DAYS OF EXPERIMENTATION AND INNOVATION
"Here in Beloit we are striving to become better acquainted with some of the fundamental laws which obtain in this field. What we may chance to learn or discover may or may not have a practical bearing. We hope, at least, to come to know truth." - Dr. Charles A. Culver
"WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY - That introduced by Prof. Culver but now in vogue among the students." - From the 1911 Codex
Lee De Forest, the self-proclaimed "Father of Radio," wrote in his autobiography that he in fact was the first to begin regular radio broadcasting from his laboratory in the Parker Building in New York City in 1907. That same year saw the arrival of Dr. Charles Aaron Culver on the Beloit College campus as the new professor of Physics. Within a year he set up a radio telegraph assembly, and so began Beloit College radio's first 23 years.
Culver (at that time 32), originally from Filmore County, Minnesota, had received his B.S. from Carleton College and was fresh from the University of Pennsylvania with a Ph D.
By the Fall of 1907, the Physics department had come into its own. Finally detached from its association with the Mathematics department, Physics acquired more space on the first floor of Pearsons Hall of Science (then barely in its teens) and added a number of courses, including one on the subject of Acoustics, an area where Culver was a specialist.
The Summer of 1908, Culver set up a "radio telegraph assembly" in Pearsons Hall for research in radio (his Ph D thesis was in that field). As he stated in The Round Table on December 4, 1908, "In general, it can be said that substantial progress is being made along both the lines of radio-telegraphy and aerophony. We have passed the purely experimental stage, and the stage of wild and unwarranted predictions. The new system of communication is fast assuming a practical commercial basis." Within several months a small receiving station was set up in Rockford, Illinois, on the roof of the Public Library. "During the Christmas vacation, Mr. Culver plans to set up the Beloit aerial. It is to swing between the peak of Middle College and Science Hall, and will be ready for the ethereal messages shortly after the beginning of next term."(RT 12/18/08)
One of the first public demonstrations of Culver's work was held on May 8, 1909 at Keep field (now Hancock Field). "Wireless telegraphy was one of the features that interested the visitors at Keep Field at the interscholastic meet. Professor Culver had his instruments set up near the south end of the grand-stand and sent messages that were received at Science Hall, the Academy, and the Daily News office.
"Although the rain prevented the use of the wireless as a means of reporting the entire meet, the demonstration proved very interesting to the visitors. The instruments were set up in the open field, and Doctor Culver removed them when it began to sprinkle in order to prevent damage to them." (RT 5/14/09). Next week, The Round Table reported that at the request of the Central Scientific Company of Chicago, Dr. Culver had constructed a "...form of demonstration apparatus which should incorporate in a simple form the modern improvements in the field of radiotelegraphy. After witnessing the operation of the set, the firm purchased outright the exclusive license to manufacture and sell these instruments."
By the end of 1910 Culver had successfully acquired the support of the Board of Trustees to contribute more funds to the Physics department "in the way of apparatus essential for the work which professor Culver with great zeal and devotion is carrying forward in spite of very inadequate equipment," wrote Trustee E.B. Kilbourne. This included radio equipment, which Culver advanced when he could: "In order to be in a position to practically illustrate the rapid advancement in the domain of Physics, a complete 1K.-W. Wireless Station has been installed at the laboratory, and is in daily operation." (Beloit Alumnus, July 1910).
Culver continued his experiments, the more prominent being "to determine if possible the part played by the earth connection in radiotelegraphy" (Alumnus, 11/11) and equipment developed for Central Scientific, including a modified wireless apparatus featuring "That part of the equipment designed to receive the electric waves which may be readily converted into a practical receiver for transmitting long distances" (RT 4/14/11) and the Argon detector, "a wireless device for detecting electric waves."
By February of 1913, the college's wireless station had "taken a step ahead of all other educational institutions in the world" (RT 2/14/13) by being the first to broadcast accurate time signals (all receiving stations within a 100-mile radius), from the college observatory. Within a week twenty high schools in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana had applied to be receivers of the time sent out by the Beloit station.
During the first few years of World War I, Culver's research had led him to another series of experiments, the most successful and interesting having to do with the transmission of signals to and from a moving train. This led him to a summer's work on the East coast, developing a wireless set-up "to eliminate the necessity for elevated towers at various intervals along the route" (RT 10/7/14) "The importance of this invention, when rendered reliable, is momentous. Train orders, business communications and personal messages can then be sent from fixed stations to moving trains." (RT 3/3/15). Soon, however, Culver's attention was diverted to what he deemed a much greater cause.
The Radio Corps
"Having from the beginning of the Great War believed in the righteousness of the cause of the Allies, and having been impatient at our failure as a nation to go to the assistance of those who had been fighting our battles, the declaration of war by the United States served to quicken afresh the blood of fighting ancestors which had long been coursing hot within my veins," Culver wrote in The Alumnus, March 1919. "My own father went with Sherman to the sea, and there have been one or more Culvers in every war in which our nation has fought." In early April of 1917 Culver volunteered his services to U.S. war efforts. He had already spent a few months planning a proposed Signal, or Radio Corps as it came to be known, and was organizing about fourteen alums and students who had studied higher physics and electricity "but lack the practical knowledge of sending and receiving messages." (RT 2/6/17). Culver, who had a government master license, felt that "This branch [Radio Corps] of the service is woefully lacking and one which is most necessary in times of war. I am willing to aid in any possible way." A month later the government took Dr. Culver up on his offer.
On May 8, The Round Table reported that "the formation of a military unit which will be strictly a Beloit Unit was announced by Professor Culver in chapel this morning as being a very probable happening in the near future." Seventy-five men were needed: half expert wireless operatives and half non-technical men. "The entire company will be mounted and will include [a] commissary department and horseshoers." The unit was made official by the war department on the twenty-fifth. In the meantime Culver recruited members "unofficially" and had come up with twenty-five men, including fourteen from the college. Dr. Culver hoped to lead the unit himself.
Up to this time the government had not paid much attention to radio, excepting the U.S. Wireless Ship Act of 1910 and the Radio Act of 1912 (an almost direct result of the Titanic tragedy), which required, respectively, all passenger ships to carry radio-transmission equipment and all radio operators to be licensed by the Secretary of Commerce. So, by the time the U.S. entered the War there was a great dearth of those knowledgeable in the radio field, at a time when President Woodrow Wilson had become convinced that international communication (with oil and shipping) was one of the keys to the balance of power in foreign relations. This made proposals such as Dr. Culver's all the more valuable. In early June he was commissioned as a Captain in the Signal Reserve Corps and ordered to the Signal Officers' Training Camp at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in late July.
One of 100 new Signal Corps officers, Culver was taken through a 13-week instructional program, including subjects from "Military Law" to "Sanitation" to "Rules Governing Military Telegraph Lines with special reference to the Alaskan cable lines." Culver described the training in his March, 1919 Alumnus article, "From Cap and Gown to Khaki:"
"Certain of the courses given were important and essential; others were relatively unimportant and more or less a waste of valuable time...unfortunately little if any information was available concerning the latest methods of communication being employed in the zone of combat thanks to the pacifism and indecision of the Administration at Washington. Days and weeks of valuable time were spent in the study of what obviously were obsolete methods of communication. This was particularly true with respect to radio equipment. The result was, that when the course was drawing to a close and the time came for me to be assigned to either line or staff duty I did not have the slightest idea of the up-to-date radio equipment.
"On the whole, however, the training was valuable in a general physical and military way. A long series of inoculations and several broken ribs served to remind one that there are other things in the world than electric waves and polarized light."
"They're off for the Great Adventure - this most distinctly Beloit College unit in Uncle Sam's war service."
The unit of seventy-six men (half Beloit College students or alumni) was finally mobilized as Company A of the 307th Field Signal Battalion on October 16, after months of "impatient waiting," but with some changes. First of all, the Unit was not sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as originally predicted, but to Camp Gordon, 15 miles Northwest of Atlanta, Georgia. Second, it soon became evident that Culver was not going to lead the unit when the government felt that Culver would be more useful in Washington D.C., where he was assigned to the Radio Development section of the Engineering and Research Division of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, the section concerned with improving of existing radio equipment and developing new.
In the meantime a radio training school for 200 soldiers, by order of the government, was reported to be in the works. Company A of the 307th was split up by reassignment of men, based on their qualifications for the various kinds of work, but the majority of Beloiters still remained in the Radio company. Then in mid-May of 1918, they were transferred to Camp Mills Mineola, Long Island, to make final preparations before going to France. Oddly, the only subsequent article printed in The Round Table was on October ninth of that year: "When the Beloit College Radio unit...arrived to hold the front lines north of Toul, they found at the ever present and welcome Y [YMCA] hut, their old friend and teacher, Prof. Deane. Neither had seen so many Beloiters for some time so the reunion was indeed a joyful one.
"Letters from the various men in the Battalion show that things have been lively indeed in this sector. Then, too, they have been through some very severe gas and shell attacks, especially one in the latter part of the summer which resulted in the death of one of the city boys...The boys, too, have witnessed many spectacular air battles.
"Most of the college boys who left in this company are now commissioned officers. Sergeant Ray Matson has been assigned to Headquarters to teach a class composed of lieutenants and sergeants. Cook Clair Mitchell is said to be some chef and makes "beaucoup" dishes to satisfy his hungry company."
Culver, who was assisted in his work during the war by four Beloit alums, reflected on the war in his March 1919 Alumnus article: "It was naturally a great disappointment not to be able to see foreign service with the unit I organized. However, the opportunity to serve as a member of the Army and Navy Radio Board, and the experience of being more or less directly associated with a number of the leading engineers and scientists, was to some extent a compensation for service on this side. Though the work was of the greatest interest and a highly valuable experience, it is a pleasure to be in the classroom once more."
After the war, Dr. Culver once again continued his research and experimentation, including demonstrations of equipment that was developed during his time in the Signal Corps, development of "a special apparatus for making a photographic record of electrical atmospheric disturbances" (for which the government applied for a patent), and "a laboratory manual on high frequency electrical measurements..." Publicized the most was the work Culver did in conjunction with none other than Lee De Forest. "The new invention makes possible the conveying of as many as ten verbal messages over the same wire at one time and will find its chief practical application in long distance telephony."(RT 5/28/19) By 1920, however, Culver left Beloit to accept a call to the chair of Physics, at his Alma Mater, Carleton College, replaced at Beloit by Garvin D. Shallenberger, M.S.
Dr. Charles Aaron Culver "excelled as teacher, laboratory technician and investigator," wrote Robert K. Richardson in his unpublished history of Beloit College. He described Culver as opinionated, strict, tireless in work, and attuned to the moral and religious traditions of the College. Culver was devoted to experimentation and innovation in the field of radio, yet Richardson points out a surprising dichotomy in Culver's character. "Dr. Culver was a valuable force in the life of the institution erring, if at all, in a too emphatic conservatism in days of changing mores."
"Altogether, WEBW was a pretty good little station." - from The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting, by George H. Douglas
Only a few months after Dr. Culver's departure from Beloit College, KDKA (Pittsburgh), the first major broadcasting station in the United States, was licensed in November of 1920. Owned by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company (for the purpose of stimulating sales for Westinghouse-made radio receivers), KDKA was a major turning point in the development of radio. As described in The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting by George H. Douglas, "What had really happened was that the Westinghouse Company had decided to bring broadcasting out of the experimental phase - radio had hitherto been a plaything for tinkerers and scientific dabblers - and into the American home. KDKA was started with the idea that it might encourage the sale, not of a few, but of thousands of receiving sets for homes within the listening range of the station."(Douglas p 1) KDKA did succeed in changing the public's attitude towards radio, as Douglas explains: "When the year 1920 began the only people who thought about radio thought of it as an art that could be understood and enjoyed only by the expert or the electronics whiz. When the year 1920 was over there were few who failed to see that radio was calling out to everybody. Now it just might be that the radio receiver could be a household utility like the stove, the phonograph and the electric light. The technology of home reception was still primitive, but the institution was there."(Douglas p22)
Radio's growth was slow throughout the rest of 1920 and 1921, partly because full-scale production of radio receivers was not yet underway. Thus, by the end of 1921, only nine other major radio stations went on the air. But then 1922 arrived, "...the year when the desire to own and operate radio stations became a national passion." (Douglas p32) Department stores, newspapers, churches, and other institutions and individuals applied for licenses. Everyone, it appeared, wanted to do some broadcasting of their own. Whether you were the Nushawg Poultry Farm of New Lebanon, Ohio (WPI) or the Palmer School of Chiropractic, of Davenport, Iowa (WOC), it didn't matter. "Today we realize with a smile that not all of them could have survived," Douglas explains, "but in 1922 the future looked so bright that there seemed to be room for every comer."
The radio craze traveling across the nation was soon picked up in Beloit. Stuart Klinger, class of '34 and long time Beloit resident, remembers what may have been the first Beloit radio station: "WKAW was owned by a man named Luther Turner, who operated a bicycle shop on North State Street...Luther Turner, to my knowledge, had the first broadcast radio in the city of Beloit. He didn't have any scheduled programs, but just came on the air whenever he felt like it. This would have been about the year 1922. He'd play records and make comments about what was going on in town...His bicycle shop must not have been able to sustain him to his accustomed level of living, because he went out of business...And it's my belief that he sold the transmitter to Beloit College."
The April 12, 1922 Round Table mentions Beloit's growing infatuation with radio broadcasting...as well as the possibility of a Beloit station: "Fifty people heard a radio concert given by Earl Lenigan,'25, Robert Inman,'25, and Professor G.D. Shallenberger of the physics department in the physics laboratory at Science Hall Sunday afternoon from 3 to 5. The music received was that broadcast from Madison by the station at the University of Wisconsin, and was furnished by the University Regimental Band...
"By means of an amplifier, the sound waves were so magnified that all those in the room heard them with ease. 'The physics department expects to purchase certain equipment which will enable us to broadcast concerts or news at an early date,' said Professor Shallenberger. 'We expect to install our sending station some time this spring, or at the latest, by next fall.'" That was it. The awe-inspiring nature of the air-waves, via Madison, had captured Beloit, spurring them on to build a station of their own.
As the blueprints were drawn up for the construction of the proposed station, Shallenberger and Inman found a more portable amplifier for their public demonstrations, and an odd one at that: "By means of a megaphone which will intensify the sound coming through the receiving apparatus, the program will be made audible to a large crowd and it is hoped that the students will take advantage of 'listening in' on this newest marvel of science which is interesting and amusing the whole country and has caused more comment and discussion than any invention since the wireless telegraph.
"Robert Inman's receiving outfit will be used for the demonstration. He has had the apparatus set up at his home on Riverside Drive for some time and will handle the technical work of the demonstration. The apparatus will be set up in Science hall with the megaphone in the window so that the audience assembled in front of the building may hear it plainly.
"A speech from Madison is expected to be heard at noon and in the evening it is hoped that musical programs may be heard from some of the eastern stations such as Detroit, Philadelphia and others. The chance of hearing the eastern stations will depend a great deal upon the atmosphere and should there be an electrical storm the entire program would necessarily be called off." (RT 5/17/22).
Through the next year, Shallenberger and Inman continued to pick up broadcasts when they could, sometimes using everyday objects! "A vocal solo was transmitted on an aerial that Mr. Inman had made from an ordinary cotton umbrella." (RT 10/28/22)
Finally, almost a year after the first public radio demonstration, Beloit College officially unveiled its plans for a radio station. On April 7, 1923 The Round Table reported that a Beloit College radio broadcasting station with a proposed 500 watts capacity and wavelength of 360 meters, was already under construction along with a receiving station, a cooperative effort between the Physics department (including students) and Fairbanks Morse engineers. It was hoped that students and alumni "from New Orleans to the Portlands" would listen in to sports, debates, the prominent Vespers Service, and concerts. "The one feature of Beloit's station will be the humanized program used...This idea, while not original with Beloit, has never been successfully carried out by any other commercial station in the country, and should prove a distinct innovation. The idea is to appeal to the people through what they are really interested in, and give a varied program presented by an exceptionally high talent. In this way it is hoped to raise the standard of wireless broadcasting and attract a class of people who will be interested for the sake of the program more than as a mere phenomenon."
The fourth floor of Pearsons in the South Wing (facing the Gym - where the Smith Building is now) was picked as the station's home.
"The apparatus will be set up in a room formerly used for home economic classes, and will adjoin a studio which will be constructed from a part of the natural science museum. The studio will be 24 by 24 feet, and will be constructed in accordance with the most modem principles of acoustics.
"The aerial will be of the 160 foot six-wire type with a twelve-wire counterpoise, and will stretch from the stack of the heating plant to a 125 foot tubular steel mast to be erected near the southeast corner of Science hall.
"The station will be in operation five nights each week for an hour or an hour and a half, according to present plans. From the studio concerts will be sent by college musical organizations, individual artists from the college and the city, the Treble Clef, the Fairbanks-Morse concert band, choral clubs of the city and other entertainments of special interest.
"Besides the transmitting apparatus in the studio, microphones will be installed in the chapel, gymnasium and Fairbanks-Morse plant, and portable transmitters will be connected in other locations for special purposes."
The station was to be completed by the first of May.
Four days later The Round Table was already boasting about the station's potential power: "It is a big thing for a college of six hundred students to have the means of transmitting results of athletic games and concerts to all parts of the United States...it's another move toward making Beloit the unquestioned leader among colleges in the vicinity." (RT 4/11/23) But the bragging was premature, as the first of many barriers appeared. By the second of May equipment delays had forced the college to extend the deadline for another month. The editorial statement in the Round Table on May fifth would soon have greater implications than the writers intended: "The radio broadcasting station is one of the greatest undertakings ever put across by a small college..."
The Struggle For A Station
The deadline was extended again as Beloit endured more equipment delays. By mid-June of 1923 a steel tower had been erected to suspend the aerial between Science Hall and Middle College. The descriptions given by the June sixth Round Table show the range of radio equipment in the early 1920's, from the bulky generators... "Current for the transmitting apparatus will be furnished by two specially constructed 2,000 volt generators driven by a five horse-power motor. Each of the generators weigh well over 200 pounds and the whole unit will weigh approximately one-fourth ton."
...to the absolute fragility of the microphone: "The most valuable single instrument of the outfit is the specially constructed microphone. This piece, circular in shape, five inches in diameter and one inch thick, containing delicate mechanism, is made of a gold compound, and is the only instrument which will appear in the acoustics room. The current from the microphone is so small that it can scarcely be measured in the laboratory and is estimated at about six ten-thousands of an ampere. This tiny amperage will pass through the transmitting instruments with tremendous increase and will control an aerial current of seven amperes." Also, the studio was now complete:
"The studio or acoustics room is about twenty-five feet square and resembles the interior of a 'padded cell.' The floor is covered with one layer of heavy paper and three of burlap. The walls and ceiling are covered with a special one-inch-thick wall board compounded from wax stems. Over this is a layer of burlap. The room is practically sound and echo proof which is a very essential detail in successful broadcasting."
And hopes were still running high:
"The college radio station, when completed, will be a thing which will go far toward making a better and bigger Beloit. With a capacity of 500 watts, it will rank among the most powerful stations in the country. Today, in fact, there are only three American stations claiming higher voltage, one in Chicago, one in New York City, and one in Schenectady. Specially designed apparatus is arriving daily, and by the end of the summer it is expected that the station will have taken its own in the radio world...The station will have a wavelength of 273 meters."
That fall, Shallenberger left Beloit College, having resigned as head of the Physics department at the end of May 1923, to take over the department at the University of Montana in the fall. His replacement was Vernon A. Suydam, who continued Shallenberger's work to get the radio station up and broadcasting.
On October tenth The Round Table reported the progress of the new station: "A week ago Sunday a few minutes experimenting was done and the set was heard at Houston, Texas and along the Atlantic seacoast...The experimental license '9G6,' has been issued to the college by the government and application for a broadcasting license has been applied for. The latter is expected to be received within two weeks." But in the same article..."Because of broken power tubes, Beloit's broadcasting station will not be ready for permanent operation for another month."
Still, the station was able to manage a few minor test broadcasts, and made its initial attempt on October 20: "The program consisted of several songs sung by Prof. W.E. Alderman...Minneapolis acknowledged listening in..." Unfortunately, the station was still plagued by Government red-tape and equipment deficiencies: "still uncertain when the station will open in full operation...No licenses have been received yet, and a licensed commercial operator must be obtained to operate the station. Certain parts of the equipment are not complete. The speech amplifier is unsatisfactory and the antenna must be shortened to comply with the latest government regulations stating that the wave length must be between 260 and 270 meters..." But spirits still ran high: "Professor Suydam said 'I am very optimistic. It is a matter of only a few weeks until everything should be running in fine shape.'" (RT 10/24/23)
"The question of whether or not Beloit is to have a radio broadcasting station will be decided this week. The matter will be placed in the hands of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees at their next meeting.
"The Trouble comes from the lack of funds to carry on the repairs of the set. The sum of $2,400 [a remarkable amount for the time] was appropriated, but it is insufficient. A great deal depends upon the Fairbanks-Morse Co., concerning this question. This firm has an interest in the broadcasting station, and if they are willing to add more money, the work can go ahead." (RT 11/3/23)
By the end of November the Round Table reported: "At the last meeting of the Board of Trustees it was decided to give up any idea of completing the broadcasting apparatus this year. Because the heavy expense of this part of the set was not taken care of in the budget for the present year, there is not enough money to finish it at present." (11/28/23)
Still, Beloit College, in dogged determination to achieve its goal, completed the receiving set the following January, and over the summer of 1924 was able to reconvene work on the broadcasting station, until at last, in early September...
"Beloit's radio broadcasting station is now complete and ready to send out programs. Between fifteen hundred and two thousand dollars has been spent by the college during the summer months to bring the unit to completion. With the exception of the antennae and the motor generator the entire plant has been replaced and overhauled until it is now one of the most up to date 500 watt stations in this region, being almost identical in equipment to that at the University of Wisconsin...Experiments are now being carried on to determine at what wave length the unit will operate best, and as soon as this has been determined the station call letters will be assigned by the government inspectors who will then finally approve the station."(RT 9/7/24) All that was needed was the cable to connect the radio station to the Chapel (to broadcast the popular Vespers service), which took over a month. By that time, the station had received from the government its official regulated broadcast wave length (283 meters), and its call letters - WEBW. "These services [from Chapel] will probably be all that will be broadcasted for a while, due to the cost of operating a plant, but eventually the gymnasium and the Fairbanks-Morse auditorium will also be connected with the station." (RT 10/15/24)
On October 26, 1924, WEBW went on the air with its first broadcast, the Sunday Vespers service. Featured was President Irving Maurer's sermon "The Maintenance of Standards". The broadcast was a success. "'Starting with today's service,' said President Maurer, 'alumni and friends of Beloit College for many miles about can enjoy these services with us. I hope they will write to us if they are listening in." (RT 10/29/24) Immediately a radio club for students was organized as Professor Suydam worked to iron out the kinks in the system:
"Those in charge feel that broadcasting is good advertising for the college, and that money spent on keeping up the local station is well used. Professor V.A. Suydam has suggested to people living in Beloit that they will perhaps get better results if they will disconnect their antenna entirely. He said that the sounds are often so loud within a radius of one or two miles of the station that it is difficult to hear them." Ironically, local listeners had the most trouble receiving the broadcasts, while those with clearer receptions lived at much greater distances.
"Cards have been received by the college broadcasting station informing them that the Vesper services of last week were received at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and in several parts of Kansas. All reported excellent reception...'The Beloit station is doing excellent work.' Adolph Toepfer, operator of the apparatus, said. The daylight record for broadcasting is 1200 miles under the best conditions. We are being picked up at distances ranging from 800 to 900 miles every Sunday. By using more power we will undoubtedly be able to equal the record of any station in the country." (RT 11/19/24) The wave length at this time was changed to 268 meters, part of the government's continuous reshuffling of the airwaves order to accommodate more stations.
Although the broadcasts of the Vesper services were greatly appreciated by those who tuned in, an editorial in the November 9th Round Table expressed a growing restlessness in regard to WEBW's programming: "...It seems a waste of money and neglect of a wonderful opportunity not to make more use of this means of giving the college publicity. An almost infinite field has been opened up, should be taken advantage of to the fullest extent. Our Vesper services are beautiful, but certainly they are not all that there is to Beloit. We have other activities and interests here that are fully as important and perhaps of greater concern to more people than is a church service...For several years past Beloit has had more than successful basketball teams, and it would be an almost criminal error in judgement to pass up the opportunity to broadcast some of the big games on the home floor.
"It must be possible to secure some one who can operate the station on other days than Sundays until we get a regular operator at Beloit, and this should be done at once, so that Beloit will derive the greatest benefit from this opportunity to broadcast her name through the air to the whole country." Soon afterward regular musical programs were considered and cable was ordered to connect WEBW to the gym for Basketball broadcasts.
On December second the first non-Vespers broadcast "A radio program of music and one short speech..." (RT 11/26/24) was planned. However, a near tragedy struck that was not uncommon in the more dangerous days of radio: "Burton F. Miller, operator of station WEBW for the past quarter, received two shocks of 2000 volts each in rapid succession, when a defect in insulation caused the generators to burn out. Aside from a slight burn on his arm and an extraordinary evidence of life and speed, he was not injured...'Anyone with a weak heart would have been instantly killed by the shock Mr. Miller took last night,' added Professor Suydam." (RT 12/6/24) This only temporarily hampered WEBW, and two weeks later it was on the air again.
The January Alumnus printed some of the numerous responses sent in by listeners:
"From Ravenna, Ohio, we received a card saying: 'We enjoyed your very excellent concert this evening. The organ music was very good, in fact, as good as ever heard. Congratulate the artist for us, also the operator of the station.'
"A card from Kingston, N.Y., reads: 'Your station was heard Sunday evening at 6:30 pm. E.S.T. Came through fine. Singing by 60 voices especially. My equipment consists of a two tube Radiola. This is the farthest station I have had.'
"And again an enthusiastic boy at Huntington, L.I., N.Y., writes: 'May I take this occasion to inform you that last evening I was successful in picking up your radiocasting station for the first time, on a wave length of approximately 270 m. while operating a one tube, home made set. Your modulation was fine, as was volume.'"
One other enthusiastic boy at this time was Larry Raymer (class of '34), then a Beloit resident who tuned into WEBW on the crystal set that he had learned how to build in Boy Scouts:
"The only way we could hear WEBW was to make our own crystal sets. We made crystal sets with a paper oatmeal can about 10 inches high and five inches across, about ten turns of copper wire, a safety pin and a piece of galena or a good piece of hard coal. And you would take the point of the safety pin and jiggle it around until you hit a hot spot on the galena or coal and the station would come in. The big problem was the headphones, because they cost five bucks and my God, my dad was working for a dollar a day, so five dollars was a fortune! So all the kids would pool their money...I'd get the headphones Wednesday night and you'd get them Thursday night and this guy would get them Sunday afternoon, so that we could take turns using the headphones to listen to our own sets...Then we all started making tube sets...It was fun to fish around and try to get stations far away...you'd brag like the devil if you got KGO in San Francisco or if you got KDKA in Pittsburgh. But we always first listened to the college: that was the test station. If you could get the college, boy, you could get anyplace. Because the college was a heck of a strong station - that's why with the simplest circuits you could pick up the college some people even got it on their party telephones...One set at that time worked so well and [WEBW] came in so loud that we took the headphones and instead of putting them on our ears we put the headphones in a water jug: the station was so loud that you could hear it all over the house using the jug as a loudspeaker."
Stuart Klinger also tuned in: "I can well remember listening to Vespers services. My mother had a clock, a die-cast clock, perhaps a foot high...a figure of a lady with arms draped around the dial of the clock, and I opened the back of that clock one day, and I thought, I'm going to do something unusual. So I put some suitably wound coils of wire and a crystal in there and then I hooked it up to a small loudspeaker that I had and low and behold, WEBW came audible with surprising strength."
Eventually other programs were added to WEBW's broadcasting schedule, including a "Faculty night," as well as broadcasts of debates, lectures, recitals, choirs, and local artists...Raymer describes an experience he had, when his Boy Scout Troop went up to the studios to sing "John Jacob Jinglehimer Schmidt...you start out with a full gutsy song ... as you go verse after verse you go quieter and quieter and quieter, and at the end you barely whisper. It goes something like 'John Jacob Jinglehimer Schmidt, that's my name too. Whenever I go out, the people always shout: John Jacob Jinglehimer Schmidt' and all this time, the guy running the controls kept running it [the levels] up and running it up because he thought we were running out of gas. And at the end you just yelled with all your force, 'JOHN JACOB JINGLEHIMER SCHMIDT!' and it took the station right off the air! It blew out like six fuses and a couple of tubes...of course it was inappropriate - it was the wrong song to sing...
"The studio was big, and it was all draped with burlap and there weren't any props around of any kind when I was there. They didn't have any desks but they had microphones hanging all over the place. I was so taken with these burlap-draped walls I said to Ed Leland [one of the operators] 'gee, this is a drab and dismal place.' He said 'well we have to deaden all the outside sounds'...There weren't any chairs, there weren't any pictures on the walls...well...I shouldn't say this, but it was kind of like going to a mortuary!"
Programming continued to diversify, involving professors and numerous campus organizations such as the music department, glee clubs, Fraternities and Sororities, and the acapella choir. The Mayor, the Boy Scouts, and other townspeople were also invited to be on the air. Sports broadcasting began on January 9, 1926, with the first Basketball broadcast (against Coe College), and soon Football was added. WEBW attracted more listeners across the nation and beyond, including students, parents, radio buffs, and especially Alumni. WEBW was an alums immediate connection to Beloit College, as The May 29, 1925 Round Table illustrates: "Ever wonder what the Old Grad thinks when he tunes in on WEBW? - Well, I have. The other day, I went over to ask Professor Suydam. You know, he has charge of the radio station, and gets letters sent by Alumni throughout the country. He lets me read them.
"Beloit Alumni tune their sets as other folks do until they hear a voice, 'This is station WEBW, Beloit College.' They are no longer before the dials. They conjure. Classmates - faculty parade across the campus. Middle rises, and from its tower the ding ding dong of Johnny Pfeffer's old bell calls classes, the first of their freshman year. A talk. - More memories. 'Denny?' 'E.G.?' perhaps.
"Reverie - memories. Vesper hour. Sermon finished. Sunset. While the organ plays the old familiar music, the five brown windows behind the president's chair darken. Music ceases.
"The dials appear. The Old Grad writes; tells his pleasure. A typical letter, from Miss Elizabeth Mouat, '24, tells of the recent Alumni Night concert. Professor Wright's voice carried her, again, to Classic Art: 'Pa' Calland to Roman 'Antics.' The cheery voice of President Maurer again welcomed her to chapel. The familiar voice of Mr. Ralph made the announcements. College song life was renewed by two alumni, Jack Wilder, and Mrs. Bradley Tyrrell."
Constant equipment problems and improvements ran neck and neck throughout WEBW's existence. Broken lead-ins and a blown-down antenna would be interspersed with modified generators, power boosting, new amplifiers, a "new system of microphone control," and continuous restructuring of the station. New distance records were still set three years after WEBW started: Canada, the West Coast and even Cuba had picked up the small college's broadcasts. With Suydam as representative, WEBW went to the 4th National Radio Conference in Washington D.C. in mid November 1925. Suydam, in fact, was the driving force behind WEBW. Two letters he sent to President Irving Maurer in 1927 illustrate his role at the station, and the frustration it entailed:
"(March 30) I have your communication of March 29, asking that I make an inventory of the 'quantity and description of the equipment' in the physics laboratory and radio department...I do not believe you know what this involves...the work involved in such an inventory is absolutely beyond the ability of any one man to do in addition to teaching duties, care of laboratories, some janitor work, setting up of lecture experiments and putting apparatus away, care of radio equipment and correcting faults therein, etc. I shall have to put in all of the spring recess installing new generators. A large part of the coming summer I will have to use to rebuild the broadcasting station to bring the equipment up to date and to get it where it will pass Government inspection...".
(September 9) "You will recall that last spring I spoke to you about going to Pittsburgh to study broadcasting at KDKA, and you said it was alright to go...The trip convinced me more than ever that it is an extremely difficult job for one man to carry on a physics department and at the same time run a broadcasting station and be responsible for the technical performance of the station. Broadcasting has become so refined that a station will not be listened to unless it is about perfect. We are far from perfect. We will rebuild as fast as we can with inexperienced student help...It makes one feel that he is being left far behind, but, on the other hand, it is an inspiration to greater effort."
By late 1928 the radio climate had changed and now the airwaves were crammed with an overload of stations broadcasting, and new ones appearing every month. Up until this point there were almost no restrictions on the range or power of the broadcast. Stations merely boosted their wattage to out-blast the
other competitors. The government, aware of the developing crisis, had formed the Federal Radio Commission under the Radio Act of 1927. In its mission to unclog the airwaves, the FRC judged whether stations were operating in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." Unfortunately, WEBW was notified at the end of May, along with 161 other stations, that it was to have its license revoked after August 1 of 1928. The college protested and had its license extended until November 11, after which time a provisional license would go into effect. However, that left the station at half the original power and on a wavelength (499.7 meters) shared with a Canadian station and no broadcasting after dark, the latter of which, much to the college's dismay, eliminated the popular Vespers broadcast (4:30pm) during a good portion of the year. It would be pointless, to have a partial broadcast and have to shut down when the sun set.
Oddly enough, stations at Carleton and St. Olaf colleges were boosted to 1000 watts as well as a wave-length change. "Has Carleton more alumni on the radio commission than Beloit?" the Round Table asked sarcastically. The college continued its protest. "Inasmuch as the station exists chiefly for broadcasting the Sunday Vespers services, and in that educational and cultural programs should have at least some preference over stations whose only purpose is to provide diversion, the Beloit radio station feels that its existence is justified."(RT 11/14/28)
Beloit College persisted in its appeal to the FRC (and even the Canadian Radio Commission), aware (with more than a touch of justified cynicism) of what they were up against: "it is very doubtful as to whether any satisfaction will be received. The Commission is evidently controlled by the industrial interests and only the commercial broadcasters will be allowed to operate on profitable wave-lengths. The commission has been shifting the lower wave-lengths so as to give the great commercial stations the time and the power. Most of the educational stations are gradually being eliminated..."(RT ll/24/28) This accusation was quite correct. Severe restrictions were placed on the educational stations in order to increase space for commercial air-time. Still, the college was not yet daunted. Beloit determined to keep its station by increasing the daytime programs during the winter months in the hopes that in the meantime the FRC would lift the restrictions. An early January 1929 Round Table editorial stated it bluntly: "If station WEBW is to be deprived of its evening broadcasting privileges even temporarily (and we believe it will be longer than that) some provision should be made for suitable daylight broadcasts. Considerable money has been invested in the station equipment and it should not be wasted.
"By daylight broadcasts we do not mean educational lectures. The public is getting all too much of this pseudo-education over the radio already and will not listen to it anyway. But noontime concerts of an instrumental or vocal nature might cause some individuals to tune into WEBW. Other hours of the day could be utilized...In this way it may be able to prove its worth to the commission and receive its privileges again."
WEBW struggled on, even introducing phonograph records to its format in early 1930. But the financial strain of the upkeep, coupled with the weight of the Depression, forced WEBW off the air. The station was sold to the Wisconsin State Journal Company of Madison (to become WISN) after commencement 1930.
As Carey Croneis, fifth President of Beloit College, stated on December 14, 1948 at the initiation of the college's next station, WBWR, "Although hindsight is as common as foresight is rare, it is to be regretted that ways and means were not discovered which would have made it possible to continue the operation of our pioneer Beloit AM station."