by Tim J. Sturgeon
Originally written as a Masters Thesis, this is the fourth of a sequence of pages adapted from the full thesis.
Federal Telegraph's first location at 913 Emerson Street in Palo Alto.
The Radio Industry in 1910
In 1910 the radio industry in the United States was still in its infancy. Broadcasting had yet to be developed and there were no home sets (except for those given away by "Doc" Herrold). Most early radio companies were established for the purpose of competing with wire telegraph services, but due to problems with static over land surfaces and resistance from powerful telegraph companies, early radio companies could only hope to be competitive in transoceanic circuits, where expensive submarine cables drove up transmission costs for telegraph companies. The only radio application with immediate potential for widespread adoption was shipboard communications, either to shore stations or ship-to-ship. By far, the largest segment of the market for these systems was the United States Navy, which recognized the advantages of radio communication over searchlight and flag signalling.(17)
The Navy actively supported advancements in the field by purchasing equipment from a variety of companies and specifying equipment that exceeded prevailing technological capability. "Since the Navy was the largest American user and since the art was developing rapidly, the aim had been to keep the specifications abreast or in advance of the best practices in order to incite further development" (Howeth, 1963). One non-technical criteria that the Navy held was to award contracts to American companies whenever possible. This was difficult because the companies with the best systems at the time were Marconi, a British company, and Telefunken, a German company. The de Forest company of the day, the Radio Telephone Company, had yet to produce a working radiotelegraph system, and radiotelephones supplied in earlier contracts had proved to be of "doubtful practicability" (ibid). Fessenden's NESCO was further advanced, but the alternator that he had invented to generate continuous waves was still under development at General Electric. Further compounding the Navy's problems in securing a satisfactory system was the constant litigation with which these companies hammered each other in attempts to improve their patent positions. No single company held the patents for the all the best technology needed for a complete leading-edge radio system. For example, Marconi had the largest installed base and the most powerful transmitters, but Fessenden had developed heterodyne reception and NESCO held these patents.
Guglielmo Marconi with his radio in a widely distributed publicity shot, early 1900s.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In January 1909 the United States Navy requested bids for radio apparatus to be installed in its new shore station in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C., and for two vessels. An article in the January 1909 issue of Electric World described the request as "a formidable document which, if taken too seriously, might well deter any manufacturer from submitting a proposal" (quoted in Howeth, 1963). Besides containing 31 paragraphs of language protecting the government from any loss related to the project, the flyer stated that the shore station must be capable of reaching the ships at a distance of 3000 miles at all times, in any weather, and during any season of the year. The system was also required to have wireless telephone capability within a range of 100 miles. With a price of $182,000, roughly half the amount of the Marconi bid, Fessenden's NESCO won the contract over American Marconi, Telefunken, and the Radio Telephone Company. Over the next two years, as the large system for the Arlington station was under development, NESCO built approximately 75% of the Navy's radio equipment, sales from which represented all the company's revenues except for a few systems sold to the United Fruit Company. The system for the Arlington station, including of a 100kw transmitter for the shore station and two 10kw shipboard transmitters, was never able to perform to the specifications set by the Navy and a settlement was reached to pay the company an amount below the original contract price (ibid).(18)
Technical Limits and Massive Navy Contracts, 1912
Until 1912 the research team at Federal Telegraph had been able to increase the power of the arc transmitter by "up rationing" the scale of the design drawings with a magnifying glass. Elwell installed a 30kw circuit between South San Francisco and Honolulu. This circuit set day and night time distance records; the 2100 miles to Honolulu was farther than Marconi's famous 1700 mile trans-Atlantic circuit from Cornwall, England, to Glace Bay, Newfoundland. Federal Telegraph charged Honolulu newspapers a lower rate per word for news sent from the mainland than the cable telegraph services. Federal Telegraph built arc transmitters in its factory on Emerson Street in Palo Alto for a chain of Pacific Coastal stations that proved to be profitable. However, the company faced serious dilemmas. It had overextended its commercial operations by building stations in Phoenix, Dallas, Kansas City, and Chicago. Because of static associated with summer thunderstorm activity over land areas these stations proved to be commercially unviable. Furthermore, the design team at Federal Telegraph, including Charles Logwood, a local ham radio enthusiast who had worked on the McCarty system, and Peter Jensen (engineer) and C. Albertus (mechanic), who had come over from Denmark as part of the agreement between Poulsen and Elwell, had reached technical limits in increasing power output past 30kw through "up-rationing" (Fuller, 1975; 1976).
Doug Perham (at right) with fellow technician C. Albertus of Denmark on Federal's "factory floor" in 1909.
In 1912 Elwell returned to Palo Alto fresh from his success in completing the installation of the circuit between South San Francisco and Honolulu. He successfully convinced his backers to allow him to travel to Washington D.C. in an attempt to interest the Navy in the Poulsen arc. The 12kw transmitter he brought with him impressed Navy officials enough to win him a head-to-head comparison trial with the NESCO transmitter that was just undergoing tests at the Arlington station. Dr. Austin, of the U.S. Navel Research Laboratory, strongly objected to the comparison on the grounds that the 30kw Poulsen arc transmitter that Elwell was bringing from Palo Alto would never be able to outperform the 100kw NESCO unit (Howeth, 1963). The Navy agreed to the test on the condition that the Federal Telegraph apparatus be installed so it could be removed without any permanent marks left in the station's floor, walls or ceiling (Rosa, 1960; Howeth, 1963; Fuller, 1976). The arc never was removed because, to the surprise of everyone but Elwell, the small, nearly silent arc transmitter by far outperformed the NESCO unit. Contact was made with South San Francisco, and then with Honolulu. The arc was able to maintain contact with outbound Navy ships long after the transmissions from the NESCO unit, which used a spark discharge that could be heard a mile away, faded to nothing as the vessels neared Key West, Florida (Rosa, 1960). Thus the Federal Telegraph Poulsen arc transmitter became known as "the Navy's darling of the World War I period" (Howeth, 1963). On the spot, the Navy ordered ten 30kw transmitters for shipboard use (ibid).
On June 30, 1913, the Navy ordered a 100kw unit for the Panama Canal Zone. This was to be the first station in a "high-powered chain" that was to extend southward from the Arlington station to the Canal Zone and westward to the Philippines. Congress, at the request of the Navy, had appropriated $400,000 for the construction of the chain in August, 1912, just a few months before Elwell demonstrated his Poulsen arc. The Federal Telegraph Company "wailed, protested, and almost refused to construct the 100kw arc" (ibid) for the Canal Zone because they had been unsuccessful in increasing the arc's power beyond 30kw. The Navy insisted and Elwell accepted the contract, but refused to guarantee its successful completion (ibid).
Leonard Fuller Joins Federal and Elwell Leaves Federal, 1912-1913
In 1912 Elwell received a telegram from Leonard Fuller requesting employment. Fuller was to be laid off from Fessenden's National Electric Signalling Company (NESCO) in New York, where he had worked for only eight months. In 1910, Fuller had visited Elwell's company while on summer vacation from Cornell University, where he received his master's degree in electrical engineering. Fuller's family physician in Portland, Oregon, had been solicited to invest in Elwell's company, so Fuller was sent down to inspect the system and give his opinion. Fuller, a ham radio enthusiast, was so impressed by the Poulsen arc transmitter that he built one on his return to Cornell. Innovations that he made in this small arc became the subject of his masters thesis. Upon graduation, Fuller almost took a job at General Electric, but decided on NESCO instead. "I was intensely interested in wireless, but I was probably equally interested in electric power, because I had worked in power stations during my summer vacations for a number of years" (Fuller, 1976). As with Elwell, Fuller's academic training in electrical theory and experience in electric power, combined with his avid interest in the infant field of wireless, formed a solid technical and practical foundation for developing long wave radio communications equipment, which required high voltages in the transmitting antenna.
Fuller was hired as an engineer and soon increased the power output of the transmitters to 60kw by tuning the magnetic field. Fuller, along with Federal Telegraph employee Roland Marx, who was the son of C.D. Marx, collaborated with Ralph Beal and Harris Ryan of the Stanford High Voltage Laboratory on the development of antenna insulation. The Stanford lab had a better direct current power supply than the Federal Telegraph shop, and was used for experimentation much in the manner of the power companies. Fuller arranged for a 12kw arc transmitter to be donated to Stanford with which Ryan and Marx conducted experiments on continuous wave radio frequency high voltage insulation characteristics of porcelain, quartz, glass, redwood, and oak. In 1916, they published a paper on the subject in the Institute of Radio Engineers Proceeding s (Fuller, 1976).
Federal Telegraph, using the improved designs of Fuller, expanded its commercial operations, upgrading its South San Francisco Station to 100kw. But for Elwell, the commercial expansion was not proceeding quickly enough. The failure of the Phoenix, Dallas, Kansas City, and Chicago stations to be commercially viable had made the board of directors of Federal Telegraph cautious about expanding too quickly. Frustrated, Elwell went to England where he was hired as Chief Engineer for the Universal Radio Syndicate, a company that held the Poulsen arc patents for the British Empire. Fuller was promoted to chief engineer. True to form, Elwell succeeded in persuading the British Admiralty to build an arc station at Portsmouth. The station was completed one month before the outbreak of World War I. He also installed small arcs on two battleships and two cruisers. During the war Elwell went "all out" designing sets for the British military (Rosa, 1960). In 1914, he went to work for the French Signal Corps, installing arc stations in the Eiffel Tower, and at Lyons, Nantes, Toulon, and many French colonies and ships. In 1916, he built at station in Rome that included a set of antenna towers 714 feet high, then the tallest wooden structures in the world. This station, completed in just five months, was able to communicate directly with the station in Tuckerton, New Jersey, then run by the United States Navy.(19) After the war, at the British Admiralty's request, he helped form the Mullard Company to supply vacuum tubes to the British Navy. This company became the largest tube manufacturer in England. In 1947, after nearly 30 years as the company's director, Elwell returned to Palo Alto, where he studied aeronautical engineering at Stanford and worked as a consulting engineer for Hewlett Packard (Rosa, 1960).
Construction was begun on the Canal Zone station in December 1913. Federal Telegraph "tikker" receivers were supplemented by Navy heterodyne receivers. Upon its completion, signals from the new station were received with ease at Arlington. The contract for the project was written in such a way that it could only be fulfilled by Federal Telegraph. This sparked a storm of protests by other radio companies who complained to the Bureau of Equipment that the wording of the specifications restricted competition.
While the Bureau considered the above protests an effrontery, it went on to explain its action. There being two fundamentally different systems of radio involved, namely the spark system or system of damped oscillations and the system of continuous undamped oscillations, sometimes called the Poulsen system, there was a matter of choice. All the other so-called systems bearing proper names such as Marconi, Shoemaker, Fessenden, de Forest, Telefunken, etc., were but variations of the spark system and did not represent real differences so far as fundamental classification was concerned. When comparative tests clearly demonstrated the superiority of the Poulsen system the Navy's course of action was clear. One of the most gratifying features of the situation to the Bureau was that, through the Navy Department's help and encouragement to the Federal Company, which held the American rights to the Poulsen equipment, an American company was assisted in developing a system that was to inaugurate a new era in the history of radio (Howeth, 1963).
Federal Telegraph Company's Palo Alto factory, constructed in 1916.
The Navy continued to push Federal Telegraph for higher power stations as it extended its chain into the Pacific. "When asked to construct the 200kw for San Diego and two 350kw ones for Pearl Harbor and Cavite [Philippines], they [Federal engineers] were horrified, and again the Bureau had to gamble that they would be successful" (Howeth, 1963). The contract was signed in February, 1916. With these large orders Federal Telegraph grew out of its old facility. The higher powered transmitters required larger and larger magnets to enclose the arcs that would not fit in the old buildings. The company opened a new facility in Palo Alto with increased office space, a large laboratory, machine tools, an overhead crane, a stockroom, and a railroad siding. Prior to 1916 Federal Telegraph had 18 machinists (including four "very fine" instrument makers), five draftsmen, a laboratory group of approximately six. When the United States entered World War I Federal Telegraph received orders for 300 2kw shipboard transmitters from the United States Shipping Board for the Liberty Ships. The Navy ordered 30kw transmitters for "probably all" of their battleships, a 20kw set for a cruiser, and a 5kw set for a Navy collier. Employment at Federal Telegraph surged to 300. Orders for more shore stations for the Navy flooded in, including a dual 500kw station in Annapolis, a 200kw station in Puerto Rico, a 200kw set in Sayville, Long Island, another 200kw set for San Diego, a trans-pacific 500kw chain, 30kw sets in Alaska, as well as a string of smaller stations around the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The Army ordered 20-and 30kw sets for various Army posts around the country (Fuller, 1976).
Federal Telegraph Company’s engineering staff, Palo Alto, ca. 1917. Behind them is the first of six 500 kilowatt arcs built for the US Navy (it would be installed at Pearl Harbor). On the table is the original 100 watt arc brought from Denmark. Left to right: Leonard F. Fuller, chief engineer; Harold Elliott, Corwin C. Chapman, Kurt Bley, Ralph R. Beal, Adrian L. Anderson.
The war work at Federal Telegraph culminated in installation of a pair of 1000kw transmitters at the Lafayette Radio Station located 14 miles to the southwest of Bordeaux, France (Howeth, 1963; Fuller, 1976; Norberg, 1976). Work began in May, 1918. The ground and antenna system, supported by eight 820 ft. towers, was designed by Fuller. The only structure taller at this time was the Eiffel Tower. The work force to construct the towers, largely brought in from the United States, consisted of 600 riggers, steelworkers, bridgemen, and electricians. The war ended before the station was finished (November 11, 1918), but the French government decided to push ahead with construction. When the station was completed in January, 1920, it was by far the most powerful radio station in the world and had cost $3,500,000 to build (Howeth, 1963). In a letter commending Federal for furnishing the transmitting equipment in record time, the Chief of the Bureau of Engineering wrote: "The results of the thirty days tests of this equipment are very satisfactory to the Bureau, the comparative strength of Lafayette's signals being three to five times as great as those from other European high-power stations, and solid copy being constantly obtained not less than 22 hours out of the 24, notwithstanding the fact that the tests were conducted during the most unfavorable static season (quoted in Howeth, 1963).
RCA is Formed, 1919
The patent situation in the radio industry after the war remained fragmented. Fessenden's patents on heterodyne reception were purchased from NESCO by Westinghouse after the war. AT&T held de Forest's vacuum tube patents. G.E. had just perfected the Alexanderson Alternator and was seeking to recoup $1,000,000 in development costs by putting the alternator up for sale. When Marconi offered to buy 24 alternators from GE for $3,048,000, including rights for exclusive use, the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, requested the government to oppose the sale, which it did. Radio had been proven to be a strategic industry during times of conflict; Daniels suggested that no foreign interest should be allowed to own more than 20% interest in any radio station on United States soil (Fuller, 1976). In October, 1919, RCA was created through a pooling of radio patents held by G.E and American Marconi. American Marconi was purchased by G.E. for $9,500,000. Owen Young of G.E. was named Chairman of the Board; Edward Nally, who had been vice president and general manager of American Marconi, became president; and David Sarnoff, Nally's right hand man, became general manger. In July 1920, as it became clear that vacuum tubes were to become central to the radio industry, AT&T joined RCA (Howeth, 1963; Lewis, 1991).
In 1919, Westinghouse, seeking to strengthen its patent position, acquired the International Radio Telegraph Company (IRT), which was the successor to NESCO. This acquisition gave Westinghouse control over Fessenden's patents for heterodyne reception, Armstrong's regenerative feedback reception circuit (the superheterodyne), as well as three other patents and 16 patents pending from Armstrong and Pupin. This gave Westinghouse the most advanced receiving technology, but left them with unsatisfactory spark transmission technology based on undamped waves. Westinghouse opened negotiations with Federal Telegraph to manufacture arc transmitters, but before the deal could be consummated, Fuller learned that IRT had been sold to RCA. Thus, Westinghouse joined forces RCA in June 1921, leaving Federal Telegraph out in the cold (Fuller, 1976).
Navy historian Captain L.S. Howeth (1963) notes that because Marconi managers were installed to run RCA, the new company adopted the Marconi corporate culture. The Marconi companies, both in Britain and the United States, had frustrated the Navy in the past by insisting on leasing its systems, as was the company's practice with commercial shipping interests. The Navy refused to use leased equipment and therefore purchased equipment from German companies until Marconi relented in 1906. This tactic was employed as an attempt to maintain a monopoly, not just on equipment sales, but on signal traffic as well, since lease contracts required Marconi personnel to operate shipboard equipment. Marconi shore station operators were ordered to only acknowledge signals sent by other Marconi operators, giving the company a near monopoly in the English speaking world. In 1908, after years of resistance, Marconi relented to international outcries for safety and was forced to accept messages sent on apparatus manufactured by competitors. Also, the Marconi companies generally refused to built equipment to customer specifications and their prices were consistently higher than other companies. The company grew by acquisition and generally updated its equipment only when forced to do so by more innovative competitors (MacLaurin, 1949; Howeth, 1963). In 1907 Sir William Preece, a longtime investor in British Marconi, stated: "I have formed the opinion that the Marconi Company is the worst managed company I have ever had anything to do with...Its organization is chiefly indicated by the fact that they quarrel with everybody" (quoted in MacLaurin, 1949).
Aggressive, litigious, monopolizing; RCA emerged as a fully formed Goliath, ready to sue, buy out, or collect royalties from any fledgling electronics company in its path. While these traits were inherited from Marconi, RCA became infinitely more powerful than its predecessor as electronics began to pervade all aspects of society. David Sarnoff, who was to run RCA with an iron fist, modeled himself closely on his former employer, stating, "I don't get ulcers, I give them" (quoted in Lewis, 1991). If the cooperative nature of the west coast electronics companies during the 1920s and 1930s had any one source, it was in opposing their domination by RCA.
Federal Returns to Commercial Operations and is Sold to Mackay
The end of World War I resulted in cancelled orders for Federal, including a planned 2000kw station in Monroe, North Carolina. With his success in constructing large arc transmitters, Fuller had overcome his doubts and by 1918 believed that a 5000kw arc was possible. The problem with large arc transmitters was that they emitted strong harmonic radio frequencies that interfered with smaller stations. By contrast the alternator emitted no harmonics and broadcast on a sharply defined frequency. To generate new business, Federal Telegraph tried to develop a trans-Pacific circuit by installing high-powered stations for the Chinese government. This was strongly resisted by RCA, who complained that it infringed on their right to a monopoly in long distance radio traffic. The Navy came to Federal's defense and the deal was approved, but it became clear that the stations would never be built as the political situation in China deteriorated under Chaing Kai-shek (Howeth, 1963).
As it became clear that the heyday of the Poulsen arc was past, Federal Telegraph return to the business of operating its commercial radiotelegraph service. Fuller, feeling that his challenges at Federal Telegraph had been met, left the company to help found the Colin B. Kennedy Radio Company in San Francisco (Fuller, 1976). Although some attempts were made at Federal Telegraph to improve arc technology by using focused beams of higher frequency radio waves, the research team was never able to transmit further than 40-50 miles using this technique (Heintz, 1982). In the mid-1920s Federal Telegraph was acquired by the Mackay interests, which controlled Postal Telegraph and Commercial Cable. Clarence Mackay, the son of a gold miner who had struck it rich, had established Postal early in the Century to compete with Western Union. Mackay's original plans were to overtake and eventually absorb Western Union, but in 1927 Postal had only 17% of the U.S. telegraph market in comparison to Western Union's 83% (Sobel, 1982). Mackay had good cable circuits in the Pacific and in South America; Federal's radio circuits in these regions were purchased to augment Mackay's cable business. In 1928, Mackay was merged with ITT, giving Federal Telegraph a new parent.
Federal Begins Vacuum Tube Manufacture and Hires Charles Litton, 1928
Federal Telegraph was the manufacturing facility for Mackay's radio equipment. Prevailing long-distance radio technology began to be based increasingly on short waves generated by vacuum tubes during the 1920s. Federal Telegraph brought in Ralph Heintz, a local expert on short wave radio and vacuum tube manufacture as a consultant to help them make the changeover. A major stumbling bock was reached when RCA would not sell tubes to Federal Telegraph. Federal was seen a threat to RCA's near monopoly on commercial long distance radio communications. Heintz reminded Federal Telegraph management that they held "shop rights" to manufacture vacuum tubes covered by de Forest patent's because he had made his discoveries while under the employ of Federal Telegraph. This allowed Federal to manufacture vacuum tubes for their own use without paying royalties. Federal Telegraph officials immediately went to William Crocker, one of the investor's in the company, to obtain funding to create a tube manufacturing facility (Heintz, 1982).
Federal Telegraph Company Model 61 radio receiver.
Fuller returned to Federal Telegraph, this time as Vice President, to help organize vacuum tube production. He hired Charles Litton to manage the new department, who had just graduated from Stanford at the age of 23 (Morgan, 1967; Fuller, 1976; Heintz, 1982). Litton had built his first ham radio set at the age of 10, and soon began building his own vacuum tubes, which he sold to other hams. He ran his home made radio set through two 100 foot towers at his house in Redwood City with which he was able to establish voice communications with stations as far away as Australia and New Zealand (Morgan, 1967). According to Alexander Poniatoff (1974), Litton's father said that his son began working with a foot pedal driven metal lathe when he was so small that he had to pump the pedal by hand and then jump up on a chair to cut the metal. Litton attended the Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco (aka: California School for the Mechanical Arts) which had an amateur radio club on campus. While at Stanford Litton continued experimenting with vacuum tubes for his ham sets, constructing most of the Communications Laboratory's vacuum tube manufacturing and test equipment from surplus parts scavenged from Federal's yard (Fuller, 1976).
The team at Federal Telegraph, while they were able to produce vacuum tubes for reception and amplification under "shop rights", still had to devise means to circumvent a host of additional RCA patents, particularly for high-power, water cooled transmission tubes. According to Norberg (1976), "They attacked the problem in a very structured manner. ITT's patent department provided information on all sorts of patents. The group at Federal Telegraph analyzed the data and returned schemes to circumvent the patents. The patent lawyers then forwarded an opinion as to whether the device would withstand an infringement suit." Besides creating new designs for high-power vacuum tubes, Litton built innovative equipment for the entire tube manufacturing process, including glass blowing lathes, radio-frequency electric furnaces, bake-out ovens, vacuum pumps, and test set-ups (Fuller, 1976; Norberg, 1976).
In 1931, feeling the effects of reduced business during the Depression, ITT decided to consolidate Mackay's manufacturing facilities in Newark, New Jersey. Both Fuller and Litton had clauses in their contracts stating that they would only work on the west coast. Fuller left the company to take a position a Professor of Electrical Engineering at Cal Berkeley. Fuller had earned his doctorate from Stanford in 1919 with a dissertation based on the improvements he had made to Federal's arc transmitters. Fuller went on to become Chairman of the Electrical Engineering Department at Berkeley. Litton stayed on at Federal as Chief Engineer to manage the transition. The vacuum tube factory was kept in operation to ensure a steady supply of tubes for Mackay's radio network. A testament to the degree expertise needed to run this operation is found in the fact that it took two years, with Litton's active consultation, to get the new facility in Newark running satisfactorily (Fuller, 1976). Litton struck out on his own, forming Litton Engineering Laboratories in 1932 to design and manufacture vacuum tube manufacturing equipment (Morgan, 1967).