Friday, February 06, 2009

A century of voices through the ether

People speaking, and singing, through the ether. Voices and music in the air. Mass communications -- instantaneous.


Music continuing on the ether. It started 100 years ago this year, in San Jose, Calif., the dream of Charles Herrold -- on again and off again from atop the Garden City Bank Building. Where once there were only the dots and dashes of Morse Code, suddenly into radio operators' headphones came music and voices.

PASSING THE TIME . . . through the ether, they called it a century ago.

Passing the time. Through the ether, from miles away. New friends discussing the news, talking about the weather and playing records on the Victrola.

Regular broadcasts began in 1912, with the water-cooled carbon microphones wired directly into the spark-gap transmitter. And so was, in effect, everybody listening to such a marvel.

A century later, San Jose Mercury News columnist Mike Cassidy
is on a mission to make sure "Doc" Herrold isn't forgotten. Not this year.
Charles Herrold was an inventor and teacher who opened the Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering on San Fernando in 1909. As Herrold and his students noodled with the emerging technology, they would play phonograph records into microphones so they could test their radio signals.

Turns out the noise was a hit among crystal set hobbyists, who were suddenly picking up music and voices on their contraptions.

"They'd call up Doc Herrold,"
[retired San Jose State journalism professor Gordon]
Greb says, "and say, 'Hey, could you play some more songs?' " No word on whether the requests came with dedications.

Herrold kept up the broadcasts until the United States entered World War I, at which time the government commandeered the air waves. By the war's end, newfangled vacuum tubes rendered obsolete Herrold's system, which relied on arcing electrical currents.

Herrold struggled financially after the war and gave his KQW to a church in return for a job at the station. The church eventually laid him off and sold the station to a company that renamed it KCBS, of which perhaps you've heard.

It's a genuine Silicon Valley story: An innovator makes a bet on technology and comes to market before the market is ready. Disruptive technology throws him off his game. He fails, but his original concept changes the world.

Of course, we like to end our Silicon Valley failure stories with a comeback. Herrold's story didn't work out that way. He finished his working years as a janitor at the Oakland shipyards. He died alone in 1948 in a Hayward nursing home, not far from where Greb was enjoying a budding radio career.
TRAGIC, but somehow appropriate. The father of radio as we know it met a fate emblematic of broadcasting today -- talented individual innovates, builds an audience, gets thrown away by the industry he helped build, fades into obscurity. Whadda ya know, even in radio, everything old is new again . . . including eating its own.

The ingrates who bought KQW from Herrold fired Herrold from KQW sometime in the 1920s. By the early 1940s, KQW was the Columbia Broadcasting System affiliate for the Bay Area and became the CBS-owned and operated KCBS in 1949.

By 1945, Doc Herrold's creation had grown so that
it could produce a half-hour docudrama celebrating KQW's 33rd anniversary, calling dibs by nearly a decade on the 25th anniversary of commercial broadcasting's birth with KDKA in Pittsburgh. An entire industry had grown out of Herrold and his radio students chatting about the news and playing the Victrola into a carbon microphone wired up to a spark-gap contraption.

TODAY, those days -- the 1930s and '40s "golden days" -- mark something of a high-water mark for the radio arts in America.

And a century on from those first rudimentary broadcasts to California wireless enthusiasts . . . the industry Doc Herrold dreamed up has cast aside all the innovators who trod his path and filled his shoes.

Ten decades on, the wireless languishes in a high-tech rest home of its own making . . . alone, destitute and waiting for the last sign off.

This is San Jose calling. Is anyone there?

Los Angeles calling. Is anyone there?

New York calling. Anyone there?

Chicago calling. Is anyone listening?

This is the wireless station at Omaha calling. Is anyone there?

Omaha calling CQ. Is anyone out there?


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