National Museum of Broadcasting

To Preserve the Birthplace of the Broadcasting Industry

Frank Conrad

Sleepless Genius

Frank Conrad holding early microphone - circa 1921Frank Conrad was one of these amateurs, having built a transmitter at his home in Swissvale, Pa. Upon relocating to neighboring Wilkinsburg, he moved the station to the second floor of his backyard garage. Conrad had only a seventh grade education, but when it came to mechanics and electronics he was a genius. Conrad worked for Westinghouse as assistant chief engineer at its East Pittsburgh Works and acquired over 200 patents in his lifetime. Despite his modest education, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Pittsburgh and was the recipient of numerous awards including the Edison Medal.

Conrad Garage in 1920It is Conrad to whom the broadcasting industry owes its existence. Often working into the wee hours of the morning in his garage workshop, he advanced not only the technology but also the business concepts upon which the industry is based. When he substituted a phonograph for his microphone, he discovered a large audience of listeners who had built their own crystal radio sets and who, upon hearing the music, wrote or phoned requests for more music and news. When he became swamped with these requests, he decided to broadcast regular, scheduled programs to satisfy his listeners.

Conrad's amateur radio station 8XK in 1920When he ran out of his own collection of records, he borrowed from a Wilkinsburg music store in exchange for mentioning the store on the air—the first radio advertisement. (The store owner soon discovered that records played on Conrad’s station sold better than others.) All of these concepts for broadcasting—the station, the audience, the programs, and a means to pay for the programs—came about through Conrad’s work.

But Conrad was still just an amateur. For the broadcasting industry to get started, it would take a company with the resources to operate a commercial radio station and to manufacture receivers for the general public. And it would take someone at that company with the vision to get it done.

(For more information on Frank Conrad please visit the Conrad Bibliography.)

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