Archives:History of Naval Radio: Standardization and Development of Vacuum Tubes


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History of Naval Radio: Standardization and Development of Vacuum Tube Transmitters
Rear Admiral S. C. Hooper
July 3rd, 1952
Reel # 96, Continued from Reel # 95

Transcript #96

The history of the Navy’s successful efforts to bring about the standardization and the development of vacuum tube transmitters during and after World War I, which led to radio broadcasting.


During the First World War in 1918 most of us decided that in order to get the necessary channels and overcome other difficulties with spark and arc transmitters, we must rapidly push for the development of vacuum tube transmitters for the Fleet and naval shore stations. And in the previous reel, #95, Mr. [Charles] Speaker and I have briefly described how the Radio Division of the Bureau of Steam Engineering invited the manufacturers and inventors most interested in the development of vacuum tubes for transmission - and also the Army and the Bureau of Standards which were the only other government departments interested in radio at that time - to a series of monthly meetings with a view to laying down the output power of the different tubes required; that is, whether it be ten watt, fifty watt, two-hundred and fifty watt, five kilowatt, ten kilowatt, and so on, and also such standardization as was necessary of sockets and input power so that the various manufacturers could bid on these tubes in competition with one another and they would fit the sockets called for by the Navy’s requisitions and also the government departments’ requisitions.[1]

Mr. Speaker described how successful these conferences were and how the committee persevered, and toward the end of the war came up with sort of experimental apparatus of the powers I’ve just mentioned up to one kilowatt output power of radio telegraph. And all we had before that were these ten watt CW-936 sub-chaser and patrol boat radio telephones, and about 50 watt output radio telegraph sets and radio telephone sets for aircraft which were made by the Marconi Company, or RCA, which weren’t successful at all, although the small ten watt sets by Western Electric were very successful as has been described. It was the idea that we would continue these monthly conferences until we had finally agreed on specifications for transmitters all the way up to ten KW output, and the manufacturers had been able to design, successfully, transmitters of that output which would be stand up and serviceable in their respect.

But about six months after the War when they were having one of these monthly meetings . . . and incidentally Mr. George Lewis and Mr. Charles Speaker were the two Bureau representatives at these meetings. Mr. Lewis presided - he was a lieutenant - at most of the meetings and Mr. Speaker at others. Speaker was an ensign. This particular meeting after the War, why Mr. Speaker came into see me while the meeting was in session and interrupted me and said he had something very urgent; that the representatives of the different companies at the meetings, most of them reported that their superiors in the companies had advised that they should tell me that they could no longer be interested in this project because the War was now over and the companies all had other things more important for their engineers to work on. They didn’t see any future for transmitting vacuum tube apparatus, although mind you it was just a year or so before broadcasting actually started, but that they had saw no future in it, that the military had all of the vacuum tubes they needed left over from the War, so they wouldn’t be able to attend anymore meetings or keep up this cooperative work. Well that was a shock to me. I jumped out of my chair and walked right in the conference room with Mr. Speaker and asked the engineers there, I said, “I feel this is a very important project and that there’s a great future for vacuum tube transmitting sets in radio.” I said, “If we’re successful in producing them we will be replacing all the sets of the Fleet just as soon as we are successful because of the many advantages of many more frequencies, much less interference, more flexibility, and greater range for the same power.” I said, “How do you gentlemen feel about it?” Well they seemed to feel somewhat the same way but they had to carry out their orders. So I said, “Well now I’m not willing to give up this easy. Suppose that they Navy makes a requisition for three types of vacuum tube transmitters; the ones under discussion, and the ones that you’re now engaged in trying to develop, and shows the money and purchase them in good faith.” I said, “Do you think your superiors would allow you to continue on this work?” And they seemed to feel they would. So I immediately went to see my chief; Admiral Griffin,[2] and told him the situation and asked if I could have about a quarter of a million dollars to make requisitions for three types of sets: one very low wattage, a flag officer’s privacy telephone circuit just for conversation between the bridges of the flag officer’s telephone; a second telegraph set and telephone set for air stations and ground stations; about a one kilowatt set which would work 50 or 100 miles; and a third; about a half kilowatt output installation for spotting air shots fall on battleships. Up until that time we had never had spotting of air target practice. That was just coming into vogue and we needed a special circuit for that. “Yes”, he said, “I think I can make available to you a quarter of one million dollars for that purpose,” and he said, “You go ahead and make the requisitions.” So I reported this back to the conference and they seemed very happy about it and unanimously reported, later on, that their companies would permit them to continue the conferences and would hope to bid on these schedules. That was a very important step because that advanced radio broadcasting a great deal. When they began to test out those sets was when the amateurs and the public began to listen in and realize that they’d like to have receivers to listen to broadcasting, and that’s what started the whole thing.

Now the type numbers and requisitions for those three types of sets, the first; the small flag officer’s bridge set was model TB; Terra Boa, requisitioned the 16th of April, 1919. The next was the model TC, half kilowatt set for battleship spotting, a contract date 5 December 1919. And the third was the TD; Terra Dog, requisition date of 15 March 1919. Those requisitions were made immediately and the awards made to the low bidders in a very short time. Now my recollection is, is that the awards were split between the Western Electric and the General Electric Company.

Now because of the historic importance that this project turned out to be, I want to read into the record a letter from Mr. George Lewis, then the President of these conferences, who with Mr. Speaker represented the Navy, represented me in charge of that work.

This is dated from International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, 67 Broad Street, New York, October 11, 1937. Captain Stanford C. Hooper, Naval Operations, U.S. Navy Department, Washington, D.C. “My Dear Captain Hooper, I recall with extreme interest your comments to Judge Sykes in regard to the role played by our Navy in the early developments of radio.[3] And it occurs to me now whether you fully appreciate the importance of your efforts in this pioneering work. During historical radio lectures it is with great pride that I refer to my activities as the chairman of the first vacuum tube committee ever called to attempt standardization of electrode voltages, bulb and base dimensions, and the method of pin wiring in this new branch of industry. While our ambitions were realized in that standardization was agreed upon, the most important contribution came as a byproduct of this committee meeting. It may be well to refresh your mind in this regard by stating that you instructed me as head of the Radio Design Division to call a meeting of American vacuum tube makers and urge standardization of existing products and a continuation of the development of new and higher power types of transmitting tubes. The meeting was attended at the Bureau of Steam Engineering, Washington, D.C. by such representatives as Dr. [Lee] de Forest of De Forest Radio Company, Dr. Stratton of the Bureau of Standards,[4] Mr. White of the General Electric Company,[5] Dr. Kintner of Westinghouse Company,[6] Mr. King of Western Electric Company,[7] and Dr. Pearson of the Muirhead Company.[8] After an agreement had been reached as to standardization, those of the committee informed the chairman that the early post-war period would bring a curtailment in government purchases of radio materials and that these firms could not afford to engage in the development of higher powered vacuum tubes when their utility was limited to government use. When I informed you of the lack of interest in this development . . .”, apparently he informed me of it instead of Mr. Speaker, “. . . when I informed you of the lack of interest in this development project on the part of the members of my committee, you asked me to determine if they would continue with their experimentation provided the Navy Department would be willing to purchase higher powered tubes after their development. Based upon a favorable comment from the committee you directed the preparation of specifications covering the performance of higher powered tubes for their guidance and you were also successful in obtaining appropriations to purchase sufficient quantities of tubes fulfilling the specification to cover the development expense. It was your encouragement of the American firms to continue in this research, regardless of their opinion of the limited commercial possibilities of the project that brought into being the high-power vacuum tubes as necessary in the pioneering development of radio broadcasting. With kindest personal regards, I am sincerely yours, George Lewis.”

So there’s a very good case on record with ample proof where our great companies such as General Electric and Westinghouse, among others, didn’t properly appraise the future, and where the Navy, because of its intense interest in applying new developments for specific operational purposes to the Fleet, was able to keep an art from stalling, being frustrated, and to push it forward because of a small appropriation of two or three hundred thousand dollars. And I suppose those gentleman’s faces get red now who told their engineers they saw no future use in the application of radio transmitting tubes, when actually within a year radio broadcasting started and within four or five years it was becoming quite an industry. And within ten or fifteen years it was a billion dollar industry. And the demand for tubes was unsatisfiable; more and more and higher and higher power tubes. So the government deserves great credit in their handling of that particular project and the government initiative. It’s very often the case in war that new developments, which might be delayed for years, have an opportunity to develop under the guidance of the military services, and this is a very good example. On the other hand, I would be the first to deplore the military services, even saying that they could compete in initiative with the American way, the results of individual initiative and competition, especially by young men and growing firms.

Now having reached the point where the first tube transmitters were under manufacture and being prepared for delivery, we became worried about the cost of the tubes themselves. That’s a thing we’ve been through in the beginning of receiving tubes where we had to get the cost down from $50 to $7 for a tube and get the life extended very, very radically before we could afford to standardize. So in 1920, January 14, I sent a letter to the RCA, Western Electric, Westinghouse, De Forest, and American Radio and Research Corporation. “Gentlemen, in the present transition from the use of spark radio transmitters to the use of continuous wave transmitters is a well-established fact that apparatus of the vacuum tube type is far more desirable for most points of consideration than apparatus of the arc type. The present maintenance cost of the tube equipment, however, is at present prohibitive, due largely to the high cost of tubes. The annual maintenance cost for low power 2 kw input arc transmitter is $100, whereas for a tube set of equal power this cost is $1,000. It is therefore evident that the introduction of tube apparatus into the service must wait, except in exceptional cases the very material reduction in the price of transmitting tubes. The Bureau will extend all its facilities to the end of assisting in this price reduction. The very depth of standardization policy is being formulated, which should also be of material assistance in this regard. On January 20, 1920 the Bureau will forward an outline of the proposed standardization policy. On Friday, January 30, there will be held at the Bureau a conference at which suggestions and comments from the manufacturers will be heard and the matter generally discussed. It is requested that you be represented at this conference. Very respectfully, S.C. Hooper By direction.”

Well that conference was held on the date appointed and considerable interchange of information and progress made, which led to a more moderate cost of vacuum tubes so that we weren’t held back in purchasing this equipment and standardizing it for the Fleet.

Now when the first tube sets began to be delivered at the end of the first war, we sent one of them over to Anacostia, to the Naval Air Station where Doctor A. Hoyt Taylor was in charge of the radio and directed that they test the set for acceptance. That was the usual custom and that set was one that would be naturally tested at an air station because it was a half KW transmitter, or the one KW - I forget which - which was to be installed at the air stations if the first one tested out satisfactory. Well Doctor Taylor called up one day and he said as long as one of the important parts of the test was radio telephone, there wasn’t anybody to receive the telephone, what would he better do? And he suggested that he might have the amateurs in the vicinity notified about the tests and have them listen in at their homes, especially in the evenings when they were off duty from their offices or from their laboratories. Of course most of the amateurs really were from the services and they had amateur sets. So I ok'd that suggestion and he took the necessary steps, and in order to get the interest of the amateurs I prepared a bulletin once a week; a technical bulletin - it was announced in the papers - which would be of interest to them; new developments by the Bureau. And then at the end of this bulletin, or prior to it, Doctor Taylor would put on a phonograph record of the new radio telephone set to test, and play music, talk over it, and then he would receive reports Monday morning; postcard reports, on how it came in and how far away the amateur was listening. Well that was very successful. And the amateurs found that their wives and friends would come in while they were listening and ask them what that was, and he’d say, “Well I’m listening to the radio station over at the Naval Air Station Anacostia.” So they’d say, “Well let me hear it.” So they’d begin to listen in. And after a while there was quite a competition, especially of young people, to listen in to these concerts. And the subject got so hot that Doctor Taylor was under great pressure to explain how this radio worked to the public - they did not understand how it could be possible - and he wasn’t able to do very much work.

I called him up one day and I told him, I said, “See here”. I said, “We’ve been waiting some time for two or three reports out of Anacostia of what’s happened down there.” Well he said [chuckle], “This broadcasting is driving us crazy.” Well I said, “What’s that?” “Well”, he said, “I suggest you come down and see.” So I went down to Anacostia, at the Air Station, and here was a truck backed up to the radio station and they were moving a piano from the truck into the radio station, and I said “What on earth is this?” “Well”, he said, “Come here.” [Chuckle] So he took me in and he had a tent rigged up inside the radio station and they were putting this piano in the tent, and at the top of the tent were hanging two or three ordinary telephone transmitters, just wire transmitters, receivers off the hook, and when they broadcast these phonograph records they would just take the receivers off of the hook and connect to the broadcast transmitter and out the concert would go. So some of the ladies in the vicinity thought it would be nice to have something besides phonograph records and one of them arranged to have a piano sent down there, and that’s what was happening when I arrived. Well then in Washington, several of the singers, glee club people, kindred souls, got together and formed a little glee club and they would go down and one of them played the piano at these appointed times for tests. One lady would speak up and say, “Well the next number will be such and such”, and then the glee club would begin to play on the piano. And Doctor Taylor had to be there to keep the set running so naturally he could not do very much.[9]

I have a photograph in my collection of that first glee club. But I began to get all interested in this thing myself, and the first thing you know Taylor and I talked it over. We decided on Saturday night we’d try to get General Lejeune to loan us the Marine Band and have a real concert.[10] So General Lejeune approved that; sent the Marine Band down to the Aacostia Naval Air Station and they played the Star Spangled Banner and a number of marches and patriotic heirs.[11] And so in two or three days Doctor Taylor brought up his fan mail. He’d received [chuckle], oh, hundreds of letters, not only from these amateurs locally but oh, as far as New England, a few of them out in Pennsylvania, where people had written in saying how wonderful it was, and when they played the Star Spangled Banner they’d have their children stand at attention. They said they had never heard the Star Spangled before and they were thrilled. In order to get the band regularly on Saturday nights, I took all of Taylor’s letters up to the Marine Commandant to show them to him, and very unfortunately we never were able to find those letters. I still think they’re somewhere in the Marine files. It would be very interesting historically.

Now one of the members of our committee was Doctor Conrad from the Westinghouse Company - and of course these members of our committee saw what was going on - and he could see that this broadcasting was going to be very popular if people just owned receivers.[12] So he put up a little broadcasting transmitter on the antenna of his amateur set in his own garage, and that was the begining of KDKA which now is a very famous broadcasting station. And he got some department store in Pittsburg to start manufacturing and selling receivers and they went like hotcakes, and that was followed by others in other cities. And then Mr. Sarnoff of RCA figured out that they probably could buy millions of receivers if they were available, and that began for the success of the RCA manufacturing division.[13] I give Mr. Sarnoff full credit for being the first to have the courage to merchandize receivers on a very large scale. Once the public discovered that the Navy could make a receiver that didn’t interfere with the broadcasting, which was starting, there rose a great demand that we do this at once. So that started another phase of this same subject which will be talked about on the next reel.


  1. Howeth, History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, chapter XXVIII, suggests that these meetings began in January 1920, while the incident described below occurred in late 1919.
  2. Rear Admiral Robert S. Griffin, Chief, Bureau of Steam Engineering, 1913-1921.
  3. Judge Eugene O. Sykes, first chairman of the FCC.
  4. Samuel W. Stratton, Director of the National Bureau of Standards,
  5. William Comings White, engineer, General Electric.
  6. Samuel M. Kintner, Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company
  7. Likely Robert W. King, Engineering Department, Western Electric.
  8. Unidentified.
  9. For more, see Taylor’s own account of this in Radio Reminiscences: A Half Century (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, 1948): 92.
  10. Maj. General John A. Lejeune, Commandant, United States Marine Corps, 1920-1929.
  11. Thirteen members of the United States Marine Band Orchestra under Second Leader Taylor Branson performed on Wednesday, 17 May 1922 in the first radio broadcast of the orchestra on the radio from the Naval Air Station, Anacostia. The orchestra was ordered to perform on Wednesday evenings until further notice, and did so until going on tour in September. The Marine Band’s own archives do not contain the letters Hooper references. The editor acknowledges gratefully the assistance of GySgt Kira M. Wharton, Assistant Chief Librarian/Historian, U.S. Marine Band, for the clarification.
  12. Dr. Frank Conrad, engineer, Westinghouse.
  13. David Sarnoff.