The Roots of Radio run deep in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia today is known for many things, ranging from outdoor public art to cheese steak sandwiches. But Philadelphia has a long history with radio as well. At one time, our nation's former capitol was the seat of the dominant radio broadcast manufacturing company RCA. During our preparation for the NAB Radio Show in Philadelphia, we were reminded 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 as well. As radio continues to look forward to its future, this gives us good reason to look back at our past to see how so many companies are able to trace links back to the city of brotherly love.
For many years, RCA called the Philadelphia area home with its manufacturing facility in Camden, NJ. In time, other radio broadcast manufacturers took roots in Philadelphia, many of which were started by former RCA employees. This long and sometimes complex history has many interesting twists that now stretch beyond the Philadelphia area.
Four into one
When the United States entered World War I, the transatlantic radiotelegraph station at New Brunswick, NJ, was taken over by the U.S. Navy. The radiotelegraph station was owned by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, which was a division of the British Marconi Company. General Electric, at the Navy's request, upgraded the 50kW Alexanderson alternator with a 200kW unit. The Marconi company did not want to finance the upgrade, so GE paid for the installation, which provided 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 its possession one day, began negotiations with GE to purchase additional Alexanderson alternators for its American and British divisions. When the Navy learned of this potential transaction, it intervened, knowing that the sale would result in foreign interests having a monopoly on global communications.
Navy Rear Admiral W.H.G. Bullard, director of communications of the Navy, 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 creating the proposed corporation. The plan was to purchase American Marconi and obtain the rights to use various radio circuits that were owned by other companies. Tentative agreements were made, each being contingent on the confirmation of the complete package.
On Oct. 17, 1919, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was established. On Nov. 20, 1919, the American Marconi Company was officially merged with the Radio Corporation of America. On this same date, a cross-licensing agreement was initiated between RCA and GE. On July 1, 1920, a cross-licensing agreement was concluded with GE and AT&T. By another agreement on the same date, these rights were extended to RCA and the Western Electric Company. A similar cross-licensing agreement between RCA and the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company was signed June 30, 1921.
Originally, RCA was formed as an operating company for the purpose of providing ship-to-shore communication. In 1929, the three partners consolidated their research and development, manufacturing and marketing. It had no manufacturing facilities until RCA acquired the Victor Company in 1929 for $154 million and later established RCA Radiotron in 1930.
Tooling for an empire
On purchasing the Victor Company, RCA was able to establish a manufacturing presence. RCA had interests that spanned all elements of broadcasting, from origination at the studio and network to the final receiver. It was the broadcast manufacturing in Camden that became the powerhouse until 1986. The Camden facility also housed the communications and government equipment manufacturing operations.
Growth and expansion is a natural course for any company or individual. As RCA continued to thrive, talented individuals would also seek their own growth potential and move to begin their own companies. It was through these changes that many radio manufacturers have their roots in Philadelphia.
One of the better-known results is CCA, but it was preceded by another company called ITA. Bernie Wise left RCA in 1957 and formed ITA, which he operated until 1962 when he sold it to Triangle Publications. ITA manufactured transmitters. When ITA was sold, Wise founded CCA, which he operated until 1974. While with CCA, Wise purchased a division of Ampex that later became Comark. Since then, CCA has been through several owners.
CCA and ITA later spawned new companies as employees would leave to pursue their own careers and goals.
For example, Belar was founded around 1975 when Arno Meyer left ITA where he was a transmitter engineer. At the time, FM stereo was making its inroads and Meyer had the idea to develop a stereo modulation monitor. ITA wasn't interested in the idea so Meyer left and started his own company.
When ITA was sold, some of the employees went to CCA and others went to AEL. AEL, based in Lansdale, PA, was founded in 1951 and began working on contract projects for the University of Pennsylvania, the Navy and Philco. In 1952, AEL became a supplier of UHF TV antennas for RCA. AEL manufactured FM radio transmitters starting about 1962, and AEL manufactured broadcast transmitters well into the 70s, but eventually left broadcast and continued with government contracts.
QEI was founded in 1971 by broadcast professionals who had previously worked for Belar and AEL. As CCA was making its mark, the company was interested in manufacturing its own modulation monitors and frequency analyzers. QEI was formed to manufacture monitors that would be branded for CCA. QEI also manufactured a synthesized phase-locked loop oscillator module for CCA.
In a similar way, CSI was formed by former CCA employees Bernie Gelman and Joe Ponist. CSI was founded around 1973 and ceased manufacturing in the early 80s. CSI manufactured transmitters and used QEI 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 involved with 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 he left ITA. Wilkinson Electronics was sold to TTC in 1990, which was then sold 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 Dodge also started working with FM antennas through ITA.
Dr. Charles Brown, who designed antennas for RCA and tested them at the antenna test range in Gibbsboro, NJ, formed Dielectric in 1942. Dielectric moved to Raymond, ME, in 1954. Dielectric bought the TV and FM antenna division of RCA in 1986, closing the Gibbsboro range and moved the test facility to Maine.
Ampro was founded by Alex Meyer about 1970. His preceding company manufactured audio consoles and cart machines for RCA. Ampro was started so that the company's equipment could be sold through other channels.
There are undoubtedly more manufacturers that could be added to this list. In some cases, no formal history exists. In other cases, exploring the ties would be a long and tedious process. If you have some history that you would like to share, let the Radio magazine staff know. While RCA is no longer manufacturing broadcast equipment today, the legacy of the company's roots in Philadelphia survive through other companies still in business today.
References for early RCA history:
Saga of the Vacuum Tube, by Gerald Tyne, which originally appeared as a series of articles in Radio News from 1943 to 1946
Personal interview with Dr. Robert Lane, president emeritus, Midland Antique Radio Collectors Club, Kansas City, MO.
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