Charles Herrold: Inventor of Radio Broadcasting

When I finally arrived at the last page of this new take on early broadcasting, I could not help being reminded of the old Bud Abbott and Lou Costello routine, “Who’s On First?” In fact, history is accustomed to dealing with claims and counterclaims as to who did what and when something was supposedly done. Did Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone in Canada or the United States or was he even the first to transmit the human voice electrically? There is really no clear answer because the development took place in both countries and in various stages which finally led to the end product. Who was actually first with photography, sound recording, international telegraphy and the list goes on and on. Carrying the sublime to the ridiculous, back in the ’50s we even had the Russians inventing all those things we took for granted in North American folklore. We find ourselves arriving at an examination of the minute aspects of a case that in many respects overshadows the importance of any given invention. In this climate, the work by Greb and Adams risked, in many areas of the text, getting lost in details about time and place. But mercifully, the case of Charles Herrold has finally seen the light of day.

The authors contend that radio broadcasting was established in San Jose, California, long before Frank Conrad and Westinghouse broadcast the results of the Harding-Cox presidential race, an event which the company argued placed its station KDKA as the first broadcasting entity in North America, if not the world. That argument has been challenged a number of times by Canadian Marconi, which has presented evidence that its Montreal based station CFCF (known originally as XWA) beat KDKA to the punch by a matter of hours. In fact, Canadian Marconi began experimental broadcasting as early as 1915 with a three-day schedule, which virtually no one heard except company officials. It is actually astonishing that the person who gave his name to the company had no idea what was going on and had no interest in broadcasting at all. And here is where the hair splitting begins.

The KDKA (Pittsburgh) position that it was America’s first broadcasting station is not entirely dismissed in spite of the title of this work. However, like much of the evidence that supports Herrold’s contention that he beat Westinghouse and Frank Conrad as the first broadcaster in history, it depends on who is interpreting the evidence and how it gets interpreted. Herrold himself in a radio interview in 1934 conceded that KDKA had a legitimate claim to call itself a first because it was the first American station to receive a license to produce broadcasts. Here, the interpretation lies with the word “broadcast” and Herrold’s use of the term. He contends that when his station went on the air in 1909, the federal licensing authorities did not employ the term “broadcast,” which made all transmissions before the formal adoption of the term “experimental.” So, to follow the logic, KDKA may have been the first broadcasting station in America, but it was not the first broadcaster. So, are you clear on that? Let us continue.

Herrold drew a fine line between what he determined as “narrowcasting” and what he called “broadcasting.” Prior to his work in San Jose, he argued that most radio transmissions at that time were in reality “narrowcasting,” because the intent was to communicate in what amounted to a straight line from a transmitter to a receiver. However, in the radio interview noted above, he conceded that Marconi operators used the term “broadcasting” when communicating with ships at sea. But, this did not fit the Herrold definition of broadcasting, if for no other reason than the method of communication was code not voice.

Then there is the matter of awareness. When Lee de Forest, also a claimant to the title Father of Radio, experimented with voice communication and transmitted a message to several receiving stations at once, Herrold dismissed this activity as broadcasting because, as he argued, the inventor did not foresee its use as a device for developing over-the-air programming. He claimed that de Forest was simply interested in selling his device to replace the cumbersome code system used in two-way communication. In fact, he does not even recognize the contribution of Reginald Fessenden, who was one of the first people to transmit voice and music over the air and who was very aware of the fact that he wished to communicate with more than one receiving station located on ships off the Massachusetts coast, as he did on Christmas Eve, 1906. Although Fessenden’s experiment covered only one evening, it is problematic when one with an obvious vested interest dismisses his work as beyond the borders of what we know today as broadcasting.

I am not trying to suggest that Herrold’s claim to be the country’s, if not the world’s, first broadcaster is without merit. Again, that depends on how the question of what comes first is dealt with. The authors Greb and Adams make a convincing case that Herrold deserves the recognition because he consciously planned and performed broadcasting on a regular, scheduled basis. The same claim cannot be made for Fessenden, de Forest, and a host of others with whom the authors deal in the text. There is little doubt that Herrold was a significant figure in the early days of broadcasting, a factor he himself seemed to appreciate and actively promote.

One of the major strengths of this work is the study of Herrold the person. Although a number of critical pieces of evidence were lost by a person who had borrowed some of Herrold’s early notes and discussion papers, Greb and Adams do a credible job of replacing this critical material with oral histories by some of the characters involved in the early radio days in San Jose. It is a credit to Greb in particular that he stuck with the investigation over a period which spanned four decades and more. Slowly the story came together and what we get is a very typical American narrative: an ego-driven, possessed entrepreneur who had the ultimate faith in his own convictions to press ahead. What we are missing however, is a detailed insight into Herrold’s obsession for accreditation, a need which resulted in his use of two titles, doctor and professor, neither of which he earned. But I may be somewhat unfair to the authors. As I have often argued in my own media history classes, unless one is present at an event, what actually happned at any given place and any given time is open to interpretation, and interpretations often conflict with one another.

On a final note, one last criticism comes to mind – the need for a editor with a sharp pencil, or in modern talk, an active mouse in a word processor, is critically apparent. In too many places, there are large chunks of supporting text that really belong in an appendix. The authors published Herrold’s radio interview of 1934 verbatim as part of the text. The main points needed to be paraphrased with a subsequent invitation to read the whole transcript near the end of the book. Not only were the three pages reduced in type size, but they interrupted the flow of the story up to that point. Likewise for Herrold’s letter on pages 174-175. On the other hand, the use of pictures was most enriching. Too often we forget that photography and sketch art can contribute greatly to an understanding of what an author is attempting to communicate. To see Herrold at work was fascinating and so were the many pictures of the entrepreneur, especially the two on pages 165 and 166, in which he bears an uncanny resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock.

Overall, Greb and Adams must be commended by bringing this fascinating story to light. Too often we forget that no matter where we live and what we experience, our existences have a past. And through our past, we can learn why we are where we are in the unending cycle of the human experience.