The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution - Henry Schlesinger (2010)

Chapter 12. Mass-Marketing Miracles

“It Was Written for Boys, but Others May Read It.”

—L. Frank Baum, The Master Key:
An Electrical Fairy Tale

On November 25, 1905, a small ad appeared in the back pages of the Scientific American. Placed by the Electro Importing Company, the ad was for the Telimco Wireless Telegraph Outfit. The kit was being marketed under a somewhat awkward contraction of the company’s name, though the majority of readers were probably captivated by the technology itself. A hobbyist’s version of Marconi’s basic system, the Telimco ad promised everything an amateur needed to transmit and receive wireless signals for up to one mile, including a one-inch spark coil, telegraph key, coherer, decoherer, “catch wires,” four dry cell batteries, and a speakerlike device to hear the signal. Priced at just $8.50 (a little under $200 in constant dollars), the unit was nothing short of a technological bargain. Later, department stores, such as Macy’s and Gimbels also began selling the outfit, while other mail-order outfits such as Johnson Smith & Co. would market their own versions.

The ad and Telimco unit were the brainchild of Hugo “Huck” Gernsback, born Hugo Gernsbacker in Liechtenstein in 1884. Although barely twenty when he arrived in America, he had a solid educational grounding in technology along with a restless mind—certainly too restless for the staid laboratories and lecture halls of Europe and perhaps even too impatient for the laborious, often tedious work of scientific research in general.

Seeking his fortune in America with a newly designed powerful dry cell, he quickly persuaded the Packard Motor Car Company to buy the rights to his battery, then used the funds to open a store in lower Manhattan catering to a public hungry for technology. It was a brilliant concept.

America was embarking on a new century with a growing middle class that was every bit as fascinated by science and technology as the European aristocrats had been a hundred years earlier. Although Gernsback was not alone in marketing modern marvels to the masses he was certainly one of the most visible promoters, using many of the same whiz-bang gimmicks the charlatans employed to sell their medical devices and elixirs.

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© Chris Costello

At one point, according to popular legend, perhaps spread by Gernsback himself, The Electro Importing Company was investigated by the New York City Police Department for possible fraud. Could it be that the miracle of wireless transmission and reception were actually available for as little as $8.50? Yes, it most certainly was, Gernsback himself assured the public along with the NYPD. Marconi’s miracle technology was now within reach of practically everyone everywhere.

By the turn of the century, an entire generation had grown up in the world of long-distance telegraphy and the telephone, the Wright brothers had already flown, albeit briefly, at Kitty Hawk, and the electric light, though far from a ubiquitous fixture in American homes, was no longer an illuminating novelty. Inventors, if not scientists, were celebrities in their own right with the newly minted mythologies of Edison, Morse, and others already firmly enshrined in the American psyche. Textbooks and popular magazines offered up stirring and inspirational accounts of inventors, often giving more words to the man than the machine.

Parents eager to set their children on the right path bought them chemistry sets with names like Chemcraft, produced by the Porter Chemical Company, which also sponsored Chemists Clubs. Young adult books on electricity and technology flourished, many of them written for boys and intended to instill the noble desire to invent. Who knew when the next Edison or Morse might arrive on the scene to offer up the world a truly wonderful and practical miracle?

Even as Gernsback’s ad appeared, the age of the young amateur experimenter was already well under way. In his 1901 book The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, L. Frank Baum, of Wizard of Oz fame, sets a young man out on an electrical adventure with all manner of gadgets and gizmos that benefit mankind. The book, as Baum noted in the preface, was “Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotees.”

Though now largely forgotten, The Master Key is a fascinating techno-literary artifact. Spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its pages are packed with early twentieth-century optimism as well as suspicion of electricity, though the doubters are quickly converted. In one early scene the young protagonist’s father and mother gently quarrel about the young boy’s hobby in experimenting.

“Electricity,” said the old gentleman, sagely, “is destined to become the motive power of the world. The future advance of civilization will be along electrical lines. Our boy may become a great inventor and astonish the world with his wonderful creations.”

“And in the meantime,” said the mother, despairingly, “we shall all be electrocuted, or the house burned down by crossed wires, or we shall be blown into eternity by an explosion of chemicals!”

“Nonsense!” ejaculated the proud father. “Rob’s storage batteries are not powerful enough to electrocute one or set the house on fire. Do give the boy a chance, Belinda.”

THIS WAS CERTAINLY A FAR cry from the genteel instruction on natural philosophy to promote polite drawing room conversation on scientific theory published just a few decades earlier. It’s interesting to consider just what a young Michael Faraday would make of such a book or of Harper’s Electricity Book for Boys (1907) in which the author, Joseph H. Adams, wrote:

Theory is all very well, but there is nothing like mastering principles, and then applying them and working out results for one’s self…The boy who makes a push button for his own home, or builds his own telephone line or wireless telegraph plant, or by his own ingenuity makes electricity run his mother’s sewing machine and do other home work, has learned applications of theory which he will never forget. The new world which he will enter is a modern fairyland of science, for in the use of electricity he has added to himself the control of a powerful genie, a willing and most useful servant, who will do his errands or provide new playthings, who will give him manual training and a vast increase in general knowledge.

True to his word, Adams’s book touches only lightly on scientific theory, guiding the reader slowly through projects of increasing difficulty, including the building of several types of batteries. What turn-of-the-century boy could resist such an enticement to technological quest? To read Adams, building electrical devices was an adventure worthy of Jim Hawkins from Treasure Island, Huck Finn, and Tom Swift. For young boys of a certain age, inventor was added to the list of potential careers, along with the more banal and traditional choices of cowboy, pirate, and explorer.

Young boys weren’t the only ones captivated by invention. For America’s adult would-be inventors and tinkerers, who had been making do with scraps, Gernsback and others played the role of instrument maker by importing and distributing scientific and technical equipment from Europe that was not easily found in the United States. Those who had only been able to read about Marconi and other scientists finally had a reasonably priced opportunity to roll up their sleeves and explore the technology themselves in home workshops, though some of Gernsback’s product line, such as the do-it-yourself x-ray unit, is actually frightening by today’s standards.

It’s worth noting that a variation of the Gernsback story was reprised in 1975 when a small Albuquerque, New Mexico, company, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) introduced the Altair 8800 for $395 (about $1,500 in constant dollars) through the mail. Considered the first “microcomputer,” the unit appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics in January 1975. The Altair (named after the brightest star in the Aquila constellation) offered no keyboard, monitor, or tape reader, and boasted a whopping 256 bytes of memory. Enthusiasts programmed it in binary machine language with toggle switches and little lights on the front panel. Thousands of the units were sold, and a Harvard student, William Henry Gates III (“Bill” to his friends), contacted the company with an offer to write code for the machine.

HOWEVER, IT WAS GERNSBACK’S EVER-GROWING line of magazines in which he made his mark and allowed his imagination to really take flight. Starting out with a catalog to promote Electro Importing’s products, he steadily included longer and longer articles. By 1908 Gernsback was a full-fledged magazine publisher with the launch of Modern Electronics, which also just happened to include a good many of Electro Importing Company’s products along with instructions for do-it-yourself projects that made use of Electro Importing equipment. Something of a hybrid technical magazine and product catalog, it provided a printed forum for the technology enthusiast with stories on how to create home electronics, contests, and a “patent of the month.”

Gernsback struck the perfect tone, offering more technical detail than the mainstream press without the narrow focus and stodginess of academic journals. There were other magazines catering to roughly the same market, but none with the breathless enthusiasm Gernsback managed to pack into his pages. Following his initial successes, Gernsback added more magazines to his offerings, including the world’s first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories.

Although often boasting lurid covers, Gernsback took pains with the content, reprinting classic stories by Jules Verne and others. His formula was simple: he put out the kind of magazine he would want to read. Gernsback is credited with coining the term “science fiction” within the pages of Amazing Stories.

Although now remembered for the Hugo Award, the science fiction award that bears his name, Gernsback was also something of an amateur inventor whose enthusiasm regularly exceeded his actual scientific acumen. His most notable invention, the isolator, was a helmetlike device that filtered out distractions to help people think and that he took to wearing around the office. Another device, the hypnobioscope, he claimed, could assist its users to learn while they slept. By the end of his life, he held more than eighty patents.

However, his true gift was for speculating on future technology, and at several points his predictions proved uncannily accurate. He imagined space flight, including multistage rockets, space walks, and radar along with a manned lunar landing by 1970—missing the Apollo 11 date by about a year.

What Gernsback either unleashed or promoted was the age of the radio hobbyist. Thousands of hobbyists around the country began building their own radio sets, first relying on units such as the Telimco, then improvising as they went along. Car batteries, spark coils, and even homemade batteries provided the power as they scavenged parts to build increasingly powerful transmitters.

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Hugo Gernsback, the father of science fiction, got his start by selling a small wireless telegraph system to hobbyists. A scaled-down version of Marconi’s famed technology, the Telimco Wireless Outfit was powered by two standard dry cells and boasted a limited range. However, it did not take long before hobbyists began tinkering with the basic package to boost its range with increased battery power and new types of antennae.

Courtesy of Poptronix Inc.

A good many of these radio hobbyists would simply listen in on wireless transmissions from ships at sea, the news broadcasts regularly transmitted out to the ships, or they would try to make contact with other hobbyists. Some, however, like early hackers, took an aggressive approach, blocking transmissions from ships and news agencies with extended bursts from their homemade transmitters (called “brick on the key”) or broadcasting false reports. In En gland, the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1905 was designed to regulate all wireless communications, and even amateurs required a license to transmit or experiment. The United States had no such regulations because the occasional bills that came up in Congress were beaten down by the American Marconi Company and others lobbying against them. Very often a clean-cut teenage boy would be called to testify about his hobby and provide a statement against licensing.

The question was finally resolved when the Titanic sank in 1912 and hobbyists jammed the airwaves with false reports, prompting the first licensing of amateur radio operators in the United States. The sinking of the Titanic also led to one of early radio’s more enduring legends. According to the tale, a young telegraph operator sat at his wireless set at the American Marconi station housed in New York City’s Wanamaker’s department store in April 1912 and received a seven-word message from the SS Olympic, “SS Titanic ran into iceberg. Sinking fast.” The young man, again according to his own often-told account, tirelessly stayed at the set around the clock to receive regular updates.

The operator, David Sarnoff, the legendary pioneer in broadcasting, had begun as a newspaper boy and then moved to telegraphy with the Commercial Cable Company before finally landing at American Marconi. One of those bright young lads attracted to new technology, he ended up playing a pivotal role in broadcasting, though more than likely he created the Titanic story out of whole cloth. By the time the Titanic sank, he had long advanced up the corporate ladder beyond the role of telegraph operator. What’s more, as some historians have pointed out, the Titanic sank on a Sunday when the store, along with the American Marconi station, was closed. The Titanic story aside, Sarnoff did have a grasp of the potential for radio very early on, at one point authoring a lengthy memo that advocated “radio music boxes” for the home with broadcasts financed by the sale of radio sets—the hardware would pay for the software. When General Electric bought out American Marconi, changing its name to Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Sarnoff’s dream of broadcasting and “radio music boxes” was realized.

EVEN AS GERNSBACK WAS MARKETING his battery-powered sets to eager hobbyists, they were already obsolete in terms of technology. Scientists in Europe, America, and beyond were actively searching for an alternative to the unwieldy coherer. While we may imagine that early wireless telegraphy conducted very much like the telegraphs connected by lengths of wire with operators tapping out messages at lightning speed, the truth of the matter was that sending even a simple message remained a long and arduous process. It took a lot of brute electrical force to broadcast a signal so that the coherer could do its work. The sparks were so large and deafening that operators took to wearing earplugs and the “key work” of sending the signal was a grueling task. To send a “dot” in Morse code the operator pressed down on the key for a full five seconds while dashes took more than fifteen seconds. A single short word frequently took more than a full minute to tap out.

There could be little doubt the coherer and decoherer needed to evolve. And evolve they did. As Gernsback and his wireless devotees enthusiastically sent their signals out into the ether, scientists around the world were independently searching for a viable coherer alternative.

Crystals had long been known to have some unusual properties when exposed to electrical current. In the 1800s Karl Ferdinand Braun made the discovery that electrical current seemed to flow more easily through some crystalline structures in one direction than in another. And, too, there was no doubt crystals now had some useful properties when it came to broadcasting. At Presidency College in Calcutta, Jagadish Chandra Bose filed for a U.S. patent for a crystal-based point-contact rectifier for detecting radio signals in 1901. In the United States, the AT&T engineer Greenleaf Whittier Pickard received a patent on a method for receiving radio signals that included a silicon point-contact diode in the summer of 1906. He would later go on to market crystal sets that used a “cat’s whisker” of thin wire positioned against a crystal’s surface to pick up the broadcasts without the use of batteries through a company called the Wireless Specialty Apparatus Company, which sold a unit called the Perikon—Perfect Pickard Contact.

Less than a year after Pickard received his patent, Henry Harrison Chase Dunwoody of the U.S. Army Signal Corps received a patent for a system using a point-contact detector made of carborundum (silicon carbide). Other patents were filed in Russia as well as Japan. And, in one of the stranger footnotes in technological and scientific history, Henry Joseph Round, who worked closely with Marconi, began experimenting with crystals with some unexpected results. Publishing his findings in the trade journal Electrical World (February 1907) he wrote,

On applying a potential of 10 volts between two points on a crystal of carborundum, the crystal gave out a yellowish light. Only one or two specimens could be found which gave a bright glow on such a low voltage, but with 110 volts a large number could be found to glow. In some crystals only edges gave the light and others gave instead of a yellow light green, orange or blue. In all cases tested the glow appears to come from the negative pole, a bright blue-green spark appearing at the positive pole. In a single crystal, if contact is made near the center with the negative pole, and the positive pole is put in contact at any other place, only one section of the crystal will glow and that the same section wherever the positive pole is placed.

He had unintentionally developed the first light-emitting diode (LED). A type of transistor, the LED’s light is produced by the release of energy as electrons travel across the semiconductive material. For Round, the glow from the crystal was simply an interesting phenomenon, and not much came of his discovery until years later.

In the 1920s, Oleg Losev, a radio technician and self-taught scientist, independently discovered the same phenomenon in Russia. However, unlike Round, he continue his research into the strange glowing properties of crystals, publishing more than a dozen papers between 1924 and 1930 that largely went ignored by the scientific community. Losev, refusing to leave Leningrad ahead of the German siege during World War II, starved to death in 1942, and his work went unrecognized until recently.

However, the real breakthrough arrived in England, at University College London, when Sir John Ambrose Fleming came up with the idea of using a variation on the electric lightbulb to detect waves. He modified the bulb in such a way that it picked up the signals and converted them into electrical current. What he had invented was the first vacuum tube, which for years was popularly known as a “valve.” Fleming, who had once worked for Edison, had the Ediswan Company make up the tubes, which he patented in 1904. They worked, though imperfectly.

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© Chris Costello

An American inventor, Lee De Forest, improved on the concept, modifying Fleming’s original design by adding a grid that could amplify the signal. He called this tube, which offered a marginal improvement over Fleming’s design, the audion or triode vacuum tube. De Forest simply didn’t have the scientific background to perfect the thing, and it wasn’t until General Electric got involved with its teams of scientists and engineers that the vacuum tube became viable in 1912.

The amateur wireless operator with the telegraph key was also surpassed as early as 1900 when Reginald Fessenden wirelessly transmitted sound. A prodigy who graduated from college at fourteen, he was not a genius of the warm fuzzy variety. Arrogant, short-tempered, and impatient, the former schoolteacher somehow managed—despite lack of credentials—to hook up with Edison as a chemist for an extended period, but he left for a position at Purdue University and eventually ended up at a remote research station on Cobb Island in the Potomac that was meagerly funded by the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Fessenden (“Fessie” as Edison nicknamed him) used scavenged parts to build his radio, including an old cylinder from an Edison phonograph. The idea was to extend the traditional wireless telegraphic bursts into a continuous wave that could be modified by a voice. To receive the wave, he designed a replacement for the coherer, which he called a liquid barretter. This was something of a breakthrough device, consisting of a thin platinum wire immersed in an acidic solution that could receive a continuous signal. There was no need to tap it to reset a pile of metal filings.

Fessenden’s first audio transmission traveled just one mile. The speech was distorted, but it worked, at least in principle. He kept at the work, trying to perfect it. Then, in early December 1906, he sent out a Morse code message announcing the first wireless transmission of speech on Christmas Eve. When Christmas Eve rolled around a few weeks later, at around 9:00 p.m., Fessenden tapped out a wireless message on a telegraph key—“CQ (seek you)”—to anyone who might be listening to his transmission from Brant Rock, Massachusetts. When a few ships at sea responded, he spoke into the microphone explaining that he was conducting a test of a voice transmission system, then picked up his violin and played O Holy Night, read a Bible verse, and signed off the air.

Standing nearby to witness the broadcast were representatives from General Electric and AT&T. The demonstration made an impression on the observers, but neither company liked the idea enough to fund it. Although impressive, the technology wasn’t evolved enough to make it commercially viable. It wasn’t until vacuum tubes could perform the work of transmission and receiving that radio actually became practical a few years later. Still, Fessenden had provided valuable proof of concept.

Not surprisingly, radio technology found its way into less than honorable professions—so much so that the magician Harry Houdini was prompted to write an article for Popular Radio in 1923 exposing the use of radio by phony spiritualists.

“Radio has given the ‘spirit business’ an enormous boost in the last few years,” Houdini wrote. “While the rest of us have just been getting acquainted with it, many of the so-called psychics have been reaping a harvest.”

Interestingly, Houdini got much of the basic technology wrong. In detailing the workings of a “talking tea kettle” and statues, he described not true radio transmissions, but a form of transmitting by way of induction. These “transmissions” emanate from the coil’s electromagnetic field rather than bursts of Hertzian waves and are picked up at close range. First discovered in the 1830s and dubbed “electricity at a distance,” the phenomenon had been discovered by Faraday, though he had little use for its commercial applications. Then, around 1887 Edison sent just such a wireless telegraph-like signal using induction coils but abandoned plans for its commercialization.

Some spiritualists also claimed that radio waves provided a link to the netherworld. The good Professor Lodge, who had so politely objected to Marconi’s designation as the “inventor of wireless telegraphy,” would later descend into the study of spiritualism and its relationship to Hertzian waves. However, most of the frauds were far more worldly. For instance, De Forest, who was desperately in need of funds to continue his research, was eventually lured into questionable Wall Street enterprises by stock promoters who wanted his name and credibility for stock schemes. At one point, he found himself quite literally encased in a glass laboratory on the roof of a hotel in downtown Manhattan.

ALTHOUGH RADIO, INCLUDING FESSENDEN’S DEVICE, did not find wide use during World War I, Marconi’s wireless telegraphy played a vital role. In the first “modern war,” all sides deployed transmitters and receivers, allowing for the coordination of troop movements, near real-time updates from the battlefield, and more efficient supply chains. The majority of the “portable” wireless sets used were enormous by today’s standards. Some of these units weighed in at sixty pounds or more and required substantial antennas. “Portable” for World War I meant they were packaged for travel and could be comfortably transported by mule or caisson. Some sets offered hand-cranked dynamos (generators), though many still featured a full set of dry cell or liquid-based batteries.

Despite its still relatively primitive state during World War I, radio outperformed telephone communications on the battlefield as well as in the air. As Popular Mechanics reported in the spring of 1915, coded messages sent by wireless telegraphy were playing a key role in coordinating troop movements and locating targets.

One of the first tasks of the wireless of the various warring countries was to fill in the gaps caused by severed cables. As later incidents have proved, however, that was only an insignificant portion of the work. Hundreds of miles of roaring battle line, hostile warships roving the remotest wastes of the sea, aeroplanes and Zeppelins soaring high above the earth, even the stealthy submarines, lurking in the depths for victims, are subservient to the invisible hand of the wireless.

As the magazine’s story also noted, French and Belgian planes were equipped with hundred-pound radios capable of sending and receiving messages for more than fifty miles.

No doubt this was exciting stuff. The use of radios by armies and spies on both sides during the war piqued the interest of the amateur enthusiast who read breathless accounts of the technology in magazines like Electrical Experimental, Popular Mechanics, and Popular Science. It also pushed the radio industry forward, expanding the number of manufacturers and drawing additional engineers and scientists into the field.