Setting the record Straight!

(Copy of an article that appeared in CN&R, October 5, 1995 by Robert Speer)


Were it not for Gordon Greb (see picture at bottom of story), history might record that the world's first radio station began broadcasting to a general audience from Pennsylvania in 1920, instead of in California -- San Jose, to be exact -- in 1912. 


In fact, for many years that was exactly what history record.  Greb, an energetic and enthusiastic man of 74, is quick to produce a list of the first 81 stations taken from the history of radio.  Sure enough, no one at the top is KDKA, which was operated by the Westinghouse Company in East Pittsburgh, PA and began broadcasting in November 1920.


There are two very interesting things about this list, Greb’s points out.  One is that the fifth station listed is KFU, which began broadcasting in March 1922 from, of all places, Bradley!  That's right, little world's pioneer radio stations located in what is now the Kiwi Capital of the World.


But the other interesting thing about the list is the 51st station, which Greb has highlighted in yellow and underlined in red its KQW in San Jose, which supposedly began broadcasting in January 1922.  But as Greb discovered -- rewriting the history of broadcasting in the process -- the owner of that station, Charles Herrold, actually had operated another radio station beginning in 1912.  For various reasons his station, the very first ever, had become lost a history.


It's a fascinating tale of an obscure genius whose place in history was made, then lost, then found again, and it's the subject of the television documentary, Broadcasting’s forgotten father, that will air as part of KIXE-TV's pledge break Saturday October 7th (1995) beginning at 5:30 PM.


Gordon Grebs interest in Charles Herrold began in 1958, when as a professor of journalism at what was then San Jose State College he was looking for a class project to research.  Fortunately, at that time Herrold's wife, his chief assistant and many of his former pupils -- his principal occupation had been owner of a school for wireless operators -- were still alive and available for interviews.


What Greb discovered was that Charles Herrold (b.  1875) was a born tinker and inveterate with a talent for working with mechanical an electrical equipment, a trait he inherited from his father, a farmer in the Santa Clara Valley.  Fascinated by the stars, Herrold constructed elaborate telescopes.  He also excelled in photography.  He new chemistry well enough to tutor students, experimented with sound and music, and wrote several compositions for piano.


He enrolled in Stanford to study astronomy, but when the only astronomy professor quick, he was forced to switch fields.  He shows physics at electricity, fields he would pursue for the rest of his life, but dropped out for health reasons in his third year.


This was the era of such great inventors as Edison and Marconi.  Inspired by them, Herrold decided to become an inventor himself.  He moved from San Jose to San Francisco and designed, patented and manufactured dozens of electrical and mechanical devices for dentistry, surgery and deep-sea diving.  He even invented electrical machinery for pipe organs.


Gradually, though his interest in the new technology of wireless communications grew, and he became chief engineer of the National Wireless Telegraph and Telephone Company of San Francisco.  The earthquake of 1906 ended all that.  His home and work destroyed, he moved to Stockton, where he became a teacher at Heald’s College of Mining and Engineering.  He discovered he enjoyed teaching and in 1909 he returned to San Jose and opened his own school, the Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering.  Income from the school enabled him to pursue his true passion, wireless communications.  In 1910 the vacuum tube was still five to seven years away from development so Herrold experimented with such alternatives as a spark, arc and alternator systems.


By 1912 he’d invented a mechanical radio called the ark phone using 500 volts DC pilfered from San Jose's electric streetcar line, he proceeded to employ the radio and three ways: first is a direct line radio beaming from the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco to his colleagues in San Jose, second as a long distance signaling device for use by the military (his music actually carried as far away as Bremerton, Washington and San Diego); and third for what Herrold called, and perhaps the first uses of the term, "broadcasting for the people San Jose."


For several years hurl was on the air every single Wednesday night for an hour or so.  Called "Little Hams Program," the show went out mainly to a audience of crystal radio hobbyists, the radio-era equivalents of today's young computer whizzes.  (The home radio, as we know it, had yet to be invented.)


The broadcasts included music, on-air contest with prizes, Herrold's wife Sybil as the first female radio announcer in history, and his assistant, Ray Newby, reading news stories from the local paper.  They continued regularly for five years, until the outbreak of World War I and the required secession of all experimental radioactivity.


By the time the war was over, the vacuum tube had been established as the superior radio technology.  Because the frequencies were completely different, all of Charles Herrold’s work was for not, and had to start over.


In 1920, Commerce Department began for the first time to license radio stations.  Undaunted, Herrold built a vacuum tube station and received his license in December 1921.  Radio stations were popping up everywhere -- even in Gridley -- and Herrold’s KQW was just one of many.


By 1925 Herrold, now broken exhausted, transferred his license to the First Baptist Church of San Jose.  Soon after, it was taken over by the Farm Bureau and began serving farmers and agriculture.  1949, it was bought by CBS, moved to San Francisco and renamed KCBS.


Charles Herrold spent his final years as a radio-advertising consultant.  In the 1930s he began publicly to seek the recognition he deserved, but it didn't began to come until 1958, 10 years after his death, when Gordon Greb took up his cause.


Although he's officially retired and living in Chico, a town he grew to love when his daughter attended college there, Gordon Greb remains very much involved with Charles Herrold.  He worked closely with Mike Adams, the San Jose State University associate professor radio and television who wrote, produced, directed and narrates Broadcastings Forgotten Father, and the two men continue to work together on a book about Herrold.


As Adams is the first to the knowledge, however, it was Greb, the former newspaperman and television news anchor as well as university professor and writer, who was most responsible for restoring Charles Herrold to this place in history.  Not only did he reestablish Herrold’s accomplishment, he located much of the equipment the pioneer radio operator use.  It is now housed in the Charles Herrold museum in San Jose, California.


Return to previous page