.c order<, to
11.1\.ll H "'"' ,\1 <,,;;,
lllr lt11lu A1 1 ul IJ I) fi'Jllllnl lllolt .111\'llllr willt ')Jilijl
mc.:nt lu fl.tvt .1 litl'tr'r 1\\llcd hy !Itt Bll\'l'l lllltntl .tnd tlt,n .1111
one wishing to be,, trolll\11 11.')\ton upe1.ttur h,td ,,, h,\\C ,In l\,lllllllr
tion set by the government. ln is'iuing liccn\e\, Cnngrt!>l> abo g<t\l' tlu.
government (through d1c Secretary of Commerce nnd 1 ... 1bor) the tl
assign a particular frequency and particular time limits fc:>r ''
the licensee; in addition, the licensee was given an identifYing caJJ nutulo.,
that had to be used on all transmissions. The frequency spectnuu 11 r
carved up by function. CommerciaJ transmitters got one range of ft
quencies; the goverrunent got anod1er; amateurs were left, quite litcJ.dlt
with the short end of the stick: short waves of200 meters or less,
sidered the useless part of the spectrum. Amateurs could listen in on '"''
frequency, but transmit on only a few-and heavy fines were exacted f<lt 11
responsible transmission or transmissions that trespassed on ,rl
lotted to others.
With this act, d1e United States government asserted its right to contnrl
the airwaves-in much the same way that it had earlier asserted its righ1 t
control the railroad rights-of-way and the shipping lanes-in the name ul
public safety; the radio spectrum was understood to be the common prop
erty of all the citizens of the United States and therefore under the jun,
diction of the federal government. Licensees would have ilie same kinds nl
property rights iliat renters do: exclusive use of ilie frequencies they llild
been assigned without the ability to buy and sell that aJlocation on ilie op, 11
market. The government would retain control over allocations and O\ lt
the criteria by which allocations would be made, but not over the contCIII
of transmissions (except for ilie very restricted right to punish people whr
sent faJse emergency signaJs or who trespassed on someone else's lrt
Amateur operators were not happy with the Radio Act of 1912; they '"
gued iliat its provisions compromised d1ci.r right to free speech. Their .11
guments, however, fell on deaf congressional ears; even newspaper
and editors, usually avid proponents of free speech, had become dependent
on the wireless news services in the previous decade, and d1ey were per
fecdy delighted to have the amateurs-who occasionally interfered with
commerciaJ transmissions-sequestered in a remote corner of rlle spec
trum. The government was not proposing to regulate the contentoftran11
missions, most members of the public did not depend on the airwaves as .1
source of information, nor did they use Morse code to communicate. Pub
lie opinion, insofar as iliere was any on this rather arcane issue, sided
ilie government; the amateur operators had no recourse.
Another provision of the act allowed the government to commandeer
privately owned transmission and receiving facilities in the event of a 11,1
tiona! emergency, and shortly after the declaration of war in 19 L4, that was
precisely what the government began to do. The United States was inilial
ly a neutraJ party to d1e conflict, but many people in the
sumed iliat it would only be a matt er of time bclcm rht llnlltd <;,,,,,.,
1ul.t hr dr.t\\11 Ill!(> tl11 ll,w, .,,, 1111\' \idt "' I he othc1, \\llldl lliC,tlll th.u
"'''}' ' 1\l,tlln nl 111111: hdn1 "in In' cqluplllun W;\S gwng. to be in
\' ,Jtw t 'upply. In I'J l t It ordered the end to the dozens
nil 'ui ts that were huhhllf!. up tin: manufacturing of various electronic
tponcnts. A patent puol c:rc.\teJ for the duration of the conflict, al-
'11- any company with adequate facilities to manufacture anything iliat
KCI\'crnmcnt needed. The Navy began to exercise its right to control
llting stations and frequency aJlocations. All amateurs were ordered
I ht Jir; their transmitters were to be seaJed shut for the duration. In ad-
.tllclll, all privately owned transmitting stations on the coasts (many of
h belonged to American Marconi ) were commandeered for govern- use.
l'hs last was a very sensitive matter. American Marconi vas a subsidiary
" Bri tish firm. The consequences of having American wireless capacity
ni and d1erefore controlled by a foreign nation were very worrisome
during wartime. How could America pretend to be neutraJ if its ability to
'nmmunicate with all combatants was compromised by ilie British owners
Ul'lh transmitting stations? What would happen if (and during the ftrst year
or \ll of the war, iliis seemed a possibility) me United States joined com-
b"' on the side of the Germans? American Marconi had been the first com-
PUW to broach tl1e American market, and in 1914 it still controlled a very,_c share of the market and was still the single largest government con-
U'lu:tor for wireless goods and services. Various American companies, most
l'olrllcularly AT&T, had long been pressuring federal officials to support
the American competitors of Marconi-and now ilie advent of war was
demonstrating, iliey tl1ought, the wisdom ofiliat pressure. Between 1914
nLI 1916, the government began to shift some of its contracts to Ameri-
can tinns; it aJso began to take control, in effect to nationalize, aJI of Amer-
Marconi's transmitting and receiving stations.
During ilie last months of1916, as it became clear mat the United States
going to enter the war as an ally of ilie British and the French, it aJso
htc,une clear that American radio manufacturing would accelerate. Wire-
k"" telegraphy had become crucial to military strategy on land as well as at
k'.l: orders could be relayed quickly to the front by wireless; reports on
troop movements could be relayed to command posts many miles distant
hv wireless. The American Expeditionary Force (as it was called) was go-
Ill!!. to need wireless equipment: millions of vacuum tubes, d1ousands of
mnbi.le spark-gap transmitters, huge numbers of receivers and earphones.
I )cucns of companies vied for wartime contracts: GeneraJ ELectric and
.. tinghouse, for example, converted some of their lightbulb factories to
\'.IL\Illm tube factories; Western Electric, ilie manufacturing subsidiary of
AT&T, began to manufacture receivers. Thousands of young men and
women who had been l';tdio ,1n1;Heurs responded to d1e government's call:
the.: women stalled rmitltnr hnol., for new recruits; the men went right
it11 o milit.try It I \ I '11 , 1 hl't't' were 979 Navy radiomen; by
''"''1\l rn J):''. N<kloliltcr 1 I , I '.11 tl1111 \H'I'l' (),700
l\1'11 \1 IIIII thl \\.II \\.\'.II\ I 1. il \\,, .. II\ .II'"' ' I hi 111,11111111 IIIII' (II Will It
l'l.l'lll'lllllll htt lllllif .ll\ I'IIII'IIW\ \\llllld \111\llllltl lllt>lll .lhlt Ill
ll.:rpn,c. )cn:l.d \CI) pn\\CIIIIIIliUI ddCI'Illllll' d Ill WI' to it tll'llltt
transmbston nor m.mul:,uurt \\llllld rttutn to the prn\ .11 quo 111
which the airwaves could be more or less freely used by Jll)'Onc ,1nd in'' I wit
both point-to-point transrnission and the rna.nufncturc of' cquipmel\l I It tl
made it possible would be dominated by companies owned by foreigm ,.
A tew weeks after the Treaty ofVersai lles was signed, hearings were hd.l
in Congress on a bill sponsored by the Navy Department that wouh.J lb'''
the federal government a monopoly over radio transmission. Proponc111
argued that the successes of the war years would not have been possibk tl
the government had not brought order to what had previously been a com
petitive free-for-aiL Opponents were convinced, as one congressman pill
it, that "[h]aving just won a fight against autocracy, we would start an
tocratic movement with this bill."
All over Europe, governments were
ing precisely such autocratic control over the airwaves, but in the
States, the bill was tabled. The Navy Department was not, however, ca\11)
deflected; if it could not have its own monopoly, it could at least try 111
guarantee that American radio transmission and manufacturing capabilittc
would be wholly controlled by Americans.
Something had to be done with the vast Marconi facilities for transmit
ting and receiving that had been commandeered by the govenunent dur
ing the war. Would they be returned to American Marconi, a subsidiary of
a British company? Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, Commandet
S. C. Hooper, the Navy officer in charge of radio operations, and Owc.:n
D. Young, president of General Electric, quickly came up with a different
plan: a new company would be chartered, which could only have United
States citizens as its directors and officers; only 20 percent of its stock
would belong to foreigners. A representative of the government would sit
on the board of directors. American M.trconi would transfer all of its
to this new company. Individual investors in American Marconi would re
ceive shares of the new company's stock. General Electric would
the shares owned by British Marconi.
The officers of American Marconi had been made an offer they couldn' t
refi.tse. In February 1919, with the tacit approval of the president of the
United States, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was born-hold
ing almost complete control of all international and ship-to-shore wireless
telegraphic facil ities in the United States.
But that was not all. Within months, RCA had entered into cross
licensing agreements (in exchange for shares of its stock) with almost all
the large companies that held crucial patents for wireless telegraphy and
telephony. DeForest and Armstrong would be, henceforth, very rich men,
and although their personal enmity led each to sue the other multiple times
(two of their suits were carried as tar as the Supreme Court), none of their
suits interfered \\ith the manufacture of the components and circuits that
they had patented. Telefunken' s American patent portfolio had been sci ted
IW 1111 .\ltut l't11)1lfl\ t ll'lniLIIt ill 'nld 111 \;tllll
lot \\ltl\ltttu;:uttllt.ll 11 hn.\11\( p.ttl olthcpoltloltollhl\
tU :\ lOIII d l\ll ltml 1 .nh p.11l\ tnthr l{t .t\ ,\greed to
tlu ulltl'l I'" tic'>' tkt'tnnl 'l'lwn'i ul RCA woultlnot compete
\\ uh i\T&T on long, t h \ t.lllt.l tdcphuny; AT&T would not step on RCA' s
tttt' "it h rcg:.lrd to inlcrl\..11 ion.\ I wireless transmission; Western Electric (a
of AT&T) and <JE would each specialize, without competition
llutll the Olhers, in the manufacture of specified radio components. If not
11 .,,un:rnmental monopoly, Daniels, Hooper, and Young assumed that
Atmril:.U1 wireless would at least be a set of interlocking private monopo-
much easier for the government to control if control should, for
\\ h.ltcver reason, become necessary.
Wu-eless Broadcastinlr. Radio
A' clever as they were, the men who created RCA did not anticipate the
of the mass market that radio broadcasting would very shortly
\tl'Jte. On the night that the Titanic sank, one of tl1e wireless telegraphic
upcrators who worked round the clock to relay messages for American
M.wconi was a young Russian- Jewish in11nigrant, David Sarnoff. By 1917,
S.unoff had worked his way up through the ranks to become the com-
mercial manager of American Marconi, responsible for the maintenance
.mtl expansion of its services to businesses. Two years l:lter, he was the com-
mercial manager of RCA, and two years after tl1at, he was promoted to gen-
tral manager.
Like Fessenden, DeForest, Armstrong, and several dozen others, Sarnoff
had imagined tl1e possibilities of a mass market for wireless telephonic
broadcasting-what we now call radio. In the fall ofl9l6, he had prepared
' memorandum for the president of American Marconi in which he envi-
"a plan of development which would make radio a ' household util-
aty' in the same sense as the piano or phonograph." Recent impro\'emcnts
tn radio equipment, Sarnoff thought, would make such a scheme entirely
(A] radio telephone uansmitter having a range of, say, 25 to 50 miles can be in-
staUed at a tlxed point where the insuumcntal or vocal music or both arc pro-
duced . ... The receiver can be designed in the form of a simple "Radio Music
Box" and arranged for several different wave lengths, which should be change-
able with the throwing of a single switch or pressing of a single button.
Sarnoff im.1gined that ;nost of the profits from developing radio tele-
phony as a household utility would come from manufacturing and selling
the radio music 1\ut, he guessed, if the broadcasts carried something
other than tntl'k t lit puttnfl.ll m.1rkct would be even greater:
Events ul' aMtl""'l IIIII"'' t ,tll_t1 ( i lll ,, tmult.li1COusly ,,nno11nccd .md received.
"J'cb.\11 , 111 lu: t i',llt \ 111111 ht t It .111 l>v the u-.e ol une at the
Polo til" Nrw \ '11k 1.11111' pl ,,yedl The
1\llllld Itt IIIII' 111111hn <lllo , 1\<Jtil.l It o Cli i!C(;i .lll y I"
l.llllll'r' ,111d Othl'l\ )1\'lll!l lll llllll)illH dl\llld l<tllu\ld ftlllll l'it k!l . lly tlh; J'lll
d1.1\c of.1 .. ,,,dio Mu\lt Bu\ "t hl' \ ,oitld

Sarnoff hoped that when the war was over American M,m:oni would ht
gin to manufacture simple, durable receivers adapted for home usc. Un
fortunately, after 1918, the complications of setting RCA up in
left him little time to devote to the project. Others, elsewhere, howcH
were quicker to the punch.
In the last months of the war, Edwin Armstrong had invented a supct
heterodyne circuit, eight vacuum tubes that, when suitably modified and
wired together in precisely the right way, could function as receiver, tunu
and amplifier all in one: a radio. The Westinghouse Corporation purchasnl
the manufacturing rights under Armstrong's patent in 1920.
house, one of the country's major electrical manufacturers and innovator,,
had not been included in the RCA consortium.
In the immediate postwar years, radio amateurs all over the country wc1
using vacuum rubes to build transmission facilities in sheds, garages, and
attics. In Madison, Wisconsin, a professor and his students were broad
casting weather bulletins and phonograph music from a laboratory at tht
w1iversity; in Hollywood, an electrical engineer built a five-watt transmit
ter in his bedroom; in Charlotte, North Carolina, an electrical contractm
built a transmitter using parts that he had acquired while doing war
for General Elecnic; in Detroit, a newspaper publisher who had set up .1
transmitter in his office used it to broadcast primary election returns. All
the people assumed that od1er amateur radio buffs would receive d1c11'
Initially that was also the assumption made by Frank Conrad, who
worked for Westinghouse at its headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Conrad had been an amateur operator before the war; during the war, he
had been in charge of Westinghouse's radio production facilities. In 1919,
using vacuum tubes, he had built a transmitter over his garage and had used
it to broadcast phonograph concerrs and conversation; because he had ac
cess to the best vacuum tubes, his transmissions could be heard clearly for
miles around. Sometime in 1920, wid1 the help of his sons, he began
broadcasting concerts from his home.
A deparnnent store in Pittsburgh, the Joseph Horne Company, had in
stalled a receiving station on its premises so as to promote the sale of what
it called amateur wireless sets. On September 29, 1920, the store ran a
newspaper advertisement:
Victrola music, played into the air over a wireless telephone, was "picked up" by
listeners on the wireless receiving station which was recemly installed here for
patrons interested in wireless experiments .... The music was from a Victrola ["
record player] pulled up close to the Lransmittcr of a wireless telephone in the
home of Frank Conrad ... . Mr. Conrad a wireless enthmi.l\l and "put\ on"
tht: \\lldl"' lllll(t; ll!i ll('f\lhiiUih' hoi' thi' t' llhllllltlll'to!lll 111'lhl:

1"'"1'1' Ill
tlt,tm I \\lin It l\1_
tl1.1t (1111\liii\CI'\ purdl.l\C I C ,\l\V 11\.Hk

l'hr ,\II wt:l\l on It
"'!i I 0.00 .1nd up ''
< )n September day .11ter the Horne advertisement .1ppcarcd, a
exe..:. utivc, llarry Davis, asked Conrad if he could butkl '
tr.ul'>l11ittcr at corporate headquarters that could be finished in time lU
broadcast election results on November 2. The deparnncnt store ad,cr
''"ctnent had given Davis an idea: if there were voice transmissions that
,.,,.,youe might be interested in receiving, d1en the potential market for re
(c:ivcrs d1at Westinghouse could manufacture under the Armstrong patents
would be not just amateur operators but, potentially, every American. If it
(ould conquer that mass market, Westinghouse's star might just eclipse
Construction began on a shack and a 100-watt transmitter on the roof
nf one of Westinghouse's factory buildings in East Pittsburgh. An applica-
tion was filed with the U.S. Department of Commerce (as required by d1c
R.ldio Act of 1912), and on October 27, the call letters KDKA were as
A local newspaper agreed to relay election returns from its teletype
n1.Khine to the shack by telephone. On November 2, Warren G. Harding' s
defeat ofJames M. Cox became the very first radio newsflash, and radio
broadcasting was born-wid1 the Westinghouse Corporation as its mid
The idea was contagious. Within weeks after the election, Westinghouse
huilt another transmitter atop its plant in Newark, New Jersey, and began
broadcasting play-by-play descriptions of baseball games. A few months
later, Westinghouse was also broadcasting in Chicago. In od1cr cities, am
,\leurs began building transmitting stations for local businesses: depart
m..:nt stores were building stations because the performers who came w
broadcast attracted crowds; newspapers were building stations because
pnnting the news and entertainment schedule helped to sell more news
p.1pers; colleges and universities were building stations to provide home
b.1sed education; some entrepreneurs were building stations so as to broad
l.l'>l information about their products between concerts and lectures.
ln the first half of 1921, the Deparnnent of Commerce issued five new
licenses for radio transmission; in d1e second half, rwenty-three; by Febru
.uy 1922, it was issuing twenty-four licenses a month; by Juty, that figure
lud trebled. Al1d atl over the country, amateurs were buying parts for ra
lh<> receivers and putting them together for sale to friends and family; some
nit hose amateurs were even going into d1e business of assembling and sell
radios to the public. Sales of radio sets and parts for radio sets mush
j "'>n><d' $60 million in 1922; S 136 million in 1923. RCA and its alii had
hccn tntnlpcJ. One prominent GE executive, writing his memoirs a few
\l.trll \atct, rc:n1.11kl'd that he was "amazed at our blindness ... We had
ll11 uk,l '"
The men in this picture were members of the firM generation of broadcast radio
engineers. They are preparing the equipment to broadcast a public evenr, possiblr
the Dempsey-Carpenticr prize fight ( l 921 ), which was received by over 300,000
people, the largest radio audience up ro that time and a landmark in the popular
acceptance of radio broadcasting. ( Courresy Da,id Sarnoff Research Center.)
Mter framic negotiations, Westinghouse was brought into the RCA con-
sortium in the spring of 1921; in exchange for 20 percent of the stock in
RCA, Westinghouse agreed to put its patents- most especially the Arm-
strong superheterodyne patent- into the common pool. But even that
move did not stop the proliferation across the country of new transmitting
stations and new radio manuf.1cturers; the country's appetite for radio
seemed, at least for the moment, insatiable. Under the RCA agreements,
the sole of transmission equipment was supposed to be West-
ern Electric, a subsidiary of AT&T, but the amateurs who were building
stations all across the country did not know that- had they known it, they
probably would not have cared. Controlling the radio market- now tl1at
broadcasting had become considerably more popular t11an point-to-point
communications-was going to be a good deal more difficult d1an tl1e
founders of RCA had predicted just tlu-ee years earlier.
As the cost of broadcasting began to escalate, the parties to the RCA
agreements began to step on each other's toes. In the first , halcyon years
of radio, performers had tlocked to radio studios; for and pianists
and opera stars and politicians, the free publicity was sutlicient inducement .
1\111 .t (l\1 .1 11 d tot tlllttp 1111 n1 1\H lilY hnuP. nl .Itt lttm
ho lltt Vht '>l.\1 t 10 kc:lth.u '>lit '' h /\Iter hc.lllng of
!I' nmd., pi.I)'Cd two lillie' .tnd rc:1li.ting tl1at its retail market
\\," bnng undercut-a record company might begin to press for royalties.
C and lyricists began to think that tl1ey, too, were entided to some
I'" tilt' Ill when their works were performed repeatedly. And when volun-
ft' o' l l.tbor would no longer suffice, station managers began to have to pay
10 the people who read the news and the weather or reported on
l."t' b,tll games.
Who was going to pay all d1ese expenses? Westinghouse had originally
,1\\tt tncd that it would underwrite the expenses ofKDKA and its other sta-
111111'> in order to induce householders to buy its radio sets, but that as-
tllnption began to look worrisome as tl1e costs of broadcasting began to
lllu'casc. At RCA, Sarnoff proposed that perhaps it would be a good idea
111 .Hid a small "ta.x" to the price of every vacuum tube, putting the mon-
,., that RCA would collect into a pool from which stations coLLid pay per-
lurrncrs. But early in 1922, someone at AT&T came up witl1 a different
ldta, which would develop into what we have come to understand as com-
lltt'l'cial broadcasting: why not sell airtime:? Why not create, by analogy with
1 he telephones, tolls for broadcasti ng?
In early August 1922, AT&T's station, WEAF, began broadcasting from
.uop one of its buildings in New York City. On August 28 at 5 P.J\1., it
hroadcast its first income-producing program-a ten-minute "message"
dtscribing tl1e advantages of cooperative apartments tor sale in Queens-
.utd the radio commercial was born, with the phone company as its mid-
wtfe. By 1924, WEAF was starting to become profitable, and AT&T be-
to think about creating other toll stations in od1er cities, linking them
1oged1er with its phone lines, thereby creating an opportunity to sell air-
l nne, not in just one locale, but all over tile coun try.
When the officers of AT&T began toting up the potential profits from
'>liCh a network, they also began to wonder why they were letting other sta-
tions use their phone lines for long-distance transmission of signals (for ex-
.unplc, when a radio station broadcast a speech at a political convention, it
was using phone lines to transmit d1e speech to its studio; live performances
of operas or play-by-play descriptions of sporting events ''ere all being
transmitted the same way). Why should it make its faci lities available to its
competitors? AT&T wondered. And since some of its competitors were its
p.lrtners in the RCA agreements, why should it remain a party to tlwse
,,greements? And ifit ceased to be a member of the RCA consortium, then
wuldn' t its sub\idi,\ry, Western Electric, begin competi ng in t11e lucrative
market for the ol'hnusehold radios?
At the very 'l;lntc 111111 1 lt .t t \'I'& I' was beginning to renegotiate it!. :l{!.l'cc
mcnts, the Pcdn .d I ""lr:: Cotllllttt ,\ttlt1, '' hich had received several t:om
pl.lints fi-nn1 1 .to lu.' llltllid[l.; t "" '' hq.1,.1n an anlllrU\l nl
llltlll' 11\l' IHi wl :. ,,j'tl11 .. niuil1, H,.(!J\ , j11'1 fr,m yt:.11'\ .tficr it\
w,,, ,,,.v,, tl '"ll wn tudn; . r t 'ttl i.l AT&T, '""ll
nltn pull ottl .tnd flu 11ltidt h.ultniti.tlh \ltho111nl llw ,-!l
.111011 of R< .A,nuw 11111kr .1 drllnl' tll .tdfllllll\l l .llllllt .111d lw dtlktt 111 1c. i
sons wanted w bn:.1k 11 up.
Young and SarnotT were, however, brilliant ncgoti.IIOI\. l'h<.:u "1lutlt II
to one of these problems was to set the pauern of.'>c><.: control of 11111..
(and subsequently television) broadcasti ng for at least the nc\t fill y ycu
A new company would be created; ownership would be shared by R< \
GE, and Westinghouse. It would own all the broadcasting statiom ol .111
the consortium participants, as weU as any otl1ers tl1at it chose to buy
sequently. AT&T would lease phone lines to this company as necdnl
whether to permit live, off-site transmissions or to link the stations in (1111
or several , networks. The stations would have to generate revenue by \lll
ing airtime to advertisers. In January 1926, the first media network, lin
National Broadcasting Company (NBC), was born.
A year later, Congress, which had been again under considerable pn.,
sure to create some order in the airwaves, passed the Radio Act of 192
reaffirming some of the principles of the Radio Act of 1912, specity111!\
some of the powers of the Secretary of Commerce with regard to broad
casting (broadcasting of voice transmissions had not even been considend
as a possibility fifteen years earlier), and creating a regulatory body, the Fed
era! Radio Commission, tl1e FRC (later the Federal Communication\
Commission, the FCC) to enforce ilie law. The fundamental
ofl912 remained intact: frequency channels could be used but not owned,
licenses to use the channels for limited periods would be granted by the
FRC. But more tl1an just public safety was to guide tl1e hand of tl1e l1
censing commission; "ilie public interest, convenience or necessity" had to
be taken into account. Finally, in an effort to protect the country against
concentrations of communications power, no organization was to be giv
en a license if it had been fmmd guilty of violating the antitrust laws. RCA
had no trouble understanding the content of that message; it proceeded to
drop its infiingement suits and began licensing some of its competitors in
return for a royalty based on sales; its effort to control the manufacture of
radios had fu.iled .
That same year, Artl1ur Judson, who made his living as a manager of con-
cert artists, George A. Coats, a business promoter, and ] . Andrew White,
a sports broadcaster, decided to go into business as a performance network,
creating and producing radio shows that would be transmitted only to
those stations iliat had contracted to be part of ilie nenvork. They called
themselves United Independent Broadcasters-a direct antimonopoly at-
tack on NBC. Within a year, short of cash, they sold their company to a
family that had become rich in the cigar business; the company ilicn ac
quired botll a new name, the Columbia Broadcasti ng System (CBS), and
a new president, Wil liam Paley. Sarnoff may not have immcdi::nely rcali.tcd
it, but he had met his match. The government had seen to itth.u RCA \1 ,1\
not going to control the manufacture of radio now C' BS was ru
to 11 th.ll NIH wlutlly i_i\\ncd RCk\ , 11111 WliiiP In
'UIIIt:nt ol bro,tdl..l\1 1ilg t:ith Ct
l' lll tn.: hi story of clcctromc communications follows the patterns es-
.. hl"hcd in the early decades of the nvenriem century in the history of ra-
dlc> r here are many surprises for individuals and organizations that think
tlll'y remain in control of the business of communications. ] ust when
en inn:ntor, after years of painstaking work, would begin to count his roy-
ahin in the millions of do !Jars, along came anomer inventor with a patent
f)ll ,I fl eW, slightly better device, Stealing his munder and his plans for fu-
tUfl' wca.Jm. Or just when a company, after years of complex maneuvering,
wuuld begin to exert almost complete control over some marketplace,
ah lilA carne another company with a new idea to compete for market share.
Control of electronic industries-by individuals, by companies, even by
crnments- has been from tl1e very beginning evanescent, transitory,
tllcring. Individuals and companies have had tl1eir moment in the stm, but
C'\'l'lllllally mey ha\e all lost monopolistic control of the market mat had
umc proven so profitable.
In the early day of broadcast radio, many people tl1ought mat it would
he: the ultimate mode of human communication and that it would revolu-
tionize relations between individuals and between nations. "Messenger of
and love .. . consoler of tl1e lonely . _ . promoter of mutual ac-
lJII.lintance, of peace and good will among men and nations," one radio
engineer wrote; " . . . tl1e whisper that leaps tl1e hemisphere . - . me wis-
dom of the ages revived in a single breath," remarked another."
Yet even
they wrote, several ingenious men were already attempting to create a
mmmunications medium tl1at mey knew would be, to put me matter un-
p.rammaticalJy, even more ultimate.
Visible light is composed of electromagnetic waves that arc shorter in
kngth and higher in frequency than radio waves or electric current. By
I '.>20, electrical experts in several countries were experimenting wim vari-
ous ways to translate images into electromagnetic signals that could be car-
ned through wires or projected into the atmosphere. One of mese exper-
uncnters was Ernst Alexanderson, the engineer who had designed and built
rhc mammotl1 alternators for General Electric. Alexanderson's experimen- device was a revolving disk punched wim a spiral pattern of small holes,
lhrough which a light beam was directed; he hoped mat this device would
he able to digiti ze images (turn them into a pattern of tiny dark and light
\pOts) SO mat mey could be translated into electric signals by a anomer
dc\icc called a photoelectric cell. Another experimenter, who worked
ftlr General Electric's chief competitor, Westinghouse, was Vladymir
/.worykin, who, as a tormer Russian Army officer, had specialized in wire-
tclcg.raphy. [n l920, Westinghouse gave Zworykin permission to be-
)!,Ill dl\l'lctping,lll .lll 1l n tronl, 'lllllll'l llli ldr.l Jut o 111h . 1 lt,ul
.tbo Ol'( lfl r'ld 10 l' lulo I 1,11 h, ,1 dl'\ otnl t.tdio .lfllol tnu \\ hn, \\ III Io
he was still a .,dwol II\ ld.tltu In the i!a tly I tJ)(h, had h1 !{II II
to experi ment with cathode ray tubes. Until th<.: n, h.1d hrc"
used principally in scientific labortltOrics to demonstrate lhe bchavitH ul
A cathode-ray tube is a special kind of lightbuJb (:m evacuated p.l.t ..
chamber) that has a filament (an emitter of clect:rons) at one end; the otlt
er end is painted with a fluorescent chemical so that when currcm is .qt
plied to the filament the pattern made by the stream of electrons c:.111 l11
discerned by looking at the surface of the buJb. Both Farnswor th .uul
Zworykin believed that if that pattern could be controll ed, could be nt.llh
to correspond to a generating image, then these tubes wouJd work bell( t
than mechanical scanners (such as Alexanderson 's revolving disc) to Ll1\lh
late photographs into electricity. Farnsword1 and Zworykin turned out tu
be right.
The developmental work on bod1 television systems (mechanical and
electronic) was difficult, tedious, and expensive, but by d1e latter part <>I
d1e 1920s, both Farnsword1 and Zworykin had acquired patents and
Alexanderson was conducting daily test broadcasts. TelCTJision, the very fir\1
periodi cal devoted to analysis of t he new medium, began publication ill
1927; Alexaoderson broadcast the first televised melodrama on Septembl.' t
11, 1928.
Thus, when broadcast radio was sti ll in its adolescence, ilie bandwritillij
was already on the wall-or rather d1e images were already in the air. The
Radio Act of 1927 defined "radio" as "any intell igence, message, signal,
power, picture or communication of any nature transferred by electrical en
ergy from one point to anod1er without the aid of any wire connectin g the
points." The word "picture" was included in dlis definition because know!
edgeable people understood that what had already come to be called tclc
vision was soon going to be feasi ble. The medium that would supplant ra
dio at t he forefront of communications had already been born, and like the
first radio network, it had been born wiili a silver spoon of powerful cor
porate backing already in its mouth.
The commercialization of television was delayed first by the Depression
and ilien by World War II, but what ingenious men had suspected in the
1920s was clear by the 1950s: television had supplanted radio as the n:1
tion 's prime means of commw1ication, just as radio had earlier supplanted
the newspapers, the telegraph, and wireless telegraphy. Television had ex
traordinary popular appeal, and it spread rapidly throughout the country,
encouraged by the general expansion of the American economy after World
War II: 8,000 American households had television sets in 1946; 45.7 mil
lion had them by 1960--just fourteen years later. Paeans to the new mcdi
um were cast virtuall y in the same terms with which some people just
a few decades earl ier, extoll ed the virtues of radio: " the flrsr truly
medi um or extension of man" according ro one commcnr.uor.6
h\ 1'1/ 0 lu 11.1oh.1.1 t( ln i!.i"" t whi.-11 lud \ltln.dh
tl11 till j\fl\lllll' l\VII Ill hy )'Cl ,\1\0llll'l' Ill:\\
flll'hlllll , polc1111.111v h11 th ltlttr lk\t hk .tnd more global : cable television.
In tIll' IW):!,IIII\ing. lhl' ll'lllllulnp,y ur Lthk \\ ... !>not revolutionary; the injtial
(one WJ., .tlr l',Hiy in pl.1cc in 1949) used wires (botmd t o-
jll' thl'l rnt<> cables, hence the name) to tr:msrnit television signals into d1e
that, for one reason or another (intervening mountai ns or very tall
or very great distances), could not receive broadcast signals clear-
l\' Broadcast programs ""ere received at the studios of the cable company
1 \IIIIIC:limcs over telepho ne lines, sometimes through antennae) and were
1hn1 rc:translated into signals that went out along the cables to subscribers.
t )ti (C a suffi cient number of customers had become reguJar subscribers, the
lolhk companies invested funds in producing some of ilieir own local pro-
w.uns io their own local studios, but in general most of the material d1at
,,11111: over t he cables in the early years was produced by one of the televi-
' 'nn networks.
In 1965, however, the first communications satellite was put in orbit (see
t h.1ptcr ll ), and iliat changed bod1 t he technology and d1e potential of
l.thk television. Communications satellites contain electronic devices
r l.tllcd transponders) d1at amplifY and transmit elect romagnetic signals.
1\c:(ause the satellites are located high above the earth's surface and because
their orbits are synchronous with the eard1's rotation, communications
,,l tcllites can receive and transmit signals from and to virtually anyplace on
the surface of the globe: connecting a production studio in Texas, let us
,,1y, \vith a receiving antenna in Cairo, or vice versa. The first several satel-
lites were consnucted and rocketed into orbit by lntelstat (the lnterna-
ttonal Space Communications Consortium); 60 percent ofd1c shar es in In-
tdstat belonged to COMSAT, an American corporation which-like
RCA-had been created by Congress as a profit -making, investor-owned
business, belonging equally to four American corporations (AT&T, ITI,
RCA, and Western Unjon).
Communications satellites made it possible for cable companies to stop
p.1ying AT&T for the use of its phone lines, and it also made it possible for
'orne of the cable companies to begin thinking of creating national, even
mternational, networks, beaming programs from one location to receiving
.tntennae all over d1e cow1try, if not all over d1e world. Satelli tes couJd
t mnsmit signals from dozens, even hundreds, of cable channels: cable com-
p:mies were not limited to the twelve very high frequency (VHF) or the
seventy ulna high frequency (UHF) channels d1at the FCC had assigned
10 t elevision because, unlike broadcast transmissions, cable-satelli te trans-
missions from the earth were directed upward, rather than outward, less-
ening the likelihood of interference. By radically cutting the cost of trans-
mission, satellites made special interest channels economically feasible,
rhnnncls t hat would caHy programs t hat appealed to only a t he
n.nion 's aud icnn:: c .1 rt oon chan nels for children; i nst ructiona I chilllncltt f<>r
'l hool s: rcligiou" l h llllll ' l ' {clr fundamcntalisll.; movie, lllll'>il:, .111d
t:H:u, by 11.>7V, ;I dw111d th.p \loulld btll.l\k,l\1 nnlltiug lhl!
'l'"ium .111d hl'.it .\, ,, 1 null .1bk tdn ''"'" 1 '' ,, i . ...-d
a powerful, lrc;llillfl, Ill'\\ llll,lfl\ h) 1111kl'' f1
dent pointS of view could be heard.
Federal regulations, created in the era of r.1dio .\no nlt '' ''
broadcasting, at first stood in the way of the e-xpansion of lJblc pm!-'' 1111
ming, but a series of executive and judicial rulings (beginning with 1,, \i
dent Nixon's decision in 1972 that organizations other than COM SA I t)lli.l
lntelsat could orbit satellites) gradually lifted these restrictions. ln 1 1>7;,
there were just 100 cable receiving stations; two )'Cars later then; \HI{
1,500; in 1961 one million households had cable service; in 1990 the; ltv,.
ure had reached 55 million- and the social control that the
their advertisers had once exercised over the content of h.u i
Electronic Components: The Vacuum Tube
and the Transistor
As it was with modes of communication, so it was with the components ul
electronic circuits. As a technological system, the vacuum tube had a f.Ht
ly long life-it was a critical component of virtually all electronic circuit
between 1915 and 1950-but RCA did not manage to control it for vcq
long, partly because the Deforest and Armstrong patents expired and part
ly because the threat of antitrust action led the company to license com
pctitors. In any event, tl1e vacuum tube was eventually replaced, first by th'
transistor and subsequently by tl1e integrated circuit.
The transistor, invented in 1947 by a team of physicistS (William Shock
ley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain) working at Bell Laboratories (the
research arm of AT&T), was a solid-state substitute for a vacuum tube. In
stead of an evacuated glass chamber, it used a semiconductor crystal (semt
conductors, like germanium and silicon, arc fairly good, but not excellent,
conductors of electrical currents). When wires are embedded in semi con
ductor crystals, the significant atomic changes occurred at tl1e junctiom,
or transitions, between tl1e wires and the crystaJ (in later versions of the
transistor, which have different semiconductor crystaJs sandwiched to
gether, the changes occur at the surfaces of the layers), hence the name
Considerably smaller than the vacuum tube, transistors did not need to
be heated up (which meant that they began working as soon as current w.ts
applied to them), required much less power to operate, and were much
more reliable (since they were unlikely to burn out, the way vacuum tube\
regularly did ). Transistors thus made miniaturi zation and battery operation
of many electronic devices possible. For this reason, they were used ext en
sively in airborne cold war weaponry and '>pace e'\ploration equipment
tl1roughout the 1950s. Late in the Jccadc (when m,l\\ pruduLrron tedl
niques had brougl,r down their prilc), ,,J,o lo' in

td 'i,iolll M'h1 ,lid\ , ,llld l'.lkul.l
tur' Nnnc:thdl'' .1 ltttl1 ""'"' 1h.111 .1 .1hcr the tr.\n\t!>tut went into
1\111 ,,,,lc; produutnnll, 1on, w." H'J'I''-ed, thts time by a device that was at
pau .111d the same time pulc:llttJIIy much more flexible and much more
rnwnful the integrated CirCUit.
An integrated circuit replaced the various components out of which elec-
tl'lmic circuits were composed with lines of chemicals that were laid down
em. ctLhed into, or photographically reproduced onto sheets of various
Ktninmductor materials. These sheetS could then be laminated onto each
uthcr, forming even more complex circuits out of the three dimensions of
Clllt' thick block: an electronic chip. Slightly different forms of the inte-
tvatcd circuit were patented ill 1957 by two engineers, Jack Kilby and
Rubert Noyce. Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattairl, the inventors of the tran-
alswr, had worked for Bell Labs, one of tl1e world's premier industrial re-
aurch laboratories, a subsidiary of one of tl1e world's largest corporations.
Kilby, by way of contrast, was an engineer employed by Texas Instruments,
then a moderately sized company; Noyce, also an engineer, was one of the
fcntndcrs of Fairchild Semiconductor, a start-up firm that had just recent-
ly begun to develop and manufacmre new kinds of transistors.
Bell Labs had been willing to license the transistor to anyone who want-
ed to manufacture it, but the royalties, which were substantial, quickly
evaporated once integrated circujtS began to appear on the market. The in-
lq?,rated circuit was not only smaller than the transistor (one chip the size
,,r a transistor could hold three, five, even a dozen transistor equivalents,
well as other electronic components and all the connecting wires), it was
Jlso potentially more efficient (because many different kinds of circuits per-
lclrming several different electronic tasks could be built onto the same
chip). Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor were also willing to
lit:ense the integrated circuit ill return for a royalty, and witlun a very short
time, other illventors and otl1er companies had patented and were mar-
keting new variations on tl1e original idea: for example, a memory chip,
which contained special kinds of circuitS that could store electronic infor-
nl.ltion; a logic chip, which contained circuits that could manipulate that
information in certain defined ways; or a microprocessor chip, which
was programmable so that it could manipulate stored electronic informa-
tiOn in " variety of ways.
Thus the history of electronic components mimics the history of elec-
tronic communications: when new industrial and technical frontiers arc
upened, older companies suddenly discover that they cannot control areas
t hey had once expected to dominate. Indeed, in the field of integrated cir-
llliLS, neither the original inventors nor the original compatlics nor even
the country in which the original innovations had been made succeeded in
dominating fnr 'C.: I')' I Bmh Texas J nstruments and Fairchild Semi -
' onductor flottll'>hr 1. '"' ll1111 h tnvcntors were well rewarded for their cre-
.\11\ll\, hutWilll'l:dlku, i11 lll.ul.,tpiJcc quickly became very
hn1h wuh rt',''" I{ inoto.\"itthr dtip' .111d "llh rq.;lnltO inlwv.ltin llll'lh
od\ ol ptodmllllt. 1 lllfl\. '\11d 111 llu llld, hn J\tm 1 h .111 pnu lun 1 W ',
on lugh pruft1 111ll11.u y '''Ht.\1 m,lllltl illlllltl
were .lblc LO capilli'<: the 111.11 ' lh 1 he: I ')X(J
American firms had ce.1scu to be in control of the 111<\1 kct few l'lelttPIII
components, tl1e very market tl1at they had originally created.
The electronic computer was originally intended to do the same thing tilul
mechanical and electromechanical calculating machines did with gear\ ,11111
levers, except to do it much, much faster. During World War 11, vast 1111111
bers of guns were being manufactured for use on battleships, ranks, ,llld
fighter airplanes. To use tl10sc guns properl y, gunners had to aim the g1111
in the right direction and raise tl1e barrel of the gun to tlle right angle, t,tl.
ing into account not only tl1e location of tl1e target, but also the tempe, .1
ture of the air and tlle character of tl1e wind. This meant that every gun
had to have its own firing table, giving all the relevant variables. These 1.1
bles were exceedingly difficult to compute; each required d1e solution <I I.
several tl1ousand differential equations. Several hundred women with cui
lege degrees in matl1ematics were hired by tl1e Ballistics Research Labol'il
rory of tl1e Ordnance Department to compute me tables, but even wlwu
tllose women were supplied witl1 tl1e most advanced electromechanical cal
culators, each table took roughly tllree montl1s to calculate.
In 1942, an engineer on tl1e faculty of tl1e Moore School of Enginect
ing at tl1e University of Pennsylvania, John Mauchly, suggested, in a mcmn
to tlle Ordnance Department, that he could build an electronic calculator
based on high-speed vacuum tube devices which would solve tll.e trajecro
ry equations in a matter of seconds, rather tl1an hours. In 1943, a contract
was awarded to Mauchly and to one of his colleagues, J. Prosper Eckert
Unfortunately for tl1e war effort, EN lAC, which stood for electronic nu
mcrical integrator and computer, took mree years to build. By May 1944,
the machine could do si mple calculations, but it was not fully operational
until tlle winter of 1945-46, by which time tlle war had been over for sev
eraJ monilis (tlle Ballistics Research Laboratory had had to solve its back
log problem by hiring more women). When it was done, ENIAC contained
more tllan 17,000 vacuum tubes; it weighed thirty tons, had cost rough!)
$450,000 to build, and filled a room the size of a squash court. But it
worked; it could calculate very fast, multiplying 333 ten-digit numbers a
second, fmishing one of the trajectory equations, which had previously tak
en hours to complete, in twenty seconds.
And mere was important work for it to do; tl1e ho t war was over, but the
cold war \vas just beginning. In the winter of 1945-46, anxious ro Lind Oul
whether ENIAC could really be helpful, officials from Los Al:lmos Nalional
Laboratory asked that the machine be reprogrammed to work on some of
the complex calculations needed to determine whether a hydrogen bomb
could be built. Whc:1 those calculations, which mig.hl h.Wl' t.lkt'll

ENJAC, the first digital computer, pictured here in 1946, was built with vacuum
tubes. Early programmers, such as the people in this picture, set up problems by
plugging in cables and setting switches. (Courtesy Charles Babbage Institute. )
years to finish, were completed in a matter of weeks (someone had to punch
and EN lAC had to process more than a million cards full of data), it was
clear that tlle cold war was going to expand tl1e military appetite for com-
plex, high-speed calculations, which meant tl1at it was also clear tllat tlle
tnilitary would want electronic calculators to be developed as fast as pos-
In tl1e smnmer of 1946, the Ordnance Department and the Office of
Naval Research sponsored a conference at tlle Moore School so iliat the
ENIAC team could explain how tl1e machine worked to organizations
that might be able to develop computers further. Many organizations were
interested. Some of the cow1try's biggest manufacturers of office equip-
ment were already exploring development of large-scale, very fast electro-
mechanical calculators; in 1944, International Business Machines Compa-
ny (IBM), for examp.le, had cooperated witll Professor Howard Aiken in
building the Harvard Mark I computer, which was not electronic but had
pioneered tl1e use of automatic operational sequences. Also in attendance
:\l the Moore School meeting were representatives of some of d1c coun
try's biggestmanufnclurers of electronic equipment, some rh:11
wt:re l':lmo11' li11 1h111 l'.t'.Hhl:llC progli'lms in , """w
II ..
rc:.c<tr1..h 111\tllutn 1h.11 Wl'll drn11nl1u 111 phpit".'> .uu l
mathematic:., and .ln uf'f t1.1.11 tiwn 1 ht: Btlll\h mlltt.ll y UIIJl\ tlt.u h.11l hn11
responsible for the machine th.n h.uJ broken, .utd 11mn.unhkd 1111.: <" 1
man secret militar)' code.
That summer course lifted the of secrecy Ill whkh l NL\( h.,,l
been shrouded; if Eckert and Mauchly had harbored any hope!> th.n 1hn
would be able to develop their ideas after the war without tear or compl'
tition, those hopes were dashed by the enthusiasm wilh which their COUIM
was greeted. In the f:.tll of 1946, after a nasty djspute with the Univcrl>ll\
of Pennsylvania about whether they were obligated to assign all of tl"
rights to their patents to their employer, they resigned their academic pu
sitions and formed a company of their own. Unfortunately, at the very s:um
time, several organizations-some of them with much easier access to mon
ey and research f.1Cilities-had already started to build their own com
By the end of 1947, at least nine computers were being constructed in
varjous laboratories in the United States and Britain. At the Institute for
Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, the world-renowned mathe
matician John von Neumann was learung a team that would build,
funds contributed partly by the U.S. go\'ernment and partly by the RCA
Corporation, the first djgital computer capable of parallel processing, able
to perform calculations si multaneously rather tl1an serially. At the Univer
sity of Manchester in Britain, the mathematician Alan Turing was part of a
team that was building what would turn out to be the first computer with
a stored progran1. At MlT, tl1e Servomechanisms Laboratory, which had
been created during tl1e war to develop flight training devices for pilots and
stability analyzers for new aerod)rnamic designs, had put a young engineer,
Jay Forrester, in charge of a contract to develop a new device for the Of-
fice ofNaval Research, and Forrester had decided to turn that contract into
an effort to develop a computer that could operate in real time, instantly
analyzing changes in its own environment. IBM, the largest American
manufacturer o f such devices as adrung machines and electric typewriters,
had developed a t:'lirly simple electronic multiplier in its own research lab-
oratories, and this machine was already on tl1e market; tl1e first hundred
produced had been snapped up in a matter of weeks. The Raytheon Cor-
poration (a manufacturer of dectronjc components) had a contract
the Bureau of National Standards to supply an electronj c calculator to the
Census Bureau to assist in the tabulation of the 1950 census.
Clearly no one was goi ng to have the kind of control over the develop-
ment of t he computer that the Marconi companies had once been able to
exercise over the development of wireless telegraphy. Eckert and Mauchly,
however, had what they regarded as an excellent new idea: their new com
pany would build not a computer alone, but a computing syMcm, J
of related machines that could be combined and .tcJJplcd tu the indi\ ldtt.ll,
particular needs of potemi.\1 cu,tomel'!>. 'I he: unl\cr,,d ,HII OI\1.111\ ( OtllJllll
cr ( UNIVAC') wuuld h.l\1.' .1 n111t.11 d,11111g 111.11:11 im:, 111 "Ju, h , 1111ld h\
LtHII!IIIilli' IHifilll i rrluwlllillt'J n11il G.,,,,,, ! ')7
.hhkd \Udl 1111111 .11 'pnd (1m the
u111p111 ), 1.1p1' dt11n ( liu, card pund1crs (lcH en
d.n.1), .111d \.1111\l:l It' 1 \ ( 1 o 1 1.1ml.11 c: the data into electronic. signals on' ). h .. kcrt anJ J\l.111\ hi\ .11"' hupcd to include in UNIVAC an idea that
tht:\ had developed" htlc: o,ull working on ENIAC: a stored program mem-
ory, a o,et of electronic circuits that could reprogram the calculating circuits
Wll hout tl1e necessity for pulling plugs.
UNVAC was the fi rst commercially successful computing system. One
purchased by the Census Bureau; a few went to research laboratories
lor \Cientific computing; a few others were purchased by industry, one was
borrowed by CBS to provide an early prediction, correctly as it turned out,
nl the outcome of the I 952 presidential election. But the rewards of be-
ing first were very short- lived. By t he end of 1950, short of capital, Eckert
,md Mauchly sold their company and tl1eir patent rights to Remi ngton
H.lnd, a manufacturer of business machines; henceforth, they would be em-
ployees, not entrepreneurs. A few years later, they even lost their legal claim
to patent priority when company lawyers failed to defend them adequate-
lr against a clai m by Eugene Atanasoff, a former teaching colleague, that
he had the original idea on which EN lAC was constructed.
The computer industry was competitive at the beginning and remains
wmpetitive to this day; dominance has been fleeting and change has been
rapid. Because the first electronic computer was built under government
wntrnct, many skilled people were able to use it and learn how it worked.
Because the government, fi ghting tl1e protracted cold war wi tl1 tl1e Soviet
Union, believed that it would need better and bet ter computational facil -
Ities, dozens of organizations-universities, research institutes, corpora-
tions-were awarded contracts to develop computers. Wid1 vast resources
.It irs command, and fired by what appeared to be a pressing need tor na-
tional defense, the government was able to subsiruze tl1e enormous cost of
l'omputer development. The government was tl1e customer best able to af-
fc>rd the high prices of the first models of each new generation of comput-
ns, and the customer most eager to have the new capabilities of each of
1 hose generations. Much of the tax money spent on computer development
.111d purchase was spent by military and quasi-military agencies (the armed
the Atomic Energy Commission, or NASA), but some of it was
'pent by civilian agencies, such as tl1e Census Bureau.
r n part because so many young people received training in computer de-
"gn under various governmental contracts, the pace of innovation in com-
puters was probably faster than in any other previous technological do-
main. Each generation of computers was better-faster, more powerful ,
more flexible, and lesl> expensive-than the generation tl1at came before,
.md generations were nwn<>u red in years, not decades. For inputti ng data,
pum;hc.:ards wert n ph1ctl by tn.lgneric tape, then botl1 intermediate me-
dl,l ou111111ikil "hn1 d.11 .1 rould be entered direct!)' Prngramming
hv plll lf, pulh111' '' ,,,. ' i' J l. i'r. d hy pmr.1 .111lming lw binary imlllllllon, 1 hen
h)' lui!}' " '' npl.!ll' d h) p1ngr.lllllllllll' hv (lllll
flllll;l thnl l'llll)l'illllllllllf. hy I lllllllllh I llllf,ll.l.t< \ 1\.1\ ll'fllll' i'.f
in IH pH Pll k.IW d 1
111!!,1\lm 1 h.ll unild 111.1
nipula1c numbers \\Cil' 'llppkn\l' lll l'd by plllf,l.\111\ 1h.11 tuuld lll.ll11pul,tti}
words or play games or make judg,ml'ntc, or dr,l\1 u I IIlli htllihtll 'Pn Ia
patterns. Machine memories bccllmc ever t.ugcr; m.H:hinc: hn.llw
ever faster-while the machines thcmselvcl>, thanks to and Ill 111
regrated circuitry, became ever smaller and less expensive. Each of 1 hn
innovations, and each of those generations, brought new, compctilivc l'r
porate players into the computer marketplace. Every year, new companu
were being formed; every year, some of those companies would start dm1 11
the road ro dominance; some would reach the goal, but most only m.111
aged ro stay on top for very short periods of rime. Even the giant even111
ally nun bled: lBM, which had dominated the mainframe computer
for close to a decade, feU on its face in d1e 1980s, when personaJ comp111
ing became the industry frontier. In 1992, the company-whose stock
been considered the safest possible investment for the previous fifty year,,
the bluest of all the bluechips-losr money for the first time since the end
ofWorld War 11. The computer marketplace, like the communications and
component marketplaces, turned out, despite many strenuous efforts, tc1
be lll1COnUolJable.
Conclusion: The Ultimate Failure of Efforts to Control
Electronic Commwlication
From the invention of wireless telegraphy in the late nineteend1 century w
d1e creation of an electronic superhighway in the late twentieth, no one in
dividual , and no one institution, has succeeded in controlling for very lon14
the American market for electronic components or electronic devices nr
even the content of what is communicated by those devices. The history
of electronics suggests that there have been, roughly speaking, three rea
sons for this. First, throughout the twentieth century, there have been
many dc\'Oted electronics amateurs- ham operators in years past,
more recently- young people drawn by d1e mystery and magic of com
municating over long distances, of calculating faster than the eye can blink,
of imitating d1e functions of d1e human brain. Because there have been
many amateurs, there have also been, regularly, a fair number of brilliant
innovators: Armstrong got his start in amateur radio, so did Conrad; years
later, the men who built d1c company that first succeeded in markeri11g a
personaJ computer mer each od1er at meetings of somedting called the
Homebrew Computer Club.
The federal government has also played a multifaceted role in the de
centralization of electronic technology and electronic communication.
Sometimes, as when the Navy Department wished lO crealc RCA as a vir
tuaJ monopoly, there have been coumcrvening tcndcncic!), but un the
whole, the government , '"her her through antitrust proceeding,:. or the reg,
ulations or the Communication' Commis,ion or 1h1.. p,!'anlinA ol
111tltt.Hy pn '' liH 1m 111 ''''"'11111
h.l'l 1 1 ,-, t hl ol 1 how wl1o \\,IIHI:d to tlllll111p11lflt tin 1111 .lt.l ,
I'Jn.1lly, the I..Oiilpclll h" ''' ut' ,, rc.:I .Hivdy ficc market economy
h.t\l" also played a role. I tom thr llHHllc.:tll "' 1899 when Guglielmo Mar-
l"'" lirsl made his spcet.Kul.u publluty debut on American shores, clever
nu:n and women have that elccuonic circuits could be a route
111 nchcs, in fact, a fast route to riches. Even when one person or one com
p.111y has managed somehow to build a gate arOLmd those riches, od1er peo
pic and companies have been willing to try just about anything to knock
th.n gate down-and a fair number have succeeded.
As a consequence of these three factors, the pace of change in electron-
In has been fairly rapid, and no single individuaJ, company, component, or
mldium has managed to dominate for very long.ln the world of electronic
media, centralization of power-and all the negative consequences that can
ti1llow from it-has aJways been a possibility, and many people-from pres-
idents of multibillion dollar corporations to high school graduates fiddling
with diaJs and in d1eir garages-have tried to accomplish it.
Noned1eless, no individual, no matter how creative or how powerful , has
Ml tar succeeded for very long; neither has any company, no matter how
well capitalized, no matter how well supplied with highly trained and high-
ly paid lav.ryers, no matter how many strings it was able to pull, no matter
how many very high places to which those strings were connected. Pardy
because of d1e nature of the American economy, and partly because of the of electronic technology itself, the rwenried1-cenntry electronic me-
dia seem to have outwitted the critics who believed that d1ose media had
tnescapably totalitarian tendencies.
1. Remarks by Congressman William S. Greene, Govermnmt Control of Ra
dw Conmumication: Hutri11gs before the Committee 011 Merchtmt Mari11e and Fish
oics (1918), as quoted in Erik Barnouw, A 1o1ve1 in Babel: A Histor_y of Broad
ctuting in the United States (Ncw York: Oxford Uni\'ersity Press, 1966), p. 55.
2. John Tebbe!, David Sanwff Putting Electrouics to Work (Chicago: Ency-
dopcdia Britannica Press, 1963), pp. 99- 106.
3. Pittsburgh Stm, September 19, 1920, as quoted in Barnouw, TolPcr in Ba
lid, p. 63.
4. William C. White, from an unpublished memoir, as quoted in Barnouw,
/iJJver in Babel, pp. 73- 74.
5. The first phrases come rrom a poem by Alfred N. Goldsmith in his book
l{ndio Telephmty(New York: Wireless Press, 1918), p. 242; the second group comes
tmm a poem by Robert Davis, in Alfred N. Goldsmith and Austin C. Lcscarboura,
11m 11Ji1tg Called (New York: Henry Holt, 1930), p. 344.
6. frank J. Coppa, "The New Age of Television: The Communications Rev
nlutiun in the Living Rm)m," 111 frank J. Coppa :tnd Richard Harmond, eds., J'cc/J
ttlllt!fTY 111 t/Jr 'llttrnrrrt/1 C 'mtiii'V ( nuhuquc, lA: Kendall H unl , 1983 ), p. 131 .
Ji mtlw ,. Ut111l i llf.f
l fugh G. J. Ailkcn, 11Jr CtJIIWimJtiS lVmtr:' tidmttlt!fiY twrl tlml'llt'/111 /Cul/tri. ,I '.Iiiii
1932 (Princeton, 1985 ).
Hugh G. J. Aitken, tmd Spnrk: TJJc Origins of RntfltJ (J'rinccl<ln, I 1l' Ill
William Aspray, Johll vo" Nctmumtt and tbe Origi11s of Modt'l'n Crnnputl1(11 (( 1111
bridge, MA, 1990).
Erik Barnouw, The Golden Web: A History of Bton.drastitw h1 tiJr Unitrd .\t,tlfi
1933-1953 (New York, l968).
Erik Barnouw, A To1vet in Babel: A Histm.v of Brondcnsti119 the Uttitcd Sttrtn, 111
1933 (New York, 1966).
Erik Barnouw, TI4-be of Plenty: The Evoltttion of A mericem Telcvisio11, 2nd ed ,, JO I\ '
(New York, 1990).
Ernest Braun and Stuart Macdonald, Revolution in Miniattne: The Histor.v tmd /111
pact of Semiconductor (Cambridge, 1978 ).
James Brittain, Alexanderson: Pioneer in American Electrical Engineering (li.1l11
more, 1992).
Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasti1zg, 1899-1922 (Ballimclh
1987) .
Kenneth Flamm, CreatitJ.g the Computer: Government, lndtutry, and High 1i'dt
nology (Washington, DC, 1988).
Herman H. Goldstine, The Computer: hom Pascal to von Nmmann (Princctn11
)ames A. Hijaya, Lee De Forest and the Fatherhood of Radio (Bethlehem, PA, 1992)
Tom Lewis, EmpireoftheAir: The Men WhoMadeRadio(NewYork, 1991 ).
Steven Lubar, lnfoCttltute: The Smithsonian Institzttion Book of Infonnation A,_q,
Invmtions(Boston, 1993).
David E. Lundstrom, A FtmJ Good Men from (Cambridge, MA, 1987).
Rene Moreau, TIJe Computer Comes of Age: The People, the Hardware, and the Soft
ware (Cambridge, J\1A, 1984).
T. R. Reid, The Chip: How Two America1zs ltzvented the Microchip tmd Lau.nched ''
Rtmolution (New York, t 984).
Joel Shurkin, E1:gines of the Mind: A History of the Computer (New York, 1984).
Susan Smulyan, Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting,
192D-1934 (Washington, DC, 1994 ).
Nancy Stern, From ENIAC to UNIVAC: An Appraisal ofthe Eckert-Mauchly Com-
puters (Bedford, MA, 1981 ).
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