Pitara Kids Network

Frank Conrad’s Garage

Where: Pittsburgh, USA

July 22, 2000: Over eighty years ago, the first commercial broadcast on radio occurred in a garage in Pittsburgh, US. Today, the garage and the house it is part of, are up for sale, according to a brief report in ‘The Asian Age’.

The garage and house had then belonged to engineer, Frank Conrad. Conrad had 200 patents on the radio, which meant that he had official documents that gave him the right to make, sell or use the radio.

Frank Conrad’s Garage [Illustration by Sudheer Nath]

Conrad used to spend hours tinkering in the garage with the radio. In 1919, he started a radio station, 8XK. At first he broadcast twice a week. He tested his equipment with various sounds and a type of record used in those days, called phonograph records.

That was the first instance of an amateur radio station. He made a deal with a local record store that provided him with a continuous supply of records to play.

Soon Conrad’s employer, Mr. Westinghouse, of Westinghouse Electric Corp. came to know what he was doing. Westinghouse realised that the radio could be developed commercially, for profit. He created KDKA radio in 1920, erecting transmitters too. Conrad became the leading engineer of the project. And his garage was the backup station for the first KDKA broadcast.

The historic significance of Frank Conrad’s garage does not end here. It was also the base for the first-ever transmission of the presidential election results in November 1920.
But now it appears that the garage will be forgotten by history. That’s what a report in ‘The Asian Age’ newspaper says.

The National Museum of Broadcasting (NMB) is a Pittsburgh group that wants to preserve the garage as a future museum. But it has failed to raise enough funds or interest for doing so. The NMB could not raise $3,20,000 to buy the site or even $50,000 to dismantle the building and move it to another location.

This leaves only commercial users as prospective purchasers.

“To broadcasting history this is like the Wright’s Brothers’ shop is to aviation or Henry Ford’s garage is to the automotive industry. It’s that important,” said a disappointed Rick Harris, the chairman of the NMB.

Harris and his friends are trying their best to stop the sale. And save Frank Conrad’s garage.

The garage was the venue for the first ever, commercial broadcast. But for the beginning of radio history we need to go back further, to 1895. An Italian physicist called Guglielmo Marconi, succeeded in transmitting wireless signals from one point to another, to a distance just over two km. The special thing about this was that no connecting wires were used for transmission. Marconi’s transmission signalled the birth of the wireless system as it came to called.

In 1896, Marconi went to London. There he met the engineer-in chief of the post office, William Preece, who encouraged him a great deal. Marconi took out his first patent that year in London. By using balloons and kites to get to attain greater heights for his aerials, he popularised the idea of the wireless. In 1898, he succeeded in establishing communication between ships and the shore. In 1899 he set up the first wireless communication between England and the rest of Europe. Finally, in 1901, he transmitted wireless signals between England and America – that is, across the Atlantic Ocean.

Once the wireless was born, radio did not take very long to materialise. The idea of transmitting sound to people over a large distance, must have struck many. But it was left to American physicist R.A. Fessenden, to make the first successful broadcast. Fessenden made his broadcast in December 1906 from his experimental station at Brant Rock in Massachusets. The programme included some musical pieces and a talk. It was heard by listeners with receiving equipment up to 24 km away.

And then came Conrad and created history in his garage. But it seems to be a history that not many people are interested in. Or it would not be up for sale like any other ordinary garage.