Spring 1998

People of the Century

Entertaining the Masses

A camera operator and sound man on a desert shoot.

T he technical and entrepreneurial skills of WPI graduates played seminal roles in the development of the radio, television and film industries in the United States. Perhaps the best known among this distinguished group is A. Atwater Kent, Class of 1900, whose company made one of the most popular radios of all time. Today, collectors prize Atwater Kent radios for their quality and beauty. Kent left WPI before graduating to start his own business making electrical equipment and instruments. He became interested in electrical systems for the emerging automotive industry and invented the Unisparker, an ignition system that prevented backfiring and automatically advanced or retarded the spark as the needs of the engine changed. The invention won him the John Scott Legacy Medal and Premium from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He began manufacturing radios after World War I, and they soon became the fastest selling receivers on the market. He was the first radio producer to build his units on an assembly line.

Kent's products would have had little attraction for consumers were it not for the achievements of Henry P. Davis, Class of 1880, who is considered the father of commercial broadcasting. In 1920, Davis, then vice president for engineering and manufacturing for Westinghouse, became impressed with the growing interest in the entertainment value of radio broadcasting. In particular, he noted the popularity of an amateur radio station manned by Frank Conrad, assistant chief engineer at Westinghouse. Seeing the commercial potential of this new media, Davis authorized Westinghouse to set up radio station KDKA. On Nov. 2,

The studio of KDKA, the first commercial radio station. Like Henry Davis, who authorized the establishment of KDKA, many WPI graduates have helped build the modern age of information and mass media.

1920, it became the world's first commercial radio station. Davis, himself, stood before the microphone on that historic day to read the results of the presidential elections. A visionary and a skilled inventor (he earned more than 80 patents), Davis continued his interest in broadcasting throughout the remainder of his career. When the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was founded in 1926, he became its first chairman, a post he held until his death in 1931.

Around the same time that radio broadcasting was coming into its own, another technical breakthrough was adding sound to motion pictures. Early in his career, Lincoln Thompson '21 was an engineer with Bristol Co. in Connecticut, where he helped perfect equipment that produced one of the world's first "talking pictures," a two-reel educational film. Later, Thompson developed the first practical talking book records for the blind. He started his own company, Sound Specialties Inc., which made dictation machines, one of which was used by Winston Churchill to dictate his memoirs. Hartley C. Humphrey '17 helped pioneer the sound recording for the first feature length talkie, The Jazz Singer, when he was an engineer for Warner Brothers-Vitaphone Corp. During his career in the entertainment industry, Humphrey also worked on projects with Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer and Howard Hughes and recorded a number of the stars of the Metropolitan Opera. For a time, he served as a consultant to the English and German film industries.

While he was not directly responsible for any new motion picture technology, Ellery B. Paine, Class of 1897, was a catalyst for a key development in marrying sound and film. As head of the electrical engineering department at the University of Illinois, Paine recruited Joseph Tykociner, a distinguished Russian radio engineer who fled his homeland during the Russian Revolution. With Paine's encouragement, Tykociner took on the thorny problem of recording sound directly onto film, a challenge that no one had yet solved. By 1921, he had a solution. The following year, Paine and Tykociner set up a demonstration and Paine, reciting the Gettysburg Address, became the first person to have his voice recordedon film. The film industry at first rejected Tykociner's invention; later, when other techniques proved unsatisfactory, it became the industry standard. Paine was head of the University of Illinois electrical engineering department for 31 years. Today, the department annually honors its outstanding junior with the Ellery B. Paine Award.

One of the more notable developments in film technology in the years following the sound era was the creation of superwide screen formats, including 20th Century Fox's CinemaScope. Created to lure audiences captivated by television back into movie theaters, the wide films themselves could not be shown on TV, eliminating a potential source of revenue for Fox. Ralph D. Whitmore '09, as an engineer with Fox's research department, was part of a team that figured out how to transform wide-screen films for the small screen. CinemaScope films were compressed laterally and then spread by special lenses to fill a double-wide screen. The challenge Whitmore's team faced was finding a way to decompress the images and recompress them into the proper aspect ratio. For this achievement, the team received an Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1961. He was also named a fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

A technical achievement by another WPI graduate won him the highest honor in the field of television arts and sciences. In 1956, K. Blair Benson '41, then an electronics engineer with CBS Television, was part of a team that won an Emmy for the best engineering and technical achievement of the year - the development of videotape. The following year, the CBS program "Douglas Edwards and the News" became the first program to be broadcast on tape delay. During Benson's long career with CBS, where he led the network's New York design team, he was involved in a number of other advances in broadcasting. A fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, he was a member of the society's Color TV Standards Committee and contributed to the fidelity of color TV broadcasts and the development of the VIR (vertical interval reference) signal, which provides each television with its own color phase reference. He edited the 1,500-page Audio Engineering Handbook for McGraw-Hill in 1986 and the 1,000-page Television Engineering Handbook in 1988. An early advocate of high-definition television, he had just completed HDTV: Advanced Television for the 1990s before his death in 1990.

While decidedly "low-tech," board games and puzzles have always been popular ways for Americans to entertain themselves. One of the largest makers of games, puzzles and educational materials is Milton Bradley Co. in Springfield, Mass. For some 30 years, James J. Shea '12 directed the operations of the company, first as president and later as chairman, before retiring in 1971.

[WPI] [Contents] [Back] [Forward]

Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:53 EDT 1999