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Pieces of the Past — Frank Conrad

May 1, 2024

I got a call from a fellow ham radio operator asking if I’d be interested in helping with a “Special Event” ham radio station celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Conrad. “Who?” I said.

He went on to explain who he was but more importantly what he did. Being a lifetime broadcaster I jumped at the chance to honor him.

Frank Conrad dropped out of Junior high in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania just as he was turning 16. He went to work as a bench tester for Westinghouse. His passion for anything electrical got him an engineering job. Not surprising he was tinkering with a thing called radio. He got his first ham license in 1912. As station 8KX he worked on projects to get a signal farther and farther. World War 1 shut him down but his expertise in radio was too much to ignore and the military worked with him.

The war brought on a rapid improvement in radio and along with the work Conrad was doing to improve AM, an officer in the signal corps was inventing FM. When the war ended, Conrad went back to his garage to do more. By 1920 Conrad had developed a powerful 100-watt transmitter. Westinghouse toured his garage and agreed to let him plant his device in one of their buildings and put up an antenna on the roof. That year The Cox – Harding election results were heard by an audience of about 100 amateur operators. The success was noticed by Westinghouse’s top brass. They didn’t hesitate to make Conrad assistant to the chief engineer and back him on his ideas.

Radio Station 8ZZ began broadcasting on a frequency of 920 kHz. Most of their listeners built their own receivers. Westinghouse saw that there were pre-wired sets being sold for ten dollars. They had the capability of selling one for 5.
The frequency changed in 1928 to 980 as a clear channel station. It was in 1941 when listeners tuned in to hear two men and two women sing: KDKA Pittsburgh on your dial at 1020.

This Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on 10, 15, 20, 40, and 80-meter ham bands you’ll hear CQ CQ Special Event KD3KA calling CQ. I’ll be manning one of at least a dozen hams celebrating the life of the man who built the first successful commercial radio station.

Conrad was awarded over 200 U.S. English and French. patents When you pay your electric bill, it was Conrad who patented the circular watt-hour meter. He also invented an electric clock, air conditioner, refrigerator, and the hand grenade. Not bad for a junior high school dropout.

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