Radio Broadcasting at Union College

Schenectady, NY

A Brief History
February 1959
Schaffer Library Special Collections
By Rowan Wakefield


Tracing the history of radio at Union College is a difficult task at best. For one thing, it covers a period of many decades, a period dating back to the earliest days of radio transmission itself. For another, there are gaps in the record which could only be filled in by men long since dead.

One thing is certain, however—it has been a proud history, marked by occasional moments of brilliance. Associated with the growth of radio at the College have been such names as Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Irving Langmuir, Willis R. Whitney, Walter R. G. Baker, Alexander R. Stevenson, Jr., Ernest J. Berg, Ellsworth Cook, Ralph W. Bennett, and a host of other pioneers in the communications and electronics fields.

Radio operations at Union College today take two basic forms: amateur communications, still primarily experimental in nature and purpose; and scheduled broadcasting of the type conducted by commercial AM and FM broadcast stations.

It is the latter with which this resume is primarily concerned. To neglect the former, however, would be to omit a major part of the story, for broadcasting was an outgrowth of the earlier experimental amateur work and, except for a highly significant period of operation during the 1920's,did not come completely into its own until the early 1940's.

Of invaluable assistance in the preparation of this outline were several of the men who helped pioneer radio in this area: Ely H. Kinney of Dallas, Texas, who died only recently; Ellsworth D. Cook of Scotia, New York, who is now associated with the General Engineering Laboratory of the General Electric Company; William C. White of Schenectady, a Consultant with the G. E. Research Laboratory; and Howard I. Becker of Rexford, New York, retired G. E. engineer, who is still an active amateur operator.

The Beginning

That interest in radio should arise early at Union College was inevitable—new developments of that magnitude simply do not get past men of such caliber as Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Chairman of Union's Department of Electrical Engineering from 1902 to 1913, and Ernest J. Berg, his very able successor.

College catalogs indicate that 'Wireless Laboratory' courses were offered early in the century. Dr. Berg himself was an authority on electromagnetic theory and Heaviside's Operational Calculus. Steinmetz genius stands on its own merit. The result was that Union during the early years of the century occupied a unique and highly favorable position with respect to the promising new science of wireless communications.

Unfortunately, while college catalogs are helpful in tracing the beginning of academic interest in the subject, pinpointing the advent of serious experimental work with actual transmitting and receiving equipment is not quite so easy. Many years have elapsed, most of those who participated in the early experiments are now dead, and time has dimmed the memories of those who remain.

That something was afoot on Union's campus as early as 1910 has been verified by Mr. W. C. White, Consultant to the General Electric Research Laboratory and one of America's early radio pioneers. In Mr. White's own words:

"About the turn of the century the deForest Company inveigled General Electric to set up a wireless communication link between the Schenectady and Pittsfield works to supplement or, hopefully, to supercede its wire lines. In those days radio channels could be had for the asking, and the scheme looked feasible. The idea was abandoned about 1910 and this mast was given to Union College for experimental work and was used in our tests."

For want of any other information, then, 1910 must stand for the moment as the earliest recorded date of practical experimental work in wireless communications on Union's campus. It might well be surmised, however, that something had already been stirring; otherwise the College would have had no use for the mast, a 100-footer which was erected near the east end of the Biology Building. Mr. White's reference to "our tests" is highly significant, as will be seen shortly.

The General Electric Experiments

So far as experimental work was concerned, the events which transpired during the next five years appear to be more to the credit of the General Electric Company than of Union College. The Company, apparently short of space, made arrangements to use a small room in Union's Electrical Engineering Building in which to conduct some of its experiments. The decision was of inestimable value to the College, for conducted in this room were some of the most important practical experiments with early vacuum tubes, notably pliotron detectors and amplifiers.

The key figure in this work appears to have been Mr. White, who was diligent in the keeping of notes and years later authored the publication, Early History of Electronics in the General Electric Company. Appearing in the record of his work at Union College are such names as Irving Langmuir, Willis R. Whitney, E.F.W. Alexanderson, and Ely H. Kinney, a formidable group of radio pioneers.

In addition to their work with pliotron detectors and amplifiers, the General Electric group, at the urging of Dr. Whitney, also embarked upon the development of an auto-alarm system which could record messages and alleviate the necessity for constant attention on the part of the operator.

The moment of success proved so dramatic that one further reference to Mr. White's notes is in order: "Finally late one nite while working alone in the radio room at Union College the writer got the alarm signal and recorder working. It was the nite of August 4, 1914, I believe, and the tape recorder was clicking merrily along and the tape with its dots and dashes was rolling out in fine shape. Constant adjustment was required so that no attention was paid to the nature of the message coming in. About midnight it was decided to call it a day and the writer stuffed a number of yards of the message tape in his pocket and went on home. In looking over the tape that evening, the message proved to be one of important historical significance. It came from the German-owned and operated station at Sayville, L. I. It was short and repeated over and over again and read as follows: 'To commanders of all German ships on the high seas; proceed at once to the nearest neutral port.' World War I had started in Europe!"

Union's First Radio Club—1915

Just how active a role the College played in the General Electric experiments is a question which cannot be answered. It is certainly safe to assume, however, that Steinmetz, Berg, and other scientifically alert members of both the faculty and student body were neither blind to the developments nor very far in the background.

There is, furthermore, substantial evidence that the College itself was involved in some form of wireless operations during the same period, for the amateur station log of Mr. Kinney on May 23, 1913, contained the notation, 'Worked wireless today with Union College'. The information furnished by Mr. Kinney shortly before his death, unfortunately, makes no mention of Union's call letters, and the only clue to what they might have been lies in a brief reference in some of the older College records to the call 2YU. Just when this call originated, how long it was used, or if indeed it ever did exist officially is not known.

Regardless of what had or had not transpired previously, the College definitely came into its own in October of 1915 with the purchase of a complete Marconi wireless set, consisting of a two-kilowatt sending set and a cabinet receiving set. From that point on, events moved rapidly. At a meeting in the electrical laboratory on October 29th, the Union College Radio Club was born, and Professor Walter L. Upson was named faculty advisor. An extension at the rear of the laboratory was set aside as a wireless room, and by the first of the year, despite troubles with the big Marconi set, a small station was in operation.

Of actual operations during the pre-World War I period not too much is known. They were, of course, purely experimental or 'amateur' in nature. The student newspaper, Concordiensis, recorded on January 20, 1916, that communications had already been established with Cornell University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Michigan, even though the large transmitter was not working and the receiving equipment left much to be desired. The station also participated in a nationwide test conducted with amateurs by the Navy Department in September of 1916.

Of the Radio Club's non-operational activities, considerably more is known. The organization was decidedly educational as well as recreational in purpose. Concordiensis regularly reported lectures by Dr. Berg and other faculty members on radio theory and equipment, as well as instruction in both code and operating procedures. The club also conducted some notable research on aerials, batteries, and other types of equipment, one outgrowth of which was the development of a practical indoor aerial. This accomplishment drew highly favorable comment from the local press. An indication of the growing stature of the organization was its incorporation in November of 1916 as the Union College Section of the Radio Association of America.

World War I—Operations Suspended

The first chapter in the history of the Union College Radio Club came to an abrupt end in 1917 with the United States declaration of war against Germany. The Federal Government suspended all amateur operations and ordered that transmitters be "sealed" to preclude their unauthorized use. Union's equipment was sealed (the power transformer terminals short-circuited) by the aforementioned Mr. Kinney, who had been appointed a Deputy Sheriff for that purpose.

The Rebirth

Despite the interruption of activities, interest in radio remained high during the war, and with the lifting of the government ban the Union College Radio Club was reorganized. Instrumental in its rebirth was Ellsworth D. Cook of General Electric's General Engineering Laboratory, then a member of Union's Class of 1920. Dr. Berg again figured prominently in Club affairs. Accompanying the revival of the Club was a shift in emphasis which was to have far-reaching effects upon future radio operations at the College. Hitherto viewed only as a point-to-point communications medium, predominantly experimental in nature, radio now began to reveal itself as a means by which information and entertainment might be transmitted over great distances to an audience not in the least technically minded.

Many reasons could probably be cited for the change in outlook, but foremost among them would have to be the rapid progress in the design and production of vacuum tubes which accompanied World War I. Vacuum tubes were an essential component of any practical radiotelephone transmitter, and radiotelephony in turn was the only medium by which a general listening audience might be reached. Union College, thanks to the earlier experiments of the General Electric Company and the very presence of the Company in Schenectady, already had a formidable headstart in this field.

What appears to have been Union's first post-war radiotelephone station, and perhaps its first post-war transmitter of any kind, was constructed by Mr. Cook as a special project, in conjunction with one of Dr. Berg's periodic electrical shows. The builder's own words offer a clue to what was to follow: ":… this station developed primarily for the purpose of Dr. Berg's Electrical Show did, however, make regular afternoon broadcasts on those days assigned for the development work. The sound source was voice and a few cylindrical records played on an Edison phonograph and directed into a microphone. Since the audience was mostly other radio amateurs and since radio telephony was still a novelty, listener boredom due to our limited supply of records was not a factor."

The Mystery of the Call Letters

Again, unfortunately, the matter of call letters used during the immediate post-war period remains something of a mystery. The Department of Commerce call book of June 30, 1920, throws the first real light on the subject, listing not one but two different calls which were then associated with the College: 2XQ, assigned to Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.; and 2ADD, assigned to Wendell King, Electrical Lab., Union College.

Part of the mystery hinges upon the actual date of issuance of 2XQ, for the June 1920 date indicated above is merely that of the call book edition. It is known, however, that this was a so-called 'experimental' call, typical of the type then issued by the Department of Commerce for work such as that being conducted at the College. It was subsequently changed to W2XBN about 1929 and to the present amateur call W2GSB in 1932.

2ADD, on the other hand, would appear to have been King's own amateur call, although this is by no means certain. A student from Troy, New York, King was highly active in the Radio Club and at one time was listed as Chief Engineer of the club station. There are two clues to the fact that 2ADD might have been his personal call: (1) this was typical of the amateur calls then being assigned to individuals; and (2) it is last listed at the Union College address in the call book of June 30, 1922, at about which time King left the College.

The question as to which call was actually used by the station during the period 1920-22 is a vital one, as will be seen shortly.

The Union College 'Firsts'

On the evening of October 14, 1920, there originated from the Union College campus one of the most historic broadcasts in the annals of American radio. The headline which appeared in the Schenectady Gazette the following morning proclaimed in bold letters: 'College Students Give Concert by Radio Telephone'.

"What is believed to be the first attempt of a college radio club to give a musical concert by wireless telephone was successfully made last night at Union College," the Gazette reported. "The strains of a phonograph playing into the receiver of a radio telephone set for a 100 mile radius, were plainly heard by amateur operators within 50 miles."

"The club is now planning to give concerts every Thursday night and expects to extend the sending radius to 1,000 miles after improvements are made…"

This, other claims to the contrary, appears to have been the first previously scheduled program ever broadcast for the purpose of public entertainment in the United States. Doubly significant is the fact that it was followed by several others in the same scheduled series before KDKA's historic coverage of the Harding-Cox election on November 2, 1920.

That the event launched one of the most brilliant eras in Union College radio history is a fact beyond all dispute, for it was followed in quick succession by a string of historic 'firsts', several of which attracted nationwide attention.

2XQ baby carriagePerhaps the most spectacular of these was the 'baby carriage incident' of May 6, 1921. On that date, still vividly remembered by senior citizens of Schenectady, a group of Union students rigged a wireless receiving set into a wicker baby carriage and, complete with live baby, wheeled the monstrosity across the campus and through the streets of downtown Schenectady. Projecting from the top was an antenna, between the handles was the tuning device, concealed within the carriage proper was the vacuum tube amplifier and associated components, and strapped underneath were the storage batteries.

The reactions of those who encountered the unusual perambulator were recounted later in the Knickerbocker Press of Albany: "`As the carriage was wheeled through the campus, it began to attract attention, for from somewhere about it there seemed to be issuing the sound of music Many a person who passed the contrivance looked inside to see where the phonograph could be concealed."

All in all, considering the size and weight of 1921 equipment, the escapade added up to a very neat trick. It also added up to a very sizeable piece of publicity, capturing space in several major New York and Chicago papers in addition to the coverage which it received locally.

Whether their motives were humorous or serious or, in fact, even if the whole thing was only a publicity stunt, the members of the Union College Radio Club had unveiled what may have been the world's first portable broadcast receiver.

Such was the nature of this pioneer broadcasting age, and, though generally less spectacular, the progress made by the Union College station after its initial broadcast on October 14, 1920, was both steady and encouraging. Better equipment and higher power resulted in a greatly increased listening range. Within a very short time, reception reports had been received from twenty-three states, the District of Columbia, four Canadian provinces, and from steamships on Lake Michigan and the Atlantic Ocean.

Programming was also expanded to include live broadcasts of campus assemblies, Sunday evening vesper services, and other College events, all in addition to the regular weekly record concerts. The first known broadcast of an athletic contest, the Union-Hobart football game, took place on November 13, 1920, and by 1922, with the help of a field telephone set, play-by-play accounts of games were regularly being transmitted to opposing colleges.

There was also evidenced during this early period a strong sense of public responsibility, illustrated by the transmission of many programs which today would come under the heading of public service broadcasts. A notable example occurred on the occasion of a University of Wisconsin alumni reunion in Wisconsin. Speaking over the Union College station, a University alumnus addressed his fellows at the far-off gathering. Concert broadcasts were also requested frequently by area organizations and wherever feasible were granted. One particularly memorable occasion was the broadcast of a recital given at the Schenectady Armory by the great violinist, Fritz Kreisler.

The Pendulum Swings Back

Unfortunately, promising though the progress had been, Union College broadcasting operations were destined to come to an early end. Nor was Union the only educational institution confronted with this prospect. Competition from the rapidly growing ranks of commercial stations, blessed as they were with practically unlimited resources of both equipment and human talent, simply made college broadcasting unfeasible. Union surrendered in 1923, and the College Radio Club returned to its original function, experimentation, particularly in the field of shortwave communications.

Serious shortwave work began in the fall of 1925 and soon resulted in confirmations of reception from all corners of the earth. Again, however, there is an element of mystery about the operation, stemming from a lack of written records and the rather confusing call letter assignments of the period.

It is believed, though by no means certain, that most of the low frequency broadcast work was carried out under Wendell King's call, 2ADD. King's departure in 1922 left the College with its own call, 2XQ, which in turn, as previously stated, became W2XBN about 1929. These, however, were both 'experimental' calls, and the question arises as to whether their use was permitted in the bands assigned to amateur service.

If such were the case, then the shortwave work of the late 1920's was undoubtedly amateur work carried out on regular amateur frequencies. A partially completed renewal application for 2XQ, prepared in April of 1925, seems to bear out this explanation, for the frequency privileges requested were, with only one exception, frequencies assigned to amateur use. The exception was an interesting one - the College still requested retention of its 200 meter broadcast band privileges.

If, on the other hand, the experimental calls were not authorized for amateur service, then the work done at the College between 1925 and 1932 must have taken some other form. This, however, is highly doubtful in view of the period involved, the state of the radio art, and the basic purposes of the College Radio Club. The doubt is further compounded by the fact that the above-mentioned application form lists for equipment a 250 watt, self-excited c.w. (code) transmitter, a typical amateur installation of the day.

It is reasonably safe to assume, therefore, that all of the experimental work done during this period took the form of straight amateur communications and was indeed carried out on regularly assigned amateur frequencies.

Regardless of what form it took, radio at Union College was by no means a lost cause between 1923 and the resumption of programmed broadcasting operations in the early 1940's. A staggering amount of pioneering, including the exploration of unheard of frequencies in the VHF and UHF portion of the spectrum, was done during these years, and almost all of it was done by amateur operators while the commercial interests were busy making money with their existing facilities. Members of Union's Radio Club, for example, did some notable experimental work during the 1920's on the development of high-powered oscillators for the VHF range.

The 1930's saw two significant developments in Union College radio. One was the assignment of the amateur call letters W2GSB to the College station in 1932. The other, an event more closely related to the purpose of this paper, was the formation in the mid-l930's of the Union College Radio Workshop.

The primary interest of the new organization was the writing and production of radio programs -of intellectual interest. Although the group had no outlet of its own, it is believed that some of the Workshop programs were actually broadcast over the facilities of WGY, the General Electric broadcast station in Schenectady.

The inference to be drawn from this activity is clear: radio broadcasting, though dormant for over a decade, had not lost any of its attraction. All that was needed was a little extra push in the right direction, some new development which would lessen the impact of commercial competition, perhaps even a lucky break, and operations would be rolling again.

The Renaissance

The break came about 1940 with the advent of a new form of intra-mural broadcasting utilizing 'carrier current' or 'wired wireless' transmitting techniques. The principle of its operation is basically simple: radio frequency energy from a transmitter operating at very low power levels on broadcast band frequencies is fed directly into local power lines instead of the usual antenna; receiving sets, in turn, which are powered directly from those lines and located relatively close to the transmitter, can receive the signal, while those at a greater distance cannot. So long as power output is held to a very low level and the signals cause no interference to other services, such operation falls within the provisions of the Federal Communications Commission rules for restricted radiation devices. No license is required for either station or operators.

The scheme looked feasible, and during the 1940-41 academic year concerted efforts were launched to assemble facilities and get a station on the air. Of great assistance in the preparations was David W. Borst, one of the founders of college intramural broadcasting at Brown University.

In view of the enthusiasm which accompanied the project, success was inevitable. The first broadcast took place on September 22, 1941, greeting Union' s student body almost as soon as it returned for the new school year. Almost simultaneously a merger was effected between the College's three independent radio groups, the old Radio Club, the Radio Workshop which had come into being during the 1930's, and the relatively new Union Broadcasting System. The new organization, which contained both an amateur section and a broadcasting section, was appropriately dubbed the Union College Radio Society. Broadcasting was once again a going concern on the campus, and this time it was established on a pretty firm footing.

Oddly enough, the new broadcasting station had scarcely been on the air two months when the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, resulted in the suspension of all amateur activity. It was now W2GSB's turn to lie dormant for several years, and while it did so, the newcomer to Union's radio ranks improved its facilities, expanded its operations, and generally established itself as a permanent feature of undergraduate life at the College.

The Baby Named—The Final Split

Two events occurred during 1947 which make that year the turning in Union College radio history. The first was the naming of the campus broadcasting station. A student contest was staged for the purpose, and adopted as a result were the call letters WRUC, Radio Union College—simple but appropriate.

The second event was the final, though long inevitable, split between the broadcasting organization and the College amateur station. Reconstituted in 1947 as the Union College Amateur Radio Club, the latter was granted the status of a fully independent student activity, free to pursue its traditional functions of experimentation and communications.

Since this is the story of broadcast rather than amateur operations, suffice it to say that W2GSB today is one of the most modern and versatile college amateur stations in the nation, its transmitting equipment capable of operating at the maximum legal power limit and reaching to any part of the world.

One strong bond continues to link W2GSB and WRUC. The highly technical nature of amateur work and its stringent licensing requirements make it a proving ground for the skilled engineers and technicians required in the operation of a broadcasting station. The result is that many of Union's 'ham' operators also serve on the technical staff of WRUC. So much for past history.

WRUC Today

WRUC today has four basic objectives: (1) to provide an enjoyable extracurricular outlet for its student members; (2) to serve the Union College campus family by offering a wide range of entertaining and informative programs; (3) to serve as a training ground for young men interested in pursuing various aspects of the broadcasting profession; and (4) to serve, directly or indirectly, the general public or outside groups not directly associated with the College.

That it is fulfilling the first of these objectives is evidenced by the fact that it is Union's largest single student activity both in membership (nearly 100) and facilities (valued at $35,000).

The latter warrant further comment. Comprising the present studio plant, which was constructed in 1947, are one large studio for both musical and dramatic productions, a smaller studio known as the 'announce booth', and several news rooms. The record library contains 50,000 titles in all and includes the largest classical collection in New York State's Capital District area. Comprising the overall collection are more than 2,000 long-playing records, 1,000 45 R.P.M. discs, 3,000 of the older 78 R.P.M. recordings, and 1,000 16' broadcast transcriptions.

Technical facilities are on a par with the rest of the installation. Electronic equipment includes the latest and highest quality professional systems available for broadcast purposes. An extensive network of program lines permits the origination of programs from or the piping of programs to virtually any part of the campus, as well as the distribution of programs between the campus and outside prints. Visitors highly qualified to express such opinions have labelled WRUC one of the best equipped college radio stations in the nation.

Programming, of course, is the principal product and its acceptance the ultimate test of the effectiveness of any radio station. A recent listenership survey by Survey Systems, Inc., relieved WRUC of any immediate anxieties on this score, ranking the station fourth among all college broadcasting stations in the nation with an overall listenership rating of 21%. Its top program ranked second in the nation with a 34% rating.

Behind this success is a grueling, 109-hour weekly broadcast schedule which features news, music, and special events of interest to the College community. Included in the program fare are such items as broadcasts of away football games, sometimes hundreds of miles from the campus, weather bulletins, 'music to study by' during the evening hours, and the only daily program of classical music available to AM listeners in the Schenectady area.

Keeping abreast of the news is another vital function of any radio station, and WRUC does so in part through membership in United Press International (UPI), with its associated teletype service. Supplementing the teletype facilities are two 'hot' lines, which are kept reserved at all times for news breaks -- one, in fact, is closed to all out-going calls. Add to this an alert news staff of its own, and some reason can be seen for the excellent service offered by the station. Recent highlights, just to cite a few examples, have included on-the-spot coverage of local elections, major storms, and flood threats to the Schenectady area. WRUC currently operates on 4 schedule of 7:30 A.M. to 12:15 A.M. on weekdays, 7:30 A.M. to 1:00 P.11. on Saturdays, and from 10:30 A.M. to 12:15 A. H. on Sundays. It takes a lot of people and a first-class personnel manager to carry on an operation of this magnitude, particularly when the people involved are also confronted with the task of getting through college.

To cope with its scheduling problems, WRUC is operated as a one-man show during morning and afternoon hours. Student 'disc-jockeys' work on one-hour shifts, playing records and reporting on the latest news and weather.

Evening operations, on the other hand, because of a much larger audience and a demand for greater variety in programming, require an average complement of four men. There is compensation in the extra duties, however, for they give the WRUC staff the feel of operating a 'big' station.

There remains, at this point, just one further question: how does WRUC accomplish its professed objective of service to the general public or, for that matter, to any off-campus audience? The station's primary signal on 640 kilocycles, after all, can be heard at best only a few hundred feet from the transmitter in Washburn Hall, and then only in the immediate vicinity of directly interconnected power lines.

The preparation and production of recorded programs, for subsequent rebroadcast over commercial station facilities, has thus far proved to be the principal means of surmounting this obstacle. A notable example was WRUC's dominant role in the production of the weekly 'College Crossfire' series, a seven-college undertaking which was aired recently over the nationwide facilities of the Mutual Broadcasting System.

The Future

That WRUC can look forward to a long and rewarding future is an assured fact. Its acceptance by the campus family is already manifested in its commendable listenership rating. As a charter member of the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System and a subscriber to the National Association of Broadcaster's Code, it is just as firmly established on the national scene.

Also slated to make its debut in the very near future is a highly promising new educational radio group, the Greylock Regional Broadcasting Council, which is now in its final stages of organization. Utilizing the facilities of WAMC-FM, the powerful new FM outlet of Albany Medical College (a branch of Union University), the Council's member colleges will be able to bring their programs to a vast new listening audience in the New York State-New England area. Union's programs, needless to say, will be produced by and will originate from the studios of WRUC.

What else the future might bring is anybody's guess. Perhaps it is not even too far-fetched to visualize an entirely new campus service, originating from the Washburn Hall studios under the self-explanatory call letters WRUC-TV. Closed circuit television, after all, has already invaded Union's classrooms, where it has proved to be an invaluable instruction aid.

If it does nothing more than maintain the status quo, however, WRUC is going to be around for a long time and is going to play an important role in student life at Union College.