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HOW TELEVISION CAME TO BOSTON-- THE FORGOTTEN STORY OF W1XAY
by Donna L. Halper, PhD., Assistant Professor of Communication, Lesley University Cambridge, MA

(Part 2 of 2)


Innovations in Mechanical TV

 

In late July of 1928, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) awarded licenses to only a small number of experimental television stations; 1XAY was given permission to continue its work for the next year, while the FRC studied whether television experiments were in fact in the public interest.  It was assigned a wave of between 4700 and 4900 kc (61-62 metres).  And as Jack Dodge, Al Poté and Henry Lane put all their efforts into constructing the new 500 watt transmitter, even putting up a new antenna and making sure the TV and radio equipment were housed separately, Carl Wheeler took a trip to Europe.  While undoubtedly some of it was for the purpose of seeing the sights (Wheeler enjoyed traveling), there were some business reasons for his visit; some reports about his trip gave the impression that he had met with John Logie Baird, the Scottish proponent of mechanical television.  If he didn’t meet Baird himself, Wheeler definitely took some time to study how the Baird system was doing, and when he came back, he told the newspapers that he was not impressed with what he had seen.  In fact, he was convinced the WLEX/1XAY transmissions were superior.  And the new equipment was supposed to be operational by early August, making the stations even better.

 The spirit of innovation continued at 1XAY after the new equipment was installed.  WLEX staff member Don Laffin, writing in the Lexington newspaper on 17 August, announced that as of 13 August, 1XAY had been able to successfully broadcast and telecast simultaneously the actual WLEX program.  The regular 1XAY time for transmitting was between 10 and 10.30 pm; testing the equipment was often done later at night, after the regular WLEX broadcast day had ended. Some of these tests entailed WLEX employees sitting or standing in front of the scanning equipment for long periods of time; this ultimately became so tedious that even the good-natured members of the station began to complain.  Al Poté finally purchased two dummies, one male and one female, and used them for the tests instead. 

The new equipment seemed to help, and the amateurs noticed the improvement, especially with regard to the audio.  But some of 1XAY’s video problems remained, since they were inherent to early TV.  In one notable example of this,  when Dr. Ernst Alexanderson’s TV station at WGY broadcast what was perhaps the first televised play, “The Queen’s Messenger,” Radio World’s critic was brutally honest.  “The pictures received were three by three inches, and they were sometimes blurred and indistinct. They were not always in the center of the screen and they flickered a good deal.  Consequently, they were not always easy on the eyes.”   Further, the current state of the art was not yet user-friendly for anyone who wanted to have a television in their home.  In early September of 1928, it was announced that this year’s New England Radio Show would feature a demonstration by 1XAY and WLEX; also, television receivers would be for sale at the show.  But the Post was quick to remind everyone planning to attend that “...[t]o thoroughly enjoy and appreciate [the] programmes, the home must be equipped with a standard radio receiver...and the additional Television equipment.  The day of consolidating the Television and Radio receivers into one unit is not even in sight.  Two receivers and two antenna systems are required.”

Interestingly, in New York, where Hugo Gernsback’s station, WRNY, was also experimenting with television, the Pilot Manufacturing Company was offering a unit that did combine the television and radio components into a single unit. 

Sept. 1928 RADIO-DESIGN (119K bytes) (119KB) - September 1928 - RADIO DESIGN - Showing combo radio-TV unit for sale

Surely Henry Lane must have been aware of this, but keep in mind that his first loyalty was to the companies with whom he was involved in the WLEX project-- local companies like Raytheon and Samson.  He may have been skeptical of Pilot’s claims (many inventors minimised what their competitors were doing, preferring instead to elevate the importance of their own work); or he may have just chosen to concentrate on what was being sold at the Boston Radio Exposition in October.

In fairness to Mr. Lane as a journalist, it was a common practice in 1920s media to ignore what was happening in other cities.  The Pittsburgh newspapers frequently stated that KDKA was the first radio station in the world (!) even though a cursory glance at the Detroit or Boston newspapers of the early 20s would have shown that statement to be completely untrue.

Westinghouse, KDKA’s parent company, was famous for sending elaborate media kits to newspapers all over the country, touting the achievements of both Westinghouse and KDKA; some newspapers printed these releases verbatim, never questioning one word of them.  In our world of instant communication, where we can go to the internet and quickly check stories from a number of newspapers, it is easy to forget that in 1928, many people still didn’t have electricity or long distance service; what was written in a local newspaper was often taken as factual, since the average person couldn’t determine how accurate the information really was, and had no way of knowing it might have come from an advertiser’s press release.  And while Henry Lane was respected in the engineering community and knew better than to praise a product that didn’t work, he clearly had a vested interest in saying good things about the products available at the up-coming radio exposition.  Chances are he saw no purpose in giving Pilot any free publicity, and so he didn’t. 

The radio expo got a lot of favourable press in all the Boston newspapers (although, as mentioned earlier, some of them refused to mention the TV demonstration because that would give the Post some publicity), and a few people did buy the new television receivers, but for the most part, the general public was not yet persuaded.  The experimenters and the amateurs remained television’s biggest boosters and everyone else continued to enjoy the programs they could hear on their favourite radio station.

 

Rumours and Realities

 

Meanwhile, RCA had begun doing television experiments, joining General Electric in exploring what possibilities TV had.  And in Boston, rumours were circulating regarding how John Shepard 3rd of WNAC wanted to have his own television station, to compete with WLEX.  Shepard knew television was not really ready for commercial use, but as the owner of a department store, he certainly saw an opportunity to sell components and tubes, and maybe a receiver or two, as well as maintaining his own image as an owner who was ahead of everyone else in embracing new technologies.  Since Jack Dodge was already occupied at the Lexington Air Stations, Shepard entered into a business relationship with a new company, Shortwave & Television, with its own brilliant engineer,  Hollis S. Baird, (who was not related to the Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird).  Hollis designed the "Baird Television Kit #26", which was marketed by Shortwave & Television.

The offices of Shortwave & Television were very near to where the Shepard stations (WNAC now had a sister station, WBIS-- Boston’s Information Source) were located, and while Shepard was no engineer, he admired and respected those with technical prowess.  It is very understandable that he would be impressed with Hollis Baird’s experiments.

November 21, 1931 Article by Hollis S. Baird (191K bytes)  (291KB) - 1931 Radio World ArticleAugust 15, 1931 Article by Hollis S. Baird (291K bytes) by Hollis S. Baird (another example shown RH side >>)

 Baird wrote a number of articles about mechanical TV for magazines like Radio World,  and as the name of his company suggested,  he was very much occupied with making the transition from developing and marketing equipment for shortwave receivers into doing serious television work.  In the spring of 1929, Baird would finally realise his goal, as W1WX (later W1XAV) went on the air.  But in late 1928, there were only rumours of a new station, and the possibility that Shepard, with his unlimited finances, might be involved.

Building that once housed Shortwave and Television (87K bytes) (87KB) - The building that once housed Boston's Shortwave & Television - (Courtesy Jon Jacobik)   

Over at 1XAY, a change in call letters occurred in the fall of 1928 when the Federal Radio Commission decided to give all the experimental and amateur stations call letters consistent with the W or the K of commercial stations-- in other words, 1XAY became W1XAY.  It continued to send out television broadcasts on a fairly regular basis,  and as promised, the station had expanded its times on the air:  between 3 and 4 pm most weekdays, and sometimes another broadcast between 10 to 10:30 pm. 

Al Poté stated in the Lexington newspaper in mid December that he was gratified by the improvements the new equipment had made; he said that he was receiving many positive reports from people who had received the television transmissions.  And having gotten such good results in up-grading the power of the television transmitter, Jack Dodge and Carl Wheeler requested that the FRC permit WLEX Radio to raise its power from 50 watts to a much more respectable 5000 watts.

But in late 1928, there were also other rumours about John Shepard, who seemed to be in the news almost every day.  Several newspapers reported that he was planning to upgrade his radio transmitter and move it to a new location.  One possible site mentioned was in Winthrop, about three miles from Boston; another was in Quincy, seven miles away.  But a third possiblity was Lexington... Fortunately for WLEX, in early 1929, Quincy won out.  For the time being, the Lexington Air Stations did not have Shepard to contend with.  

For all of the enthusiastic magazine and newspaper articles, there were no more than 10 television stations in the US by January 1929, according to Radio News, and most were in cities much larger than Lexington MA.  Of course, WLEX/W1XAY wanted to be perceived as a Boston station, but even with the new transmitter and antenna system (with its two wooden masts that a columnist for the Lexington newspaper admitted were rather ugly looking), the signal barely traveled 10 miles.  Still, there is evidence that a growing number of amateurs were able to pick up the signal, and many were successful.

But getting the general public interested was still a long, slow process.  Even in Lexington, where the personnel at the Lexington Air Stations were by now local celebrities, the public seemed just as happy to listen to WLEX on the radio; television receivers for W1XAY were still not big sellers.  And while the businessmen of the New England Council continued to voice support for W1XAY, it was becoming obvious that television wasn’t going to make anyone rich just yet.  Quietly, some of the original members walked away from it.  Even the Post was publishing fewer articles about television as 1929 began.

 

New Players in the Boston Broadcasting Wars

 

W1XAY continued to maintain its schedule of broadcasts into the new year. To show their commitment to the highest technical quality, the management of WLEX had hired Al Poté away from Raytheon in late September 1928 and made him Chief Engineer.  But Al was immediately faced with a new challenge that involved radio -- while WLEX was trying to get approval for a power boost, the Federal Radio Commission had begun ordering stations in certain crowded radio markets to share their frequency with other stations.

WLEX was told in October 1928 to share the 1420 frequency with a Boston station, WSSH; this did not make anyone at the Lexington Air Stations happy, since a reduction of WLEX’s airtime not only impacted the listening audience but could impact W1XAY’s broadcasts as well.  And a reduction it was -- in January of 1929, WLEX had to remain silent every evening from 7.15 to 9 pm, because WSSH, a religious station, was holding a month of revival meetings which it wanted to broadcast.

Al, along with WLEX’s upper management, tried to find a compromise, but just when things seemed hopeless, WBET (the Boston Evening Transcript’s station) ran out of money and decided to sell their station.  Carl Wheeler made an offer, and the Transcript accepted.  But the town of Lexington was somewhat puzzled by why suddenly there would be two radio stations and a TV station in a comparatively small area.

In March of 1929, Al went before the Selectmen and made a compelling presentation, answering questions about potential noise and interference, what modifications to the equipment would be needed, etc.  With the good will and positive regard most residents of Lexington already had about their local station, it was not difficult to win the selectmen over; and the new station, re-named WLEY was approved.  Now that there were two radio stations, the fact that one had to share time didn’t matter as much. 

It seemed that the Lexington Air Stations could now get back to experiments with television at W1XAY and concentrate on developing more local talent on WLEX and WLEY.  Despite being located in a suburb, not especially close to the theatre district of Boston (where many big names performed and then came over to the Boston stations to be interviewed), WLEX had become known for interesting and unique broadcasts, and had carved out its own niche, including doing live broadcasts from the Lexington Theatre -- in those days, theatres did not just show movies, but also offered vaudeville performances and music concerts.

Station manager Gerry Harrison did some of the only play by play of professional wrestling matches-- and even in the late 20s, wrestling was very popular.  Carl Wheeler (who had a brief career wrestling as “Cully Wheeler”) was now part of a morning team, the “Top of the Morning Club” featuring ‘Hogan and Herbie’ -- Carl was ‘Hogan’ and his sidekick was Herb ‘Herbie’ Ingalls, a former announcer at pioneer station WGI in the early 20s.

Mr. Gerry Harrison at WNAC (60K bytes) (60K) - Mr. Gerry Harrison at WNAC

WLEX also put on radio plays (with staff members serving as the actors and actresses --  even Chief  Engineer Al Poté participated) and did considerable community service.  And while W1XAY was still not bringing in revenue, it kept attracting the attention of broadcast journalists and experimenters.  Although some of the initial excitement had indeed died down, the station still had its fans and supporters.

But W1XAY was about to get some competition, as the rumours regarding John Shepard’s interest in television proved to be accurate.  In early April of 1929, Hollis Baird put his new TV station on the air, using the call letters W1WX, and right away, its hours of experimental broadcasts were twice as long as those of W1XAY.  (Of course, it should be said that the same number of amateurs that tried to get the Lexington station could now try to get the Shortwave & Television station -- the total audience was probably still quite small.)

Shepard’s involvement would not become readily apparent right away; early reports about the new television station mostly referred to Hollis Baird (who already was known for the shortwave receivers he had designed).  W1WX not only was on the air more hours than W1XAY, but the new station put a good signal all over Boston, something W1XAY still wasn’t always able to do.

Although they were certainly aware of W1WX, it is doubtful that the staff had time to worry:  WLEX had finally gotten permission to boost its power to 500 watts, and the Lexington Air  Stations were in the process of moving to bigger and better studios; their new location was at the corner of North and Adams Streets, on the Burlington/Lexington town line.

The dedicatory program took place on 19 April 1929, with the new transmitter and new studios presented to the listeners for the first time.  (The new studios were in a venerable 22-room mansion, next to what had at one time been a sanitarium;  the journalists who attended the opening broadcast were suitably impressed with the opulent surrounds, which included rooms containing replicas of historical artifacts and murals about the history of Lexington.)  And while the staff of the Lexington Air Stations was getting settled in its new home, it was doing so with one fewer member-- Jack Dodge had been summoned back to WNAC to help build its new transmitter in Quincy.  Dodge ultimately accepted a position as Shepard’s chief transmitter operator, and even re-located so that he could be right near all of the expensive equipment he was helping to install. 

 

The Shepard Connection And The End of W1XAY

 

Then, in the fall of 1929, just before the infamous crash of the stock market, the FRC received an interesting proposal from John Shepard 3rd.  Shepard had been bitterly disappointed by the late 1928 re-allocation of the AM broadcast band; where WLEX was asked to share time, his station, WNAC, was moved to a very undesirable frequency higher up on the dial.

Now there were parts of Massachusetts that couldn’t hear WNAC and Shepard was determined to do something about it.  An influential executive and board member of the National Association of Broadcasters, Shepard was not about to let the FRC spoil things.  He petitioned to lease WLEX, which he planned to move to the city of Worcester, about 40 miles from Boston.  This location would give him a better signal into the western part of the state.

We can only guess why Carl Wheeler and Gerry Harrison wanted to make a deal with Shepard -- perhaps running 3 stations had become too costly and they saw a chance to link up with the highly successful (and highly profitable) department store owner, who was in the process of putting a local network together.  The petition also asked for WLEX to have a new frequency, even higher power and full time hours.  Not everyone was excited about the possible deal -- stations already operating in Worcester, such as WTAG, felt it was unfair for a new station to move in at a higher power than they had been allotted.

Some people in Lexington questioned the wisdom of removing WLEX from its strong community base.  But then the economy failed, as did a number of businesses, and after thinking about it for months, the FRC turned down Shepard’s proposal.  That was good for WTAG, a station already well established in Worcester: their management had feared that a new station with higher wattage and the backing of the Shepard Stores would be disastrous for them, and the FRC agreed.  WLEX would have to remain a part-time station and continue to be in Lexington. 

 But while radio advertising at the network level seems to have held steady, the Depression took its toll on smaller market stations.  In 1930, Al Poté was no longer the full-time chief engineer of the Lexington Air Stations.  Jack Dodge had already left, Ted and His Gang were back on the air at the Shepard stations, and the Lexington newspaper was writing less about WLEX and WLEY’s activities.

W1XAY remained on the air sporadically in the first three months of 1930, and then one day, very quietly, it just stopped broadcasting, having obviously run out of money and run out of backers.  The experiment was over; greater Boston’s first TV station had lasted for nearly two years. Its competitor, now known as W1XAV, lasted a bit longer, helped no doubt by broadcasting some of WNAC’s programming.  In early 1931, John Shepard finally made a deal with WLEX -- he purchased it and folded it into his new Yankee Network.  The station was moved to Boston and re-named WAAB.  (And ironically, a decade later, the station did in fact move to Worcester.)

Mr. Moffat (15K bytes)As for WLEY, it remained on the air in Lexington until 1933, when it was sold to Al Moffat, a former newsreel photographer and salesman, who had at one time done news and features for WLEX.  He moved WLEY to the town of Lowell in 1934, and it became WLLH.  Not only was Lexington’s experiment with television over, but by 1934, it no longer had a radio station either.

 (15KB) Mr. Al Moffat


 

Today, WLEX, WLEY and W1XAY are all but forgotten.  Even the people with whom I spoke at the local library, the newspaper, and the town’s historical society when researching this article were unaware that once upon a time, Lexington had the first TV station in Massachusetts.  Al Poté’s obituary (he died in 1969) does not mention W1XAY by name, but it does mention how he built that first station and how he was instrumental in developing some of the first TV tubes.

April 17, 1928 - Al Pote - V. Bush Letter (100K bytes) (100KB) - April 17, 1928 - Al Poté/Bush Letter

Neither Jack Dodge’s  nor Henry Lane’s obituaries mention their involvement at all, and Otto Scott’s book, “The Creative Ordeal,” written to commemorate Raytheon’s 50th anniversary, also does not speak about the company’s pioneering work in early television.

Not even the award-winning scientist and inventor Vannevar Bush (whose family would later be known for having two U.S. presidents), who actively worked with the television team at Raytheon, has anything to say in his autobiography about those experiments.

Dr. Vannevar Bush - MIT  (71K bytes) (71KB) - Dr. Vannevar Bush

Mr. Gerry Harrison - Later Years (52K bytes)Gerry Harrison spent most of the 1930s and early 1940s working for Shepard's Yankee Network.  We are fortunate to have a surviving photograph from those later years.
 

(52KB)
Mr. Gerry Harrison - 1942
              

Perhaps the fact that the venture wasn’t a success made the participants reticent to speak of it years later.  But then, in its own way, mechanical TV was a necessary step in the development of electronic TV.  As such, it deserves to be remembered, and the team at WLEX and the Boston Post (both long since defunct) who believed in it so strongly and worked so hard to interest the public in it, deserve our thanks. 


              

Donna L. Halper is a media historian,  author of numerous essays and three books; her most recent book is “Invisible Stars:  A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting.”  She is a radio consultant, and is also an Assistant Professor of Communication at Lesley University Cambridge, MA. 

If anyone has questions about this essay, or access to further information or photographs of Henry Lane, Jack Dodge or Al Poté, please contact Donna L. Halper, PhD.  Any help would be greatly appreciated.

 


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