KDKA's Toppled Tower Lives in Lucite -- Pittsburgh Hospital Is Beneficiary



From Antique Radio Classified for March 1996
(Copyright 1996 by John V. Terrey - For personal use only.)

The following article is the result of a January letter from John England telling of an unusual Christmas present from a thoughtful mother-in-law -- a piece of the original KDKA Pittsburgh tower encased in Lucite. In use since 1936, the tower was replaced in 1994, but it lives on in this cleverly devised fund-raiser for the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. (Editor)

After six decades in service the KDKA Pittsburgh radio tower was toppled in June 1994. Originally erected in Saxonburg, the lattice structure was moved in 1939 to a hilltop in Allison Park, Pennsylvania, where its replacement now continues to bring the news of the world to KDKA listeners.

In 1939, the original antenna at 718 feet was the tallest structure in the country, rising 1,900 feet above sea level. Made of carbon steel, manufactured by the American Bridge Company, and known for its efficiency, it had the strongest signal within its range of any other antenna. It broadcast at a constant 50,000 watts, the most powerful wattage allowed on the AM airwaves.

Over the years, the tower was painted with several layers of orange and white paint, so that it would not present a hazard to aircraft. It also was equipped with a 36-inch rotating aviation beacon atop a 60-foot tower.

The replacement tower, erected in 1994, is also made of carbon steel. Although it resembles the original tower, it is equipped with the latest electrical and mechanical technology. The current transmitter and its identical backup system have been on-line since 1980.


Even before its transmitting tower had been put into action, KDKA Radio was making broadcasting history. The technology that made this station possible was developed by Dr. Frank Conrad, assistant chief engineer of Westinghouse Electric. He constructed a transmitter and installed it in a garage near his home in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1916. The station was licensed as 8XK.

When the U. S. entered World War I in 1917, all amateur radio licenses were cancelled for security precautions. However, after the war, Dr. Conrad decided to offset the boring chatter of amateur operators cluttering the airways by introducing entertainment. On October 17, 1919, he put his microphone by a phonograph, and thereby created a musical radio program. Suddenly, he was deluged by mail from amazed listeners who wanted more.

Inception of KDKA Broadcasting
Picture legend: At 6 p.m. on November 2, 1920, KDKA Radio began broadcasting at 100 watts from this makeshift shack atop one of the Westinghouse buildings in East Pittsburgh.

Conrad then announced that he would broadcast records for two hours on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. When he ran out of his own records, the Hamilton Music Store in Wilkinburg supplied records in exchange for promotion, thus, possibly becoming the first radio advertiser.

Meanwhile, Westinghouse applied for a license for its fledgling station, which was granted on October 27, 1920. At 6 p.m. on November 2, 1920, KDKA Radio began broadcasting at 100 watts from a makeshift shack atop one of the Westinghouse manufacturing buildings in East Pittsburgh. The timing was right for KDKA to be the first station ever to carry election results to almost 1,000 listeners, who learned that Warren K. Harding had defeated James M. Cox in the presidential race.

With the success of its station, the company also began to manufacture and sell amateur wireless sets to meet the demands of the growing numbers who wanted to tune in to the broadcasts. The Westinghouse Aeriola Jr., selling at $25, was the first radio kit marketed for home use.

In this same period, the idea of linking radio stations across the country took hold. On January 4, 1923, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company began experiments that resulted in the first radio network, of which KDKA was one of four stations.

On June 7, 1923, this network broadcast from the annual meeting of the National Electric Light Association at Carnegie Hall in New York City. A March 7, 1924, banquet for M.I.T. alumni was carried by WJZ in New York and picked up by shortwave by KDKA, who relayed it to KFKX in Hastings, Nebraska, who, in turn, relayed it to KGO in San Francisco -- all part of an experimental transcontinental broadcast.

KDKA "Firsts"

When NBC was established in 1926, KDKA was one of the first to join its Blue Network, along with WBZ in Springfield, Mass., WBZA in Boston, and KYW, then located in Chicago. By 1939, there were 65 stations on the Blue Network. In 1941, KDKA shifted to NBC's Red Network, which it still uses today, along with AP Network News and CNN, for reports and audio clips.

In 1995, KDKA Radio celebrated its 75th anniversary as a constant source of information, entertainment, and companionship for its listeners. Those listeners have heard the voices of ten presidents, the violence of four wars, and the news, music, sports -- all the sounds of generations growing up. The history of such a station conveys a sense of the enormous power of radio in the history of our country.


KDKA Radio has a long history of commitment to the greater Pittsburgh community. Among its first fund-raising activities was the sale of war bonds during World War II. But perhaps no cause has been more important to KDKA than that of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Since 1946, when the station teamed up with the Old Newsboys charity organization to raise money for children whose families could not afford health care, KDKA has engaged in an annual campaign for the hospital. Beginning in the late 1960s, KDKA established its own fund drive for the hospital's Free Care Fund, which was highlighted by holiday broadcasts from department store windows.

Today, KDKA Radio and Television work together for the fund and have raised millions of dollars for the patients at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. All proceeds from Its current collaboration with the hospital to sell pieces of the KDKA original tower go to the Free Care Fund, which preserves the hospital's mission to provide health care for children regardless of their families' financial circumstances. This is a wonderful way both to raise money and to preserve a bit of radio history. Radio collectors might well respond to such a cause.

For a gift of $20 to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, plus $3.00 shipping and handling, a lucite cube 2 1/4" x 2 1/4" x 1 1/4" with a half-dollar size slice of the tower encased will be delivered to your door. A graphic, similar to the one on our cover, is laid on top of the tower piece to complete this keepsake.

Using MasterCard or Visa to order your piece of the tower, call 1-800-437-5419, or send a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh to: KDKA Tower, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, 3705 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

Mel Check, Amanda Cohen, Shelley D. Johnston, Dana L. Wassel.

(Dorothy Schecter, c/o A.R.C., Box 2, Carlisle, MA 01741)

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Copyright © 1996 by John V. Terrey - For personal use only.
Last revised: March 2, 1996. Pages designed by Wayward Fluffy Publications