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"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan N454, November 5, 2017

Radio Station KDKA and the Famous 1920 Election Broadcasts

It was on the evening of Tuesday, November 2, 1920 that the famous American mediumwave station KDKA made its historic inaugural broadcast; exactly 97 years ago, during this past week. The content of that first radio broadcast from KDKA was a running commentary on the election figures for the presidential campaign between Governor James Cox, Governor of Ohio, and Ohio newspaper owner Warren Harding.

Right at 6:00 pm on that fateful stormy evening of Tuesday, November 2, 1920, the new 100 watt transmitter signed on for its inaugural broadcast on 545 kHz from a temporary location in a wooden hut atop the eight story Building K at the Westinghouse factory complex in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The official callsign for the occasion was the temporary special assignment 8ZZ, though the regular callsign KDKA had also come into use at the time. The progressive election figures were provided by telephone from the news room at the newspaper office of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times.

It is correctly understood that the inaugural broadcast from 8ZZ-KDKA, almost one hundred years ago, was for the broadcast of progressive statistics in association with election voting for the presidency of the United States, which incidentally was a landslide victory for Warren Harding. However, without additional information to the contrary, the generally accepted concept seems to be that the broadcast of presidential voting returns was a new and unique event presented by 8ZZ-KDKA.

However, that is not the case. In the edition of Wavescan two weeks ago, we presented the story of wireless and radio in the broadcast of the November presidential election results in the years 1912 and 1916.

Interestingly, the earliest known usage of wireless for the broadcast of election results occurred well over one hundred years ago, in November 1908. This is what happened.

Around the middle of the year 1908, business tycoon and entertainment entrepreneur Frederic Thomson commissioned two playwrights, Paul Armstrong and Winchell Smith, to write a four act play under the title Via Wireless that could be produced and presented in a large entertainment theatre.

The opening night for Via Wireless in the Liberty Theater was Monday, November 2, the night before the voting for the 1908 presidential election between Secretary of War William Taft and lawyer William Bryan. The plot line for Via Wireless was the story of a shipwreck, and a brave rescue as a result of emergency transmissions from the ship wireless.

In order to enhance the effectiveness of the four-act melodrama Via Wireless, a live wireless station was installed in the foyer of the Liberty Theatre at 42nd St. in New York City. This station received and transmitted electioneering information in Morse Code on Monday evening, November 2, and also on November 3 (1908) when statistical results were transmitted. We might add that William Taft obtained an easy victory.

At the time, there were just four licensed wireless stations in New York City, as well as many licensed and unlicensed amateur stations, so it is not known which station was corresponding with the Liberty Theatre. This is the list of officially licensed wireless stations in New York City at that time:

PT 900 m. 333 kHz 15 kW Navy Yard Brooklyn
BW 450 m. 666 kHz 2 kW Waldorf Astoria Manhattan
FS 450 m. 666 kHz 2 kW Hotel Plaza Manhattan
NY Various 2 kW 42nd & Broadway Manhattan

Comes the year 1920 and Warren Harding and James Cox are fighting it out with the climactic voting taking place on Tuesday, November 2. In advance, ARRL, the American Radio Relay League (of amateur radio stations) arranged with Frank Conrad that his amateur station 8XK should be the key station in the Pittsburgh area for the broadcast of the election results.

However, at the same time, Westinghouse began to plan for the launching of its own new radio broadcasting station in the evening of election day, and so recently-married Burton Williams, 8ZD, at 3220 Orlean St. in Pittsburgh, agreed to act as the Pittsburgh control for amateur radio coverage of the election results. This arrangement allowed Frank Conrad to work with the inauguration of the new Westinghouse radio broadcasting station.

During the last week in October (1920), test transmissions were radiated by the new Westinghouse station at East Pittsburgh, 8ZZ, with 100 watts on 550 metres (545 kHz). These test transmissions were heard clearly in West Virginia and Ohio at a distance of 300 miles. In anticipation of the inaugural broadcast during the evening of the next day, a final test transmission from 8ZZ was conducted on the evening of Monday, November 1 (1920).

The daily newspaper Cleveland Plain Dealer announced on the Thursday before election day that some 600 amateur radio operators in the greater Cleveland area would be listening to 8ZZ-KDKA for the inaugural election day broadcast.

As is so well known, the inaugural broadcast from 8ZZ-KDKA at the Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh was a splendid success, and the broadcast of election results, music and announcements was heard quite widely. As a standby in case of failure at 8ZZ-KDKA, Frank Conrad was at the controls of his own amateur station, 8XK, on the second floor of the family garage at the corner of Penn Avenue and Peebles Street in Wilkinsburg. However, as we know, the new Westinghouse station 8ZZ-KDKA did not fail, and the standby usage of amateur 8XK was not necessary.

There was another radio broadcasting station that was also inaugurated on election day 1920, and this was station 9ZJ-WLK in Indianapolis, Indiana. Young Francis Hamilton installed amateur radio broadcasting station 9ZJ in the barn behind the family home at 2011 North Alabama Street, Indianapolis, and the opening broadcast was election day news.

Station 9ZJ transmigrated into mediumwave broadcaster WLK, which folded in 1923. The equipment was incorporated into KFGZ-WEMC at Andrews Adventist University in Berrien Springs Michigan, and that station eventually morphed into WKZO in Kalamazoo.

Another historic mediumwave station that carried the 1920 election results was 8MK in Detroit, Michigan. This station began as 8MK in the Detroit News Building at 615 West Lafayette Boulevard, with a series of test transmissions beginning on August 20, 1920, three months in advance of the first broadcasts from the more famous 8ZZ-KDKA.

The election day broadcast from 8MK on 200 metres (1500 kHz) was announced in advance in the Detroit News daily newspaper. This station later became the more familiar WWJ, which is still on the air to this day.

Another important mediumwave station that presented election news on election day in 1920 was 1XE, which was on the air at Tufts College (University) at Medford, just north of Boston. This experimental station was inaugurated in 1917 as the first station in Massachusetts; it changed callsign to WGI one year after the election broadcasts; another callsign, WARC, was adopted in 1925; and it fell silent in bankruptcy in 1927.

Interestingly, in 1926 the noted Powell Crosley at WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio announced that he planned to establish a shortwave transmitter in Cincinnati for the purpose of providing a relay of programming to WARC in suburban Boston. But nothing came of this matter.

Australian Shortwave Callsign VLP

The Australian shortwave callsign VLP was originally applied consecutively to two passenger/cargo ships belonging to the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand. Back in those days, the two initial letters VL were applied to wireless stations in New Zealand, though, due to new international regulations in 1927, the first letter in wireless/radio callsigns for New Zealand was changed from V to Z.

The first New Zealand ship to which the callsign VLP was allocated was the SS Manapouri. This ship was built by Dumbarton in Scotland in 1882, and it was named in honor of Manapouri, a small town at the southern end of the South Island of New Zealand.

The SS Manapouri was sold to the Moller Line in Shanghai, China in 1925, though the callsign VLP was initially retained during that era in the change of ownership. This ship went through a subsequent change of names, from Manapouri to Lindsay Moller to Fook Hong to Tai Poo Sek. The ship was sunk during a United States bombing air raid in the Mekong Delta towards the end of the Pacific War, in January 1945.

The second ship belonging to the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand to receive the callsign VLP was the SS Kurow that was launched in England in 1910. This ship was also named after a small town in the South Island of New Zealand. The Kurow took over the callsign VLP in 1924 when the previous ship, the Manapouri, relinquished the callsign under Chinese ownership.

The SS Kurow was likewise sold in 1933 to the Moller Line in Shanghai and it was renamed the Mabel Moller. Two years later, on September 18, 1935, this ship was wrecked off the coast of Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, while traveling under ballast.

The SS Kurow also relinquished the callsign VLP under Chinese ownership, and it was then applied to an international wireless communication service at the AWA shortwave station located at Pennant Hills on the edge of suburban Sydney in Australia. The callsign VLP was applied to the shortwave communication service with New Zealand which was licensed for transmission in the 35 or 36 metre bands (8 MHz) in 1931. This usage of the callsign VLP was not applied to a specific transmitter, but rather it was applied to a specific frequency in the Australian communication service to New Zealand.

The next usage of the callsign VLP is a real enigma! Over a period of seven years, the authoritative American radio publication known as the White's Radio Log carried an entry in every issue in which VLP3 in Sydney, Australia on 11850 kHz was listed. The first listing of VLP3, 11850 kHz, in the White's Radio Log is for November 1940, and the last listing is found in the issue for October 1946.

This regular long term listing of a shortwave broadcasting service from Sydney, Australia does not appear to be a misprint, though no other frequency is listed under this callsign. It should also be noted that no other radio publication anywhere in the world carried a listing for a shortwave program service from Sydney, Australia under the callsign VLP; and there are no monitoring comments in radio magazines of that era that draw attention to the callsign VLP3 on 11850 kHz; not as a misprint, nor as a legitimate callsign service.

There are two very different possibilities for the seven years of listings for VLP3 in the White's Radio Log. Back then, it was a common habit for some radio publications to borrow listings from another radio publication without giving due credit. To counter this problem, an accepted authoritative publication would sometimes list a spurious entry so that if bulk entries were pirated without credit by another publication, the inadvertent inclusion of a spurious entry would reveal this dishonest practice.

The only other possibility for the long term inclusion of VLP3 on 11850 kHz in the White's Radio Log was that this was a genuine entry that the editors had obtained from their own legitimate sources. If the callsign VLP3 was a genuine entry, then there was only one shortwave service in the Sydney area that could carry this programming, and that was, of course, the aforementioned AWA station in Pennant Hills.

Many other radio publications during that same era did list VLR9 in Melbourne (Lyndhurst) on 11850 kHz. At that stage, the original old low-powered VK3LR-VLR transmitter was ailing. It had been reworked two or three times, and its signal was raspy to say the least.

However, back then, Australia desperately needed all of its few available shortwave transmitters, including the ailing 2 kW VLR. If VLR should fail, what could take its place?

Perhaps the entry for VLP3 in Sydney on 11850 kHz provides us with a clue. Maybe the Australian government (which owned a 51% share of AWA) had made a quiet arrangement with AWA to provide a fill-in on behalf of the ABC if the unreliable VLR should fail.

So, what is the real answer? Was the seven year entry for VLP3 simply a pretense to prevent piracy of information? Or was it an unannounced backup procedure for AWA to provide a fill-in if VLR should fail? I guess we will never know for sure, but we would suggest that the real hidden purpose for VLP3 was for any available AWA shortwave transmitter to take over from VLR9 should it fail.

During the 1990s, the VLP callsign was applied to the transmissions from Radio Australia, Darwin, out on lonely and isolated Cox Peninsula in the Northern Territory. The line callsign VLP, or at times just P, identified a program service from the Radio Australia studios in Melbourne up to a 250 kW transmitter at their Darwin relay station. Many form Letter QSLs were issued by Radio Australia verifying the callsign VLP, and likewise many QSL cards were issued verifying the transmitter callsign VLP during the 1990s.