The Roots of Radio run deep in Philadelphia.
Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Chriss Scherer, editor
Philadelphia today is known for many things, ranging from outdoorpublic art to cheese steak sandwiches. But Philadelphia has a longhistory with radio as well. At one time, our nation’s former capitolwas the seat of the dominant radio broadcast manufacturing company RCA.During our preparation for the NAB Radio Show in Philadelphia, we werereminded of the role that this city has played in radio’s development.Many manufacturers have roots in or near Philadelphia. Other companies,while located elsewhere, can claim ties to Philadelphia and RCA aswell. As radio continues to look forward to its future, this gives usgood reason to look back at our past to see how so many companies areable to trace links back to the city of brotherly love.
For many years, RCA called the Philadelphia area home with itsmanufacturing facility in Camden, NJ. In time, other radio broadcastmanufacturers took roots in Philadelphia, many of which were started byformer RCA employees. This long and sometimes complex history has manyinteresting twists that now stretch beyond the Philadelphia area.
Four into one
When the United States entered World War I, the transatlanticradiotelegraph station at New Brunswick, NJ, was taken over by the U.S.Navy. The radiotelegraph station was owned by the Marconi WirelessTelegraph Company of America, which was a division of the BritishMarconi Company. General Electric, at the Navy’s request, upgraded the50kW Alexanderson alternator with a 200kW unit. The Marconi company didnot want to finance the upgrade, so GE paid for the installation, whichprovided the Navy with reliable transoceanic communication. On March 1,1920, the radiotelegraph station was returned to Marconi.
British Marconi, knowing that the station would return to itspossession one day, began negotiations with GE to purchase additionalAlexanderson alternators for its American and British divisions. Whenthe Navy learned of this potential transaction, it intervened, knowingthat the sale would result in foreign interests having a monopoly onglobal communications.
Navy Rear Admiral W.H.G. Bullard, director of communications of theNavy, proposed that GE organize an American radio-operating company� controlled wholly by American interests � to keep U.S.interests in worldwide communications.
GE ceased negotiations with British Marconi and focused on creatingthe proposed corporation. The plan was to purchase American Marconi andobtain the rights to use various radio circuits that were owned byother companies. Tentative agreements were made, each being contingenton the confirmation of the complete package.
On Oct. 17, 1919, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) wasestablished. On Nov. 20, 1919, the American Marconi Company wasofficially merged with the Radio Corporation of America. On this samedate, a cross-licensing agreement was initiated between RCA and GE. OnJuly 1, 1920, a cross-licensing agreement was concluded with GE andAT&T. By another agreement on the same date, these rights wereextended to RCA and the Western Electric Company. A similarcross-licensing agreement between RCA and the Westinghouse Electric andManufacturing Company was signed June 30, 1921.
Originally, RCA was formed as an operating company for the purposeof providing ship-to-shore communication. In 1929, the three partnersconsolidated their research and development, manufacturing andmarketing. It had no manufacturing facilities until RCA acquired theVictor Company in 1929 for $154 million and later established RCARadiotron in 1930.
Tooling for an empire
On purchasing the Victor Company, RCA was able to establish amanufacturing presence. RCA had interests that spanned all elements ofbroadcasting, from origination at the studio and network to the finalreceiver. It was the broadcast manufacturing in Camden that became thepowerhouse until 1986. The Camden facility also housed thecommunications and government equipment manufacturing operations.
Growth and expansion is a natural course for any company orindividual. As RCA continued to thrive, talented individuals would alsoseek their own growth potential and move to begin their own companies.It was through these changes that many radio manufacturers have theirroots in Philadelphia.
One of the better-known results is CCA, but it was preceded byanother company called ITA. Bernie Wise left RCA in 1957 and formedITA, which he operated until 1962 when he sold it to TrianglePublications. ITA manufactured transmitters. When ITA was sold, Wisefounded CCA, which he operated until 1974. While with CCA, Wisepurchased a division of Ampex that later became Comark. Since then, CCAhas been through several owners.
CCA and ITA later spawned new companies as employees would leave topursue their own careers and goals.
For example, Belar was founded around 1975 when Arno Meyer left ITAwhere he was a transmitter engineer. At the time, FM stereo was makingits inroads and Meyer had the idea to develop a stereo modulationmonitor. ITA wasn’t interested in the idea so Meyer left and startedhis own company.
When ITA was sold, some of the employees went to CCA and others wentto AEL. AEL, based in Lansdale, PA, was founded in 1951 and beganworking on contract projects for the University of Pennsylvania, theNavy and Philco. In 1952, AEL became a supplier of UHF TV antennas forRCA. AEL manufactured FM radio transmitters starting about 1962, andAEL manufactured broadcast transmitters well into the 70s, buteventually left broadcast and continued with government contracts.
QEI was founded in 1971 by broadcast professionals who hadpreviously worked for Belar and AEL. As CCA was making its mark, thecompany was interested in manufacturing its own modulation monitors andfrequency analyzers. QEI was formed to manufacture monitors that wouldbe branded for CCA. QEI also manufactured a synthesized phase-lockedloop oscillator module for CCA.
In a similar way, CSI was formed by former CCA employees BernieGelman and Joe Ponist. CSI was founded around 1973 and ceasedmanufacturing in the early 80s. CSI manufactured transmitters and usedQEI exciters that were branded with the CSI name.
LPB was founded by Dick Crompton in 1960 to manufacture a 5W,carrier-current AM transmitter for low-power and college stations.While the company does not claim an origin to RCA, LPB became involvedwith RCA in 1979 when it was contracted to manufacture a series six-,eight- and 10-channel stereo audio consoles for RCA.
Guffy Wilkinson founded Wilkinson Electronics in the 60s after heleft ITA. Wilkinson Electronics was sold to TTC in 1990, which was thensold to Larcan in 1993.
Another former ITA employee is ATI co-founder Ed Mullin.
Ed Shively worked at RCA and then went on to ITA to make antennas.He later started his own company, which he moved to Maine. Phelps Dodgealso started working with FM antennas through ITA.
Dr. Charles Brown, who designed antennas for RCA and tested them atthe antenna test range in Gibbsboro, NJ, formed Dielectric in 1942.Dielectric moved to Raymond, ME, in 1954. Dielectric bought the TV andFM antenna division of RCA in 1986, closing the Gibbsboro range andmoved the test facility to Maine.
Ampro was founded by Alex Meyer about 1970. His preceding companymanufactured audio consoles and cart machines for RCA. Ampro wasstarted so that the company’s equipment could be sold through otherchannels.
There are undoubtedly more manufacturers that could be added to thislist. In some cases, no formal history exists. In other cases,exploring the ties would be a long and tedious process. If you havesome history that you would like to share, let the Radiomagazine staff know. While RCA is no longer manufacturing broadcastequipment today, the legacy of the company’s roots in Philadelphiasurvive through other companies still in business today.
References for early RCA history:
Saga of the Vacuum Tube, by Gerald Tyne, which originallyappeared as a series of articles in Radio News from 1943 to1946
Personal interview with Dr. Robert Lane, president emeritus,Midland Antique Radio Collectors Club, Kansas City, MO.