Archives:History of Naval Radio: The First Popular Broadcasting Station


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Reel #98: The First Popular Broadcasting Station
History of Naval Radio
S.C. Hooper
The First Popular Broadcasting Station, U.S. Naval Radio Station Anacostia, Maryland, 1919

Transcript #98


In the previous recording I described at length the first broadcasting by a congressman; by a member of the United States Congress; Congressman Roy Fitzgerald of Ohio. We felt pretty good after the Congressman’s broadcast, and especially when he made a report of same to some of his fellow congressman on the floor, felt it would help us getting our appropriations requested for improved radio. I said to Doctor Hoyt Taylor one day, I said, “Doc, the first thing you know we’ll have a senator broadcasting on here.” He said, “Well, it might even have the President someday.” Well sure enough it wasn’t long until I was notified that Senator Frelinghuysen, a Republican of the state of New Jersey, had made a request to broadcast through our radio broadcast station, and of course that was granted for perhaps the next evening.[1] I didn’t happen to hear the broadcast but I felt rather happy that we did have a senator taking an interest in our radio station. At least he’d know about Navy radio and that the Navy had a radio station. So I saved myself a bad night’s sleep by not knowing what he said. Because the next morning I picked up the Washington Post at breakfast and there were one-inch block headlines on the front page “New Jersey Senator Makes Political Speech Through a Government Radio Station.”

Well I hadn’t expected that but I could see trouble ahead. So when I went down to the Department I went in to see my chief right away to explain to him that we had given permission for the senator to broadcast, that we had no idea that he would make a political speech, but I couldn’t get in to see him. He had a big conference in there. And I kept going up to his office about every half hour for this matter on my mind. I wanted him forewarned because I knew that there’d be trouble ahead. I didn’t know whether it would come from the White House, from Congress or where, but I never got to see him. And sure enough, about ten o’clock the phone rang. It was Senator King of Utah, of the opposite political party.[2] “Young man,” he said, “You allow Republican senators free use of government radio to attack the administration in power? I want an explanation.” Well I was sort of prepared for that. I said, “Well Senator, I’m very glad you called up sir, I said, “I don’t know what a senator says over the government radio.” I said, “We have this radio broadcast station belonging to the Navy Department at the Naval Air Station at Anacostia, and we permit government officials to broadcast over it when it’s not in use by the Navy for its own purposes. It’s very good for the development of the station and the apparatus, and the personnel.” Well I said, “One of your opposing political faiths asked us permission to broadcast on this station.” I said, “I didn’t even know whether he was a Democrat or a Republican to tell the honest truth, and we wouldn’t think of turning down a United States senator with a request like that, or even of censoring his remarks.” I said, “If you want to use the station, why we’ll arrange a time for you very happily. I’d be honored Senator.” Well he wasn’t quite satisfied. He proceeded to jump down my throat and say that we shouldn’t allow a senator to attack the government in power through one of the government’s own radio stations. Well I stood right up to him. I said, “Well Senator . . .”, I said, “I’m a naval officer. I’m a young naval officer at that.” And I said, “I don’t consider it’s the business of a naval officer to censor what a United States senator does with government property.” I said, “We in the Navy, we’re non-political. We don’t know the Republicans from the Democrats. It’s our duty to run the Navy and look out for its property.” I said, “I think Sir, that if you want to attack anybody for using government property in a way they shouldn’t, as you claim Senator Frelinghuysen did at the Naval Radio Station at Anacostia last night, I think that’s a matter for the Senate itself to settle and not to try to put on us the censoring of officers of the United States Senate.” I said, “I’ll be glad to give you any information I can to help out on this”, but I said, “I don’t think its right to blame us.” “Well . . . , he said, “. . .young man”, he said, “I believe you’re right.” He said, “I admire naval officers very much indeed.” He said, “I’ve been rather close to the Navy from time to time on the Naval Affairs Committee, and so on, and I admire the Navy and I admire the Navy men very much indeed.” And he said, “I think you’re right; that that should be taken care of in the Senate itself.” So I didn’t hear anything more of him, and I reported what he said to my chief, and he said that was okay and he just laughed.

So that night I bought The Evening Star in Washington and sure enough there were bigger headlines than there were in the morning paper; “Senator King of Utah Attacks Senator Frelinghuysen for Misuse of Government Radio Station; Misuse of Government Property for Political Purposes”. Well the papers were full of that all over the country. It was the first time a political speech had ever been broadcast by radio and we permitted to Senator King the next day to make a reply to Senator Frelinghuysen on the radio, in addition to his reply on the Senate floor which was published in the press. The only real effect it had on me was that my chief sent me a chit saying that whenever a senator was going to broadcast the Secretary of the Navy would like to have a memo on the subject.

Well it wasn’t too long until we got into trouble from another source on our radio broadcast through this little non-commercial pioneer station at the Naval Air Station Anacostia. It seems that one of the cabinet officers who lived at Wardman Park Hotel on Columbia Road in Washington D.C. had applied permission to broadcast on a certain Saturday evening, and he did it from his room in Wardman Park Hotel. The appointed time came and he was properly introduced, and he started out to make a dignified broadcast. When all of a sudden the telephone in his room became disconnected from the microphone, which was connected to the radio transmitter at Anacostia. And the Senator could hear that the phone had gone dead so he began to work his receiver up and down, the holder of the receiver; his telephone receiver, just like we always do when we’re disconnected. And he didn’t get any response right away from the operator so he began to swear. He kept saying, “Operator! Operator! Connect me up right away again with this so and so number!” Well the operator heard him and she reconnected him but he didn’t realize he was reconnected. So he let out a string of swear words there about a mile long and all that was going out over the air. So that caused quite a stir and it was in the papers. He was criticized for swearing [chuckle]. Of course I suppose everybody swears sometime, but you’d have thought to hear the other party talk about it. Only one political faith ever did any swearing as far as the cabinet’s concerned.[3]

Then we had another funny time with one of the Public Health broadcasts where - I forget who it was that was broadcasting - but they were down for a broadcast about once a month. And they tried to advise the public about health, which is their function, and very proper and helpful. Well it happened that one of the cabinet officers was giving a large dinner party at some place in Washington, in a suite in a hotel.[4] He had about 14 or 18 couples there. And they got to talking about this new thing; broadcasting. Everybody seemed interested in it. It was quite a subject for dinner conversations. And the host, who was a cabinet officer, said, “Well this is Saturday night and this is the night that they broadcast. So after dinner we’ll turn it on.” So he had several headphones there, and pretty soon the NOF; the Navy Broadcast Station, began to broadcast. And it happened to be the night for the broadcast of the Health Officer for the Public Health Service. Well he started out and he began to talk about diseases which were not a fit subject for a dinner table. In fact in those days nobody would think of even allowing anybody to listen to such discussion. It wasn’t considered dignified then. Although now the public is much more sophisticated and even the children don’t blush when they talk about things beyond pneumonia and heart disease and so on. So there they were, right at this dinner of the cabinet officer, these men and ladies in evening dress, hearing this terrible talk. So the next day this cabinet officer at a cabinet meeting brought the matter to the attention of the President and there was a great deal of consternation about allowing such a broadcasting to go on. Well that got back to us but it wasn’t my fault. It’s probably poor judgment on the part of the Public Health Service. So they got in trouble that time. Well of course I thought I was doing a pretty poor job getting struck by lightning, first here and there. But as I look back on it, people that have anything to do with radio broadcasting, they get in hot water all of the time, especially the people trying to regulate the broadcasting.

Well we finally did have the President of the United States on the air. As soon as this station began to broadcast I thought it would be a good idea if we made up a nice receiver with about four earphones and present it to the White House. So I had Mr. Eaton, who was in charge down at the Radio Test Shop in the Navy Yard, make up a very good receiver - the best we had - presented by the U.S. Navy and designed by the U.S. Navy.[5] And I called up the President’s Aide and told him we’d like to put this receiver in the White House so the President could listen in on the radio. So that was arranged. And when Mr. Eaton came up from the Radio Test Shop with a couple of Sailors and this receiver in a truck, I got on the front seat of the truck and we drove in the White House - I had the pass - and we carried the receiver in and the usher took us up to the room of President Wilson’s wife and we installed it in the bedroom, and she was very much interested in it. And we taught her how to operate it and so on. So also we gave her a schedule of the evening concerts and addresses so that she could follow. She wasn’t well, and I suppose it did add to her contentment to some extent.

Rather interesting; I saw the Aide about two or three weeks later and he said, “Well it’s a good thing you got that receiver over at the White House when you did.” He said, “It wasn’t three days later when the Westinghouse came to the White House. They had a receiver in a truck - Oh, it was all enclosed in a beautiful cabinet and gold-plated with Westinghouse all over it - and they wanted to install it the White House.” And then about a week later the General Electric rolled in and wanted to know if they could get permission to put in a receiver in the White House.” “Well . . .”, he said, “. . . all I had to do was to tell them that the President already had a Navy receiver. That didn’t step on anybody’s toes.” So that made it possible, of course, to tactically decline any further installations.

One time there was a call from the White House that there was something wrong with the receiver, and I took a technical man over there with me, and while I was in the bedroom there with this man working on it, why a fire broke out on the roof of the Treasury building right across from the White House. So the President’s wife and I were standing there talking while this Sailor worked on the receiver. So we went up on the roof and walked over in the direction of the fire there and watched it. It wasn’t a very big fire. Some man was repairing the roof of the treasury building and I suppose a blowtorch had tipped over and set something on fire. But they had about a four-alarm fire there in no time at all and all of the traffic was blocked up. I thought to myself the wind was blowing away from the White House. I thought to myself, “Well now if that wind should shift in the direction of the White House and some sparks might come over to the White House roof and set the White House on fire, I sure would have a chance to be a hero carrying the wife of the President of the United States down the stairs and rescued her.” [Chuckle]

Well a little later, I suppose about six month to a year later, when President Harding was installed - I believe that was in March 1923 - I decided it would be a good idea to try to broadcast the President’s address.[6] So I started to make a study of how we might make arrangements for that and I took it up with the Inaugural Committee in Washington; Chairman E.B. McLean, and he thought that would be a fine idea to broadcast the President’s address and let the people hear it all around Washington.[7] The first was in the forenoon. They wouldn’t hear it much more than one hundred miles but that would excite quite a lot of interest. There was a committee on radio which existed; a committee on radio news, and that committee was headed by Rear Admiral Bullard; W. H. G. Bullard, who had been to sea and retuned as Head of Naval Communications; Captain A. J. Hepburn, who was then Assistant Chief of Bureau of Engineering[8] ; Captain S. W. Bryant, who was under Admiral Bullard; Commander S.C. Hooper, myself. I had the Radio Division; a Major General George O. Squier, Chief Signal Officer; and Major J. L. Mulburn,[9] who was in charge of the equipment and radio material and development for the Signal Corps under General Squier and Captain Guy Hill of the Signal Corps; and Lieutenant G. L. Townsend of the Army Signal Corps.[10] Townsend’s father, by the way, was a Mr. Graham; the founder of the National Electric Supply Company, which is the Genral Electric Supply Company in Washington, D. C.

So they approved that we broadcast the address. Well then we found out that the telephone company had imbedded a microphone with a loudspeaker after fashion of the Magnavox, which amplified the speech tremendously. You could talk in an ordinary microphone and turn volume up and the speech would be carried for a mile, and they wanted to demonstrate this for the inaugural address also. So finally I happened to be in charge of the work for the Navy, for the Government News Committee, and J.J. Carty; the head of the Bell Telephone engineering side, was in charge of putting in his amplifiers.[11] So we finally got together and they erected a speaker’s platform on the west end of the Reflecting Pool back to the munitions building in the Mall right near the Lincoln Memorial where the President was to stand, and this amplifier was in front of him. And the speech was carried clear over the reflecting pool. There were probably 100,000 people standing out there when President Harding made his address, and heard that speech perfectly. At the same time the telephone company had the long distance wire connected up to the same microphone and the speakers transmitted all the way to San Francisco, California, and there they had another loudspeaker in the park there and another 100,000 people listened to the same address. In the meantime we had connected the same microphone to the radio broadcasting transmitter at Arlington, Virginia; the same transmitter which you use to have at Anacostia, so that the speech also went out by radio telephone. Everything worked fine and was very successful. That was the first time that the President of the United States ever spoke over the radio telephone. Here’s a clipping from one of the Washington papers which describes this:

“Radio to Transmit Harding’s Address. Inaugural speech to be heard throughout the country and on Navy’s Fleets. Eaton’s court designed WINS; Senator Phipps believes ceremony should allow visitors to have a good time here. President Harding’s inaugural address will be heard at every Army post in the United States and on every battleship of the United States Navy with plans of the committee on radio news [unintelligible] Army and Navy officers are a success. Chairman E.B. McLean of the Inaugural Committee announced yesterday, special radio telephone apparatus belonging to the Army and Navy is to be used to transmit the message of the new chief executive to all parts of the United States and to the East according to present plans.”

Then it goes on to list the committee, which I’ve already named, and say:

“In addition to amplifying by special apparatus, the voice of President Harding so that it can be heard by the immense crowd that will gather at the Capital, it is proposed to place two megaphones in the president’s stand in front of the White House so friends of the President who do not care to go to the Capital can hear his address. This feature depends on the ability of the Committee to obtain the use of the private conduit and special wire for the occasion. It will be the first time in history of the United States that an attempt will be made to transmit the voice of the President to all parts of the United States and to the battleships of the Fleet during inaugural address. And the greatest care is being taken in selection of necessary apparatus in order to insure the success of the undertaking. Any person in the United States who is supplied with the necessary apparatus can listen in on the address and is probable the individual will take advantage of the fact to hold inaugural parties and listen to the address of the President.”[12]

I could tell by the print that that’s in the Washington Post very likely, although there’s no date on the clipping.

Of course radio began to grow like a weed, and from then on a great many people got the idea of putting in the broadcast stations. I think in about four or five years there were 800 broadcast stations; six or eight hundred broadcast stations. But the first trouble was that they wanted the government to do the broadcasting. Because it costs money to build the stations and provide the programs and nobody had any money. The source of income was to be from the sale of the receiving apparatus. And there was quite a number of manufacturers, mostly small manufacturers such as ex-enlisted men in the Army and Navy who’d been in radio; they were the main source of design and manufacture of radio receivers for some time. And of course the companies that had been in the production of radio sets during the War, a number of them started to build receivers. But there wasn’t any use building receivers unless they had transmitting stations and programs. In the early days when [Lee] De Forest first put the arc radio telephones in the Fleet, he was trying to start broadcasting but there were no listeners. Now we’re going to have listeners, plenty receivers, but we wouldn’t have any transmitting programs going on unless somebody put up the money for the transmitting stations and the programs.

As a matter of fact, several of the manufacturers came to me in a group to the Bureau, which I was in. It seemed to be the one place they all headed for if it was anything about radio. They came to me in a group by appointment and urged that the government take charge of the billing of all of the broadcast transmitting stations so they could start this new industry of making and selling receivers. Well I made the decision for the Navy Department - perhaps I should have gotten permission from somebody - but I just told them flatly that we weren’t going to do that, that we were opposed to it; that if this new instrument radio broadcasting was to be of any value, its value as to the democracy would be far less if the government controlled or owned the stations, and they didn’t like that all but that’s about as far as they could go. I didn’t think we could do it anyhow. We never could have gotten the money. If we had done it and we’d done a poor job, progress wouldn’t have been very fast, and it had government control of programs which wouldn’t have been democracy at all. I’ve been very proud of the action I took then, which was just taken as a result of my intuition on the thing, and so they had to find some other way of paying for their transmitting stations. Well this subject will be continued in the next reel; Number 99.


  1. Joseph S. Frelinghuysen, Sr. (1969-1948), Republican, Senator from New Jersey from 1917 to 1923. Hooper may have misremembered the controversy, however. Indiana Senator Harry S. New, a Republican facing a strong primary challenge, used the naval radio station to transmit an address intended for an audience in Indianapolis on March 30, 1922. This created a minor scandal at the time as Democrats challenged that the Navy was favoring Republicans with the use of this technology. But Senator Frelinghuysen did indeed use the naval radio station to transmit a speech earlier, as had Senator Lodge of Massachusetts and Representatives Fitzgerald and (according to Hoyt Taylor) John L. Cable of Ohio. See “Deny Discrimination in Use of Naval Radio,” New York Times, April 1, 1922, p. 20. The journal Radio Broadcast reported on the New matter, and assigned him the distinction “of making the first political speech by radio…” See “The March of Radio,” Radio Broadcast 1:2 (June 1922): 96.
  2. William H. King, Democrat, senator from Utah from 1917 to 1941.
  3. This may have been Albert B. Fall, who was senator from New Mexico before joining Harding’s cabinet and who lived at the Wardman Park Hotel.
  4. Hoyt Taylor in his memoir claims that this was Secretary of the Navy Denby. See Radio Reminiscences, p. 92.
  5. Likely Lt. William A. Eaton, officer-in-charge, Radio Test Shop, Washington Navy, Yard, 1915-1921.
  6. Warren G. Harding’s presidential inauguration was 4 March 1921.
  7. Edward Beale McLean (1889-1941), publisher and owner of The Washington Post and chairman of the Warren G. Harding inauguration committee.
  8. Captain (later Admiral) Arthur Jepy Hepburn. He became Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet in 1936.
  9. Unidentified.
  10. Likely Lt. George L. Townsend.
  11. John J. Carty, Chief Engineer, AT&T.
  12. According to an article in the New York paper The Evening World, there was a plan to record Harding’s speech onto a phonograph and play it over the radio nationally on the evening of 4 March, but that plan had been abandoned by 25 February because Harding’s speech would not be completed in time. See “No Speech by Radiophone,” The Evening World, 25 February 1921, p. 3.