i3 | December 01, 2020

Happy 100th Birthday To The Consumer Technology Industry

Stewart Wolpin

On November 30, the consumer technology industry reached the century mark, born when the first Westinghouse RA-DA two-piece radio set rolled off the assembly line on this date in 1920. The RA-DA is acknowledged as the first radio set designed for and sold to the mass consumer rather than hobbyists and, therefore, the first consumer electronics product. Coupled with the Westinghouse's simultaneous founding of pioneering radio station KDKA as part of its corporate intention to commercialize radio, the RA-DA marked the start of the consumer technology industry. We previously explored the leadup to the RA-DA introduction with "The Day Radio Died," "How the Consumer Technology Industry Was Almost Never Born," and "How President Wilson Shaped the Airways."

Dr. Harry Phillips Davis, known as H.P., vice president of manufacturing and engineering for the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, was unusually excited when he bounced into his office at the company's sprawling 92-acre complex in East Pittsburgh early on Thursday morning, September 30, 1920.

Davis bid his secretary a chipper "Good morning!" then, without missing a beat, told her to "ask Frank to come in." She knew her boss was referring to Frank Conrad, Westinghouse's assistant chief engineer, in-house radio genius, and sudden resident radio star.

Conrad was among the most prominent of the growing army of radio amateurs that had arisen around the country in the wake of the government lifting the radio transmission ban on October 1, 1919. Conrad had built his own amateur "ham" radio station, 8XK, in his garage at his home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg, transmitting first in Morse, then voice and, on October 17, 1919, music, when he got tired of tapping and talking and stuck a wireless telephone microphone into the horn speaker of his phonograph player. 

Conrad's unusually clear broadcasts became so popular over the next year that local department store Joseph Horne ran a three-paragraph blurb tucked at the bottom of its full-page "Horne Daily News" ads in the Wednesday, September 29, 1920, evening editions of Pittsburgh newspapers:

Air Concert "Picked Up" By Radio Here

Victrola music, played into the air over a wireless telephone, was "picked up" by listeners on the wireless receiving station which was recently installed here for patrons interested in wireless experiments. The concert was heard Thursday night about 10 o'clock, and continued 20 minutes. Two orchestral numbers, a soprano solo – which rang particularly high and clear through the air – and a juvenile "talking piece" constituted the program. The music was from a Victrola pulled up close to the transmitter of a wireless telephone in the home of Frank Conrad, Penn and Peebles avenues, Wilkinsburg. Mr. Conrad is a wireless enthusiast and "puts on" the wireless concerts periodically for the entertainment of the many people in this district who have wireless sets. Amateur Wireless Sets, made by the maker of the set, which is in operation in our store, are on sale here $10.00 up.

– West Basement

When Conrad arrived at his boss' office the day after the ad appeared, Davis pulled the newspaper clipping out of his pocket, and said, "Frank, I'm going to close your station." Davis then proceeded to regale Conrad with his vision of radio being "a latch key to nearly every home in the United States." Davis later noted that "we had in our hands, in this idea, the instrument that would prove to be the greatest and most direct mass communicational and mass educational means that had ever appeared."

Davis asked Conrad to build an even more powerful transmitting station than his own on the roof of the K building at Westinghouse's East Pittsburgh works. Davis figured a Westinghouse station would promote the company and the sale of potential future Westinghouse home radio hardware.

At 8pm on November 2, 1920, KDKA started broadcasting returns from the Harding-Cox presidential election. Thousands of people listened in, either at home or via horn speakers set up in auditoriums or stores around the Pittsburgh metro area and beyond.

A Business is Born

Conrad had some engineering RA-DA sets hand-assembled to be sold for the broadcast. The first was bought by the manager of Westinghouse's new radio engineering department, Lewis W. Chubb.

With the success of the KDKA broadcast, Westinghouse jumped into manufacturing Conrad's two-piece RA-DA – one cabinet containing the tuner, the second a detector and a two-stage audio amplifier. The RA-DA was powered by a rechargeable lead acid battery, with each piece priced at $65, or a total of about $1,670 in today's dollars for the combined set. The RA-DA went on sale just before Christmas.

Conrad's and Harris' vision for consumer radio were soon justified beyond anyone's most fanciful prognostication.

Westinghouse sold 144,800 RA-DA units over the radio set's 20-month life, a remarkable unit sales total considering that only around a third of the U.S.'s approximately 25 million households were wired for electricity.

Westinghouse was just one of a quickly growing number of experimental radio stations going on the air around the country. But after Westinghouse proved both the concept and the market, there was a rush to fill the sudden consumer demand for radio sets from largely start-up companies including RCA, AMRAD, Zenith, Motorola, JBL, Magnavox, Shure, Crosley and Atwater Kent.

Just as modern companies do today, each of these start-ups aimed at market niches, creating now familiar economy-midrange-premium product tiers and a variety of product configurations to appeal to as many different customer segments in as many markets as possible.

In 1922, Americans spent $60 million on radio sets ($920 million in 2020 dollars). From September 22-28, 1924, the first Radio World's Fare, a forerunner of CES, attracted 175,000 attendees in New York. By 1929, spending on home radios reached nearly $850 million ($13 billion in 2020 dollars), and nearly half of American homes wired for electricity owned a radio.

To fight a proposed $10 federal tax on radios and to solve other lingering patent licensing issues, a handful of radio makers assembled in Chicago on April 19, 1924, to establish the Radio Manufacturers Association (RMA), which quickly lobbied to defeat the proposed 10% tax. After several name and organizational changes over the subsequent decades, RMA would eventually morph into the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).

Radio was more than a singular gadget. Radio was both a radical technology and a new way to communicate and distribute ideas. It drove development of our current electrical infrastructure, including the standardization and adoption of the now familiar AC electrical wall outlet, and FDR's New Deal rural electrification project. Nearly all subsequent disruptive consumer technologies for the next 100 years followed the playbook created to design and sell radio to the masses.

Over the next century, industry association and corporate leaders would shepherd the delivery of radio's successor consumer technologies and products to consumers all over the world – and it all started 100 years ago with a pair of small unpretentious electronics-filled wooden boxes.