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How President Wilson Shaped the Airwaves

Many U.S. presidents are known for embracing new communications technologies. Barack Obama was the first social media president, but Donald Trump has transformed Twitter into a potent political megaphone. JFK was the first president to capitalize on TV's image-making powers, while former actor Ronald Reagan created the modern TV presidency and became known as "The Great Communicator." Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were both big boosters of radio, but it was Franklin Roosevelt who most effectively communicated via the first public airways.

But only one President actively assisted in the creation of the mass media revolution – Woodrow Wilson. It was Wilson's largely invisible hand that led to the commercialization of radio and the nation’s subsequent dominance of mass communication technology.

The Last Quiet Year

Today we are bombarded by a cacophony of transmitted sound. Up until Oct. 1,1919, however, the world wasn't anywhere near this noisy. If you wanted to see or hear the Chicago White Sox throw the 1919 World Series starting that day in Cincinnati, you had to go to the ballpark. If you wanted to hear the Senate debate over America's entry into the League of Nations, you had to be in Washington, D.C., and somehow wrangle your way into the Senate visitor's gallery. And if you wanted to hear reports on the Russian Civil War, the U.S. steel strike, the after-effects of the Spanish Flu pandemic – well, you couldn't. The only news you could hear were headlines and "read all about it!" shouted by corner newsies as they hawked the daily newspaper.

While there was plenty to hear, September 1919 was the last quiet month in human history. One hundred years ago this week, on October 1, 1919, the U.S. government lifted its wartime ban on amateur radio transmissions (see The Day Radio Died), initiating today's media cacophony via the birth of radio and the consumer technology industry.

Even radio was largely silent up until October 1, 1919. In this post World War I period, "broadcasting" and even "radio" were largely unknown terms. When someone said "wireless," what they usually meant was wireless Morse code transmissions, not human sounds.

But over the summer of 1919, more advanced development and availability of vacuum tube and amplitude modulation (AM) technologies combined to create continuous wave transmissions – or "broadcasts" – of sound. With the increasing availability of these technologies, and in anticipation of the Oct. 1 transmission ban lifting, several thousand amateur, private, corporate and government radio enthusiasts and entities started to prepare for a radio-driven future, including General Electric executive Owen D. Young and the U.S. government.

The Invisible Hand

After his April 8, 1919, meeting with Admiral William H.G. Bullard and Commodore Sanford C. Hooper (see How The Consumer Technology Industry Was Never Born), Young's first task was convincing the world's most dominant wireless company, British Marconi, which controlled the lion's share of wireless patents, into selling its stateside subsidiary, American Marconi, to the new GE entity.

Young had one major advantage in his negotiations with American Marconi: U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Owen Young

In mid-January 1919, the newly elected Republican Congress denied the U.S. Navy a military monopoly over radio. By that time, President Wilson was already in Paris – the first U.S. president to leave the country while in office – attending the Peace Conference. One item on Wilson's agenda was "to safeguard American pre-eminence in radio," a policy outlined in a Feb. 2, memo from his communications advisor.

During their April 8 meeting in New York, Bullard and Hooper told Young that Wilson was in favor of the creation of an American radio company. Then on May 12, while not revealing Wilson's involvement, Young told American Marconi President Edward J. Nally that his company's interests "are greatly menaced because of the English holdings in the company and the attitude of the [U.S.] government toward such holding."

On May 23, the same day Young met with Hooper and U.S. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, still steadfastly insistent on a military radio monopoly, Wilson and Bullard met with Guglielmo Marconi, then a member of the Italian delegation at the Paris talks. While the details of their meeting are unknown, Wilson likely told Marconi that selling his American subsidiary to an American radio company would be necessary to maintain cordial relations between British Marconi and the U.S. government.

In June, Young did accede to one request from a now beleaguered Nally: that American Marconi remain as constituted, meaning that Nally would remain in charge of the new company's operational division, along with the rest of American Marconi's executive suite, which included its ambitious commercial manager and booster of radio broadcasting, David Sarnoff. On July 25, Young and Nally signed the initial deal that transferred American Marconi's assets to the newly dubbed Radio Corporation of America.

While the complicated GE-Navy-RCA-Marconi negotiations continued throughout the summer of 1919, Wilson was returning home from Europe. Wanting to demonstrate the power of the new radiophone technology, Wilson asked GE to install radio transmission gear on his ship, the U.S.S. George Washington. Work started in late March, and several tests were held that spring. On July 4, 1919, Wilson was to give a mid-Atlantic speech that would be heard aboard all the ships in the presidential flotilla and to any ship equipped with wireless telephone gear within 300 miles.

But oddly, President Wilson was mistakenly placed 20 feet from the concealed microphone, and barely anything of his speech could be heard. It would be more than four years until Calvin Coolidge became the first sitting president to be heard on radio when he delivered his State of the Union on December 6, 1923.

The Noise Begins

Woodrow Wilson's influence over U.S. radio policy ended almost as soon as it began. The day after the government ban on amateur radio broadcasting was lifted on October 1, Wilson suffered a massive stroke. He spent the last years of his presidency bedridden, with his wife, Edith, effectively running the White House. Wilson finally made a radio address the day before the fifth anniversary of Armistice Day (now Veteran's Day), a month before President Coolidge's speech, from his Washington, D.C. home. Wilson died three months later, just as radio was becoming the dominant force in American life, thanks in large part to his efforts.


The End of the Beginning

On October 17, 1919, the Radio Corporation of America was officially established. On that same day, Westinghouse assistant chief engineer Frank Conrad started transmitting music via phonograph records from his own amateur "ham" radio station, 8XK, from the garage at his home in Wilkinsburg, PA – a Pittsburgh suburb. Thanks to their reach and clarity, Conrad's broadcasts would soon become the most popular in Pittsburgh.

A year later, Conrad designed a more elaborate radio station on the roof of Westinghouse's HQ, along with hand-built receiving units dubbed the RA-DA. Westinghouse's broadcast of the U.S. presidential election on November 2, 1920, is often cited as the triggering event of the radio age. Clearly, we have come a long way with anywhere/anytime communications today.

Join us at the CT Hall of Fame dinner on Wednesday evening, November 6 to see the new class of honorees including RCA’s Owen Young whose work has transformed our lives. Register now!

Hear the first recording of a radio broadcast – President Woodrow Wilson’s address on Nov. 10, 1923:


Stewart Wolpin