History of Naval Radio: Beginnings of Commercial Broadcasting


About the Transcript

July 7, 1952
History of Naval Radio
Rear Admiral S.C. Hooper
Continued on Radio Broadcasting.
[Reel 99 – ed.]

The beginning of radio broadcasting for practical purposes; a byproduct of naval development of vacuum tube transmitters, 1920

Continued from the previous reel

Transcript #99


On Reels #97 and 98 I described the history of the Navy’s Vacuum Tube Transmitter Committee, which the Navy formed during the middle of World War I and comprised of the representatives of the various companies which were interested in the development of vacuum tube transmitters and the inventors, and the Army and the Bureau of Standards.

And I went on to say that with Mr. Speaker assisting, that we were able to get up the specifications for vacuum tube transmitters up to ½KW and 1KW output and after the War the manufacturers decided there was no future in this type of equipment, except possibly years later for the Army and Navy. So it was necessary that the Navy prepare a requisition for development models for three small tube transmitters, the first of which was installed in the Naval Air Station Anacostia under Dr. A. Hoyt Taylor and which was used to test the range and quality of the instruments on radio-telephone using the amateurs and their friends as listeners and reporters.

The first tests, of course, were conducted with haywire apparatus shortly after the War and they attracted so much interest, and when the first ½KW transmitter was installed the public became so interested in it that nearly all the amateurs in the country had their friends in of evenings to listen in to the NOF programs. I also described how the interest grew. And finally there was a glee club; a voluntary glee club, from Washington D.C. who had put on programs once a week at our station and how finally they had a piano in the radio broadcast station at Anacostia, and then eventually a congressman broadcast at the Navy’s request to his constituents out in Ohio, and later a United States senator, of a party not in power, broadcast a political speech through this station and was challenged by a Senator in the majority party for the use of government property to attack the government, which brought up a new question entirely which had to be settled by the Senate itself. Then I described how the first church concert was broadcast from the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. and how cabinet officers and others made broadcasting, and finally it became so popular that we had to move our radio transmitter to Arlington Radio Station where there was no research work done so that it would not interfere with Dr. Taylor’s staff in their research at Anacostia. Then I told how Mr. Frank Conrad, a member of our industry-government committee, got the idea of commercial broadcasting from watching the interests in the naval broadcasts.

Now I have here a quotation from a Washington paper of that time, probably about 1921, which was prepared by Mr. A. O’Brien of my staff and myself, headed “Marine Band Gives Vast Valuable Aid in Improving Radio”, by Commander Stanford C. Hooper, USN.[1] “Today the famous United States Marine Band, performing in the capitol of the nation, includes a certain weekly program with the usual rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” and thousands of our people in their homes in distant cities, towns and villages, in stately country mansions and modest farmhouses, and even on the decks of our ships at sea, pay reverent respect to the melodious strains of this noble anthem which traveled to them on the wings of the mysterious unseen ether waves. They are experimental concerts, pure and simple, and inaugurated by the Navy Radio Service in its efforts to further advance the reliability and effectiveness of the radiotelephone. These experimental concerts are unique in that their principal objective is the advancement of the radio art on the part of the naval radio experts, assisted by constructive criticisms from the general public. There is never any question as to the excellence of the music produced by the Marine Band. The objective of the radio experts is to impinge the equivalent of these melodies on ether waves so effectively that they may be reproduced in all their purity at any point within receiving range of a broadcasting station, and incidentally to increase the effective range and selectivity of the broadcasting service. The assistance which we earnestly request the general public to give us in connection with these experimental concerts is to criticize the service which we render them. We would be especially gratified if all the observers would state briefly the type of aerial used, whether an indoor loop or outdoor antenna, whether a crystal or tube detector, and if amplification is used, the number of stages, the audibility of the signals, whether weak, fairly loud or very loud, the quality of signals for music and speech, the relative intensity of static as compared to signals, whether or not the signals have a tendency to fade, and whether the wave can readily be tuned in without interference from other stations. Any radio fan, whether he be a bank president or a school boy, who forwards us information in connection with these experimental concerts may be assured that not only is he taking an important part in these experiments but is rendering valuable service to his country. Realizing the difficulties in relying entirely on laboratory observations to judge the results of modifications in apparatus and operating methods, we secured the services of the Marine Band to play at the Naval Radio Laboratory at Anacostia, D.C., NOF, on Wednesdays of each week from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m., 75th Meridian Standard Time without involving any expenditures for music or radio service. The first Marine Band concert was given on May 31st, and in announcing this concert by radio-phone from NOF the public was requested to submit the results obtained, particularly at points distant from Washington.”

It was not expected that a great many letters would be received until perhaps two or three concerts had been given and the radio fans had become aware of these experimental concerts. But the Anacostia Station, although the pioneer of the inauguration of regular broadcasting programs, is restricted to a certain extent by government regulations in the variety of its programs and it is assumed that the most radio fans would be tuned to receive the programs of privately operated stations which are not so restricted. Moreover, NOF broadcasts on a wavelength of 412 meters whereas the other stations operate on a wavelength of 360 meters. This assumption was found to be correct because the majority of the letters received reported tuning in on NOF for only the last part of the program, but every letter received indicated that NOF would always be tuned in for succeeding concerts. Letters were received from 16 states on the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida and inland as far as the Middle West, also from two Canadian provinces; Ontario and Quebec.

Hitherto, the Navy radio has always visualized the army of radio amateurs as an army of boys as potential radiomen for the Navy in time of need. Judging by the letters received this condition is changed because it is evident that even bank presidents and the housewife on the farm are now all versed in radio. I desire to quote from a few of the letters received as a tribute to the United States Marine Band and to illustrate the quality of the service and the area over which it is made effective during the first concert. It is regretted that available space will permit only a very few brief quotations to the many, many letters received. The president of a large printing establishment in Ottawa, Canada writes, “This is to advise you that I received your radio broadcast concert last night very distinctly. I use a Magnavox, and a number of items on your program could be heard two blocks from my house. Ottawa is about 800 miles north of your station.” I quoted that because it was the furthest away from NOF.

Obviously such results are remarkable when it is considered that we are now in the heavy static season and the radiophone is still in its very earliest infancy. Within a year’s time these concerts may be enjoyed by our people all over the United States and even by the people of Canada.

The president of a dental and medical prescriptions manufacturing concern of Allentown, Pennsylvania writes, “I wish to thank you for the very pleasing concert received by my homemade set on one detector tube and one step amplifier, single circuit which was clearly heard on the evening of May 31st, concert by the U.S. Marine Band, and was extremely appreciative of the violin solo by Thomas K. Hoffman, and at the conclusion of your program the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner”, caused the dictator to at once rise to his feet. Thanks again for your entertainment and may we soon hear from you again.” The fact that this gentleman, who is the head of a presumably prosperous manufacturing concern, while enjoying in the privacy of his own home, did not deter him from standing while The National Anthem came in by radio.

The owner of a company state near Middleburg, Virginia writes: “Following your suggestion last night I take great pleasure in thanking you for the entertainment by the Marine Band orchestra. We have a loud speaking horn which we took to the telephone and our local central called all her friends at the neighboring boards and let them share in the good time; thoughtfulness for the pleasure of others shown here as well as adaptation of wireless to wires.

A member of the Tigers Club of Canton, Ohio writes: “Heard most of your delightful radio concert Wednesday evening by the various members of the U.S. Marine Band. Every number, to and including The Star Spangled Banner, was mighty fine. We hear most of them and none of them have surpassed NOF United States Marine Band. It is likely that such members of this club who can possibly arrange it will be on hand on succeeding Wednesday evenings.”

A lady who gives her post office address as Park Hall, St. Mary’s County, Maryland, writes as follows: “The concert last night by the United States Marine Band radioed from Anacostia was perfectly lovely, clear and distinct. It could be heard all over our farmhouse. We enjoyed it more then any concert we have listened to since installing our instrument. Are we to hear the United States Marine Band again? Obviously the long nights on the farms throughout the country, especially in winter, will be less lonely in the future then they have been in the past.” In answer to this inquiry it can be stated that these concerts will be continued just as long as we can possibly arrange to keep them going.

An enthusiast writes from Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. “This is to inform you and your man of the Marine Band that I received your concert tonight. It was grand and so clear and loud. We could here it all over the house with only one headset, so this is something to brag about. Leave it to the Marines. They are as handy with musical instruments as they are with Springfields. Please send me your programs. I want to thank each one of the men that plays the Marine Band for their concerts.” In view of the numerous requests received asking for information concerning the Anacostia Station - and it is impossible to answer these individually - a description of NOF will be given in a succeeding article.

And so it went. Well NOF was just a small one story, two-room radio station, wooden, at the Naval Air Station Anacostia, just across from Hains Point in Washington. It had two 100-foot high supporting masts supporting a four-wire antenna with a rattail between antenna and the radio station, with a vacuum tube transmitter, which has already been mentioned. There’s one other experiment that is of historic importance, which to me was very interesting and ahead of the times, which I would like to record here. It was initiated by one of our staff; Mr. Earl C. Hanson, who later initiated the work of the radio piloting cable. He had an idea of using what we call radio to broadcast to hospital patients. It was during the First World War and of course everybody was interested in helping the disabled and wounded, and the Army-Navy hospitals were overflowing with patients who had returned from the front. And Mr. Hanson prepared some apparatus which he said he could install in the basement of the Walter Reed Hospital and connected it in some way to the wiring system of the hospital and then put earphones by the beds of the patients so they would be connected to the wiring and then the patients could hear phonograph records that were run down in the basement. That was really before we had our broadcasting and I don’t know exactly how he did it. He probably, in some way, induced the audio current onto the hospital telephone wire system, or lighting wire system, in such way that it didn’t interfere with the system itself. And then the patients; all they had to do was to put the headphone on and they would here the music or other broadcast from down in the basement Now this was arranged . . . I arranged it with the commanding officer of the Walter Reed Hospital, and on a Sunday we went out to Walter Reed and christened this the new system and it worked fine. I listened into it myself. I talked into the speaker and went around to some of the rooms in the hospital - I think we only had earphones in two or three of the rooms to start with - and found that the patients enjoyed the reception very much indeed.

I want to give Mr. Hanson great credit for this because he thought it up himself and it was a matter which developed as radio came to a point where it is today where all the patients can listen in on the headphones. I think Mr. Hanson got this idea from experiments he’d done when he was in the Mare Island Navy Yard at the very beginning of the War, where you may recall on another reel I related how I arranged that he be employed there because he had an idea that he could design and develop a radio-telephone system within the Fleet which would not interfere in anyway with the radio-telegraph system or vice versa, and he did it by audio frequency. The work seemed to be successful, but because of other more pressing problems we had to free Mare Island of this type of work. And because of my observation of Mr. Hanson and his ability I arranged that he come back to duty in the Bureau.

Of course as soon as soon broadcasting began to take we had many difficulties. For example, people living along the coast would write in and wire in and complain about the interference by ships, all of which in those days had spark sets; both Navy ships and merchant ships, cargo ships and so on, and then also the interference from the shore radio stations which were operating with ships on frequencies near the ones that were being received by the listeners. So that started me on another crusade to try to get rid of this interference, and we fellows in the Bureau realized the only way to do it was to put in continuous wave transmitters, both on the ships and in the shore stations and get a wavelength adjustment so that the broadcasters would have entirely different wavelengths then would the maritime services. That led to a formation of a small committee; General George Squier representing the Signal Corps, Dr. J. H. Dellinger representing the Department of Commerce from the Bureau of Standards, and myself, to discuss this matter and recommend steps to be taken. There were two schools of thought. It was perfectly evident that the broadcast stations were going to be numerous and politically powerful but they didn’t have any wavelengths of their own. Actually the whole ether was occupied by the Merchant Marine and the Navy, practically the whole ether, with some small part by the Army. We gave the matter a good deal of discussion and thought, and had several meetings. It was the choice of the Navy . . . the Navy had to give up frequencies no matter how we did it and the best part of the spectrum was down between 200 meters and about 2,500 meters. And it was a question of whether we should space the broadcasting transmitting station’s wavelengths in between the Navy’s wavelengths or whether we should actually sweep out a large portion of the Navy’s part of the spectrum there and hand it right over to broadcasting for them to do as they want with. Well I realized that if we did that, the latter; gave the broadcasting a large chunk of our available space, I’d be very severely criticized by the Navy. But on the other hand I felt that we’d be in a worse pickle later on if we alternated the broadcast transmitting stations between the Navy transmitting stations because there’d be constant interference between both the broadcasters and the Navy, whereas there’d be a big advantage in sweeping up one part of the spectrum for broadcasting and leaving the other part of the spectrum for the Army and Navy. So I finally agreed that that was the best procedure and recommended that it be done, and we made available the frequencies from 500, that is 550 - 500 meters was the . . . or 500 kilocycles I guess it was the Merchant Marine SOS frequency. So 550 to 1,500 was given to the broadcasters for their broadcast transmissions and we decided we’d get out of there altogether. And below 550 . . . below the 450, with 50 meter guard on either side of the merchant ship distress frequency, down as low as we wanted to go was given to Navy and 1,500 and above was given to the Navy.

Broadcasting half of what was then the existing medium frequency spectrum, and we took the other half, but we gave them the middle of it which was really far the best part. And as I expected, I was severely criticized for that but in time it developed that my position was sound and I never have regretted that that was the decision.

Now here’s a little article from one of the Washington papers on this subject by Robert D. Heinl, who was then one of the most prominent radio writers, radio fans in the country, entitled “Off The Antenna,” by Robert D. Heinl.[2] “In view of the fact that the naval radio-telegraph stations have been so freely and frequently pounced upon as to the cause of boat interference, there should be more than passing interest to local listeners in the defense made by Captain S.C. Hooper, USN. Captain Hooper sets forth - far from not cooperating with the listeners - the Navy has spent more than two million dollars in modernizing its equipment so it would not interfere, but interfere as little as possible, with a program of broadcast reception. We congratulate the Navy through Captain Hooper upon this commendable step, and we do hope may be emulated by others in the crusade to sweep fluid off the dial. Likewise, we trust that the Chief Radio Supervisor, W.D. Terrell, will not let down in his efforts to find out if it was not the Navy, just who it is that nightly marred the programs the Washington listeners as telegraph code.”

Of course that was some time later that we got the money to equip and modernize our equipment, but that gives you an idea of how we’re heading. As I think of it, I’m not sure that it wasn’t Mr. Terrell of the Department of Commerce who was on this little committee with General Squier and myself instead of Dr. Dellinger. Terrell was the Chief Supervisor of the Department of Commerce who granted all the licenses for radio on shipboard and also for inspection of radio stations on shipboard.

To give you an idea of the date of this, I noticed an article in Popular Radio dated February 1923, which was probably written in 1922, written by me and which is headed “Clear the Ether.” This article went on to tell that the Navy had gone ahead and at great expense tried to stop the interference by installing vacuum tube apparatus in its shore stations and was installing it on all its ships. That was sort of an offensive defense of our position at the time. Of course the public never thanks you. And although we’d been the principal one to develop the equipment which made the broadcasting come into practical commercial, use and we had the cooperation of the public to help them in every way; giving them free programs and so on, the minute we interfered with them at first they wanted to hang us in effigy and throw us out the window. [Ha ha] But that’s perfectly natural and that’s the way things go.


  1. Arthur O’Brien.
  2. Robert D. Heinl [Heinlan, phonetic] was the author of the column “Off the Antenna” in the Washington Post in the 1920s. His son Robert D. Heinl, jr., was the lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps.