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

Chapter 14. Distance Dies in the Parlor

“I am often asked how radio works. Well, you see, wire telegraphy is like a very long cat. You yank his tail in New York and he meows in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? Now, radio is exactly the same, except that there is no cat.”

—attributed to Albert Einstein

Just a few years after World War I, vacuum tube technology, if not perfected, was in a significantly better state than it had been before the hostilities. What’s more, companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and RCA were investing in research programs and joint marketing agreements. Amateurs were still broadcasting from attics and garages, making up programming as they went along. These broadcasters, who had started out experimenting with the new technology, quickly began transitioning into something very much like regularly scheduled programming. More than one early amateur broadcaster took to providing play-by-play accounts of sporting events relayed to him via telephone, reading the daily news from the paper, or just playing records from a home collection.

One such amateur, Frank Conrad, was an engineer with Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. After growing bored with simply receiving signals on a home set, he began constructing his own transmitter, going on the air at his home in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. By 1916 he began broadcasting news and whatever else struck his fancy, eventually adding music to his repertoire. After running through a supply of his own recordings, he joined forces with a local music store in exchange for mentioning their name on the air.

Within a short time Conrad was receiving letters, actual fan mail, and suggestions for his broadcasts. The popularity of his broadcasts wasn’t lost on his bosses at Westinghouse, which was busily manufacturing sets of its own at the time. Soon plans were made to launch the first commercial radio station, primarily as a marketing tool to sell more radios. Based in Pittsburgh, KDKA went on the air on November 2, 1920. But was it the first commercial radio station? Some radio scholars give that honor to a smaller operation, WWJ, run by the Detroit News, which began broadcasting in August 1920.

Suddenly, there was something “on the radio” and by 1921 Sarnoff’s once seemingly whimsical notion of a “radio music box” was very quickly becoming a reality. Professional radio stations grew at a pace that rivaled, perhaps even surpassed, the spread of the telegraph. Within just a few years hundreds of commercial stations went on the air throughout the country, and radio became the “must have” item for the home, taking up residence in the parlor or living room, displacing the piano as the family’s primary source of entertainment. And in February 1922, President Warren G. Harding, who had been the first president to ride to his inauguration in a car, installed a radio at the White House.

RADIO WAS NOT ONLY A new technology, but a new form of entertainment, and broadcasters were making it up as they went along. When it was discovered that orchestras sounded better playing inside a tent, stations took to erecting tents inside studios. When the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (now known as the Tomb of the Unknowns) at Arlington National Cemetery was commemorated on March 4, 1921, audiences listened to the broadcast speeches at Madison Square Garden in New York and the Auditorium in San Francisco.

THE BATTERY INDUSTRY CAUGHT ON early. Ray-O-Vac, based in Madison, Wisconsin, founded as the French Battery Company, began marketing dry cells for use in cars under the brand name Ray-O-Spark and branched out into D cell batteries for its own brand of somewhat comically named “French Flasher” flashlights. However, by 1920 the company was marketing a line of batteries for radios under the name Ray-O-Vac (for radios using vacuum tubes) with the help of the corporate cartoon mascot, Mr. Ray-O-Lite.

Radios had clearly moved beyond the hobbyists and were now mass produced by firms using many of the same assembly-line techniques adopted by the car industry. In 1922 sales of radios, batteries, and other accessories amounted to about $60 million though by 1929 that number rose some 1,400 percent to more than $800 million. Suddenly radio was big business. Of course Wall Street took notice and the words “radio” and “broadcasting” became something akin to what “dot com” was during the 1990s.

A company needed only the slightest connection to radio or broadcasting to see its stock price soar or attract investors. In 1928, Radio Corporation of America was selling at a low of 85¼, though by 1929 at the height of the bubble it traded at more than 549. Of course, this couldn’t last, and by late October of 1929 it was more or less over with the stock market crash.

THERE WAS VERY LITTLE UNIFORMITY of style to those early radios. Designers seemed to be struggling with the most basic concepts of what a radio should look like. Did form really need to follow function, or was something else required? And what kind of “user interfaces”—knobs and dials—worked best for the consumer? Some of the early sets looked like serious pieces of laboratory or industrial equipment while others were housed in polished wood cabinets, crafted to resemble fine pieces of furniture. What about the tubes and other inner workings? Should they be “black boxed” or put on display? And just how much should a radio cost?

The RCA-Westinghouse “Radiola Grand,” with its gold-plated tuning dials sold for more than $300 back in the early 1920s (roughly $3,000 in today’s dollars), while all manner of sets emerged from small manufacturing firms whose names are largely forgotten, such as A. H. Grebe & Co., American Auto & Radio Manufacturing, and Hi-Mu Radio Labs. If the price tag for one of the larger sets was too great, budget-minded consumers could buy one of the less expensive crystal sets and try their luck tickling the cat’s whisker across a small galena crystal while listening in on headphones.

Companies like Ray-O-Vac and Eveready (National Carbon Company) got into the radio business with their own sets in much the same way they had entered the flashlight business. Eveready took it a step further, sponsoring a variety show broadcast called The Eveready Hour, with guests like Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers.

One company that stubbornly survived, Philco, grew out of the battery industry—its name was a contraction of Philadelphia Storage Battery Company. Founded in the 1880s as a supplier of batteries for arc lights, the firm turned to providing batteries to the doomed electric car industry before switching to radio batteries, and then, finally, to manufacturing home electronics.

THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE first radios were battery-powered. This made sense since the majority of American homes outside major urban centers were still without electricity. Private companies saw little profit in wiring sparsely populated regions. So radios were built to handle batteries, and many consumers took to using the bulky lead acid storage batteries out of their cars or farm vehicles to power the early sets. Those very early sets required not one, but three batteries. This was eventually cut down to two, called the A (which offered a low 1.5 volt supply) and B (which was significantly more powerful, pumping out ninety volts or more into the tubes). Not surprisingly, battery manufacturers loved this state of affairs, though their days as power suppliers for radios were numbered.

Stepping down current and smoothing out the pulsations of AC was a simple matter of adding a transformer and filter. That would eliminate the B battery. To eliminate the A battery meant the addition of a new tube, which essentially converted the pulsing AC current into a steady flow of DC. As early as 1926, manufacturers began building radios that could run off household current.

However, battery-operated radios were still popular in many regions. For instance, in rural areas, families whose homes offered neither central plumbing nor electricity quite literally listened to the radio by kerosene lamp. As late as 1935 only one American farm in nine had electricity, but a good many of them had radios to hear President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats and the farm reports.

As radio stations and radios in homes continued to multiply, news traveled into homes more quickly, and distance began dying for the average consumer. News of world events that had previously taken days or weeks to reach the general public could now be broadcast out almost immediately.

AS THE ROARING TWENTIES ROARED on, newspapers and media moguls of the day, including William Randolph Hearst and the Los Angeles Times, invested heavily in radio, seeking to get a foothold in the new medium. However, there were also more unlikely broadcasters entering the field. The Los Angeles–based faith healer Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, who had been offering prayer by phone for years—an early version of the crisis hotline—and enthusiastically employed stagecraft borrowed from the film industry, eagerly adopted the new technology. If thousands gathered at her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles’s Silverlake district, she could reach tens of thousands more through radio. So it was almost no surprise when she became the first woman to hold an FCC broadcast license, cranking up the power to her own station KFSG (Kall Four Square Gospel) and America’s first religious broadcasting station in 1924. More religious broadcasters followed, offering salvation, healing, and financial well-being over the airwaves, all for the price of a small donation.

Even as the broadcast industry was rapidly taking shape, a new generation of inventors was coming of age. Inspired by Gernsback’s and other periodicals along with a growing number of technical books, young inventors, engineers, and scientists began to make their mark. One memorable inventor of the period, Samuel Ruben, would play an instrumental role in battery design. In his autobiography, Necessity’s Children: Memoirs of an Independent Inventor (1990), Ruben, who was born in 1900, recalled a childhood of simple inventions from discarded items.

A more troublesome problem, of course, was keeping myself stocked in materials for my various experiments. Mostly, I collected house discards of reusable materials—for example, candlewax-coated Quaker Oats cardboard containers for tuning coils—but I could not have gotten far without the assistance of an Italian junk dealer nearby. For a very small sum—usually what I could save from birthday coins my relatives gave me—he would sell me the items I needed, such as cotton-covered copper magnet wire and larger diameter bare copper wire. When, eventually, he asked me what I did with all these materials, I told him I was constructing a wireless telegraph set. He looked up and beaming with Italian pride, exclaimed, “Ah Marconi!” After that, he would give me small items free and would inquire about my wireless experiments.

Ruben’s account of his childhood experiments in the early part of the twentieth century is fascinating for his ingenuity and determination. Although he never completed his formal education beyond high school, he managed to master the sophisticated technology of the day through experimentation and reading. Even at the end of his career, he fondly recalled reading the works of Faraday. “One could do worse than to come under the influence of such a man and such a mind at the age of fourteen,” he wrote.

Ruben looked back fondly too on the Electro Importing Company and Gernsback’s publications. “Later that same year, 1914, I came across an announcement for a contest in a magazine that dealt with amateur radio and other electrical equipment,” Ruben recalled.

The magazine was published by a company called Electro-Importing Company [sic] and edited by a man named Hugo Gernsback. The company had a store on West Fulton Street that sold complete radio receiving and transmitting sets, along with components parts for amateurs. The contest in question offered a one year’s subscription as a prize for the design of a portable optical signaling device. I submitted a sketch for such a device: A wooden camera tripod supporting a board on which was mounted a flashlight whose switch was connected to a telegraph key. My submission won the prize, and my drawing, along with the details, was published in the magazine.

It is telling that a man who held more than 300 patents at the end of his career still remembered with pride the prize and notoriety Gernsback bestowed on his first invention.

Among Ruben’s inventions was a device that he called a “trickle charger” to keep batteries charged using household current; then in 1926 he came up with the “battery eliminator,” an aftermarket device that allowed radios to plug into wall sockets. Combined with the widening power grid that was slowly making its way across the country, battery power was becoming obsolete as the primary power source for new consumer technology. In the end battery-powered radios took on the somewhat disparaging nickname “farm radios.”

LATER, RUBEN WOULD GO ON to pioneer the alkaline manganese battery in the 1950s in the new AAA size for Kodak’s line of flash cameras. He was a new type of inventor, who, unlike Edison, did not manufacture or sell the devices he created. By all accounts, he had no aspirations of building a business empire of factories and offices. Rather, he licensed his inventions to firms that already had the infrastructure to bring them to market.

One of those companies, P. R. Mallory, was a manufacturer of tungsten filaments for lightbulbs and a limited line of switches, founded by Philip Rogers Mallory. The heir to the Mallory Line, a coastal shipping line dating back to the 1860s, Mallory more or less left the family business to pursue technology, specifically electrical technology. And, it was with Mallory that Ruben found something close to the ideal business relationship. Mallory, although a pragmatic businessman, also had a soft spot for inventors. Unlike many of the technology firms of his time as well as today, he was not averse to licensing products developed outside his company’s own R&D efforts.

P. R. Mallory would eventually shift entirely into the battery field and then, following Mallory’s death, move through several owners, including Dart Industries, Kraft Foods, Wall Street investors, and, finally, Gillette, along the way changing its name to Duracell.