Skip to main content

Mr. Edison Didn’t Like It

June 2024
3min read

A pioneer announcer and program manager who has been associated with New York broadcasting for many years recalls an incident about Thomas A. Edison. At the time, in 1921, he was doing the talking, such as there was, over WJZ, first New York area station.

One day, when we were thoroughly tired of talking endlessly into this telephone microphone, I got an idea. So I went up to see my old boss, Thomas A. Edison. It was a Friday, the last day of September, 1921. I thought we should try to get something that would make continuous sound, like a phonograph. Mr. Edison cooperated; he sent me a phonograph and some records—I didn’t buy them. We hoisted the phonograph onto the roof where we had the WJZ transmitter—it was too big to go through the hatchway —and carried the records up into the radio shack.

Mr. Edison had a sign on his laboratory door—“I Will Not Talk Radio to Anyone.” He always felt a little bit chagrined, I think, that De Forest beat him to the invention of the grid. The Edison effect was there and all De Forest did was to take the Edison effect and make it talk. It had other features of transmission up to that time but not speech. The grid was merely inserted there and that made the telephone feature of the tube.

Mr. Edison loaned me the phonograph and let me pick out some very good records. I remember one particularly, of Anna Case singing “Annie Laurie.” It was one of those big, thick Edison disks. But then one day he called up and asked us abruptly to discontinue the use of the phonograph, because he said he had listened and he didn’t think it did the phonograph business any good. We had the problem of modulation and lacked good technical resources.

He said, “If the phonograph sounded like that in any room, nobody would ever buy it.” We got around that problem by buying a phonograph of our own. But I did go up to see if there was any way by which we could continue the cooperation. He said no. He said that we weren’t ready to broadcast yet-that we had gone ahead without working out the involved features of broadcasting.

“Why do you give people a laboratory experiment? I give the public a finished product, and you’re a long way from having one. I don’t want any part of it; just count me out.”

I asked, “What is the great difficulty that you find? The interest is tremendous.”

Then, to explain how music could be broadcast better, he drew a circuit of the sound wave from the time it first impressed the telephone mouthpiece, went through the circuits and tubes and vibrated the diaphragm in the receiving headpiece. He figured it all out with resistances and everything. A great deal of it was beyond me technically, but I was quite certain he was right, and I slipped the paper into my pocket.

“If you want to buy your own phonograph and your own records,” he said, “that’s your business, but you’re not using mine anymore. I don’t want them in there at all.” He spoke in a high-pitched voice.

When I got back to Westinghouse some engineers were working on an alleged amplifier. I say “alleged” because there was still a great deal that was not understood about good radio circuits.

I showed the engineers this drawing and they were all impressed. They sat down and started to study it. A couple of days after that I received notice that I was to report to the research department at Pittsburgh.

I said, “I don’t want to go to Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t go to Pittsburgh if you gave me the place. What’s the idea? Is there anything wrong here?”

They said, “No, but that drawing you turned in was a masterpiece.”

I said, “Yes, it was.”

“Oh, indeed,” they said, “you don’t dislike yourself, do you?”

“Well, that didn’t happen to be my drawing,” I said, “it was Edison’s—so I don’t go to Pittsburgh.”

Someone once asked Mr. Edison to make something that would receive a radio program. He said, “Aw, stick a fork in a glass of water and tie a string around it—that’ll bring in your radio.” He never showed any interest whatever in the broadcasting station. All he wanted was to rescue his victrola and have nothing more to do with radio. He left strict orders for me to keep out, too.

I got even a little bit later on when I was on the Cunard liner, Berengaria . The Society of Old Telegraphers was there and Mr. Edison was the guest of the evening. I knew the Edison family merely from working in the laboratory, and I worked on the good feelings of Mr. Charles Edison, who was a young man then and who later became governor of New Jersey and secretary of the Navy. He was a very pleasant cooperative fellow. Mrs. Edison was there, and I managed to get a good word to her too. Finally they coaxed Mr. Edison into broadcasting. Everything was prepared beautifully. We brought the mike over and said, “Now we have the opportunity of presenting the great and only Thomas A. Edison. Will you say a few words, Mr. Edison?”

He said, “Good night.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.