How Two WPI Graduates Helped Launch Commercial Radio

Commercial Radio was Born 88 Years Ago, and a WPI Graduate Was There

With the air waves chock full today with the signals of thousands of commercial radio stations, it is hard to imagine a time when radio was just a hobby for the few. On the evening of Nov. 2, 1920, that all changed as Henry P. Davis, WPI Class of 1880, who was then vice president for engineering and manufacturing for Westinghouse, sat down before a microphone in Philadelphia and announced the results of the day’s presidential election. It was, historians say, the very first broadcast of the world’s very first commercial radio station.

KDKA, which still operates, was the conception of Davis, who a few months earlier had learned about the growing popularity of radio broadcasts emanating from the garage of Frank Conrad, assistant chief engineer at Westinghouse and avid wireless enthusiast. Impressed with the entertainment value of radio, he convinced Conrad to let him apply for a license to broadcast on Conrad’s frequency for commercial purposes.

In the years after KDKA went on the air, commercial radio stations popped up around the country, bringing music, news—and commercials—into the nation’s living rooms. Conrad continued his involvement in broadcasting and eventually became the first chairman of the first national broadcasting network, the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC.

As a sidelight, listeners tuning in to KDKA and the other pioneers of commercial radio were likely to be using a receiver made by the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company, another Philadelphia success story authored by a WPI alumnus. Kent enrolled at WPI in 1895, but never graduated (he really never came close). An inventive genius, he earned 93 patents. The radios he started making in the 1920s became wildly popular and are still prized by collectors. Incidentally, Kent went on to serve WPI as a trustee and supported the university generously. WPI’s electrical and computer engineering building bears his name.

October 16, 2008

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