Monday, July 08, 2013

Gernsback Strike Again!

Hugo Gernsback is one of those names that pops up repeatedly in radio history. His late career success in science fiction overshadowed his snake oil interests in radio and his more bonafide accomplishments like WRNY and Radio News. He is for whom the Hugo awards are named. He foresaw video conferencing, social networking, electrical cars, radar, solar power, and microfilm. He didn't invent science fiction, he was science fiction. But let us discuss his more mortal accomplishments. He built one of the first New York radio stations.. then destroyed it with his own endless tinkering.

In 1925, Hugo founded radio station WRNY which broadcast from the 18th floor of The Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and was later involved in the first television broadcasts. Gernsback savvily used WRNY and his magazine Radio News to cross promote each other. Radio programs on WRNY often were used to discuss articles he had written or published, and some of the articles in Radio News covered the activities at WRNY.  The model was later emulated across the nation by daily newspapers that also owned local radio outlets.

At the time there were only about 500 radio stations in the whole of the USA. WRNY's license was so early, they were pre-FCC, and even pre-FRC.  His company, Experimenter Publishing applied for a license from the US Dept of Commerce to broadcast on 1160 kHz in New York City. But they didn't stay there. Before the station closed in 1934 they'd also have broadcast on 800 kHz, 920 kHz, 970 kHz, 1010 kHz, and 1070 kHz. But not all of those moves went so smoothly. In November of 1926, WRNY then operating on 800 kHz  moved from the Roosevelt Hotel to Coytesville, New Jersey. WHN, then operating on 830 kHz claimed that WRNY was causing them interference.There wasn't much they could do until the FRC was formed in 1927, whereupon WRNY was reallocated to share time on 920 kHz with WPCH.

By then Gernsback was getting bored with regular old radio. Just for giggles in 1927, Gernsback started the shortwave station 2XAL (later W2XAL) operating on 9700 kHz. Then he got the TV bug. In April 1928,he started a venture with Pilot Electric Manufacturing and began broadcasting television experiments on the AM band. His transmission on 1010 kHz yielded a silent black and white image on a screen 1.5 inches square. It had only 48 scan lines.  Impressively that tiny low resolution images could be transmitted in as little as 5 kHz of bandwidth. (For comparison remember that commercial television of the 1940s used 6 MHz of bandwidth.)

The FRC stepped in and stomped on his television dreams. Under the auspices of preventing interference the FRC limited television broadcast to shortwave stations above 1500 kHz. The experimental broadcasts would be limited to one hour per day and their bandwidth limited to  10 kHz. Oh and they couldn't air them during prime time 6:00 PM to 11:00 PM. The bandwidth limitation was critical. TV experiments were no longer possible on the AM band. In the Spring of 1929 a bankruptcy petition was filed against the Experimenter Publishing Company for debts of over half a million dollars. A trust was established and Hugo was kicked out.  His shortwave station W2XAL became property of a flight school and WRNY went to the Curtiss Aircraft Corp. WHN later bought it out and shut it down to end a pesky dayshare arrangement.