Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ohio's First Radio Station?

You may already know that Bullova was the first watch company, or any company, to advertise on the radio. (“This is WEAR, New York. Bullova Watch Time: Eleven O’clock.”) But what I didn’t know until now was that Bullova was not the first watchmaker to use radio. In fact, it’s possible that a watch company was the first radio broadcaster in Ohio.

The life and death of the original Gruen Watch Company – not the current brand name you find today – is documented in Paul Schliesser’s excellent series of web pages. In those pages you’ll find the rise and fall of an American manufacturer not all that different from the foibles of the economic travesty that is American manufacturing in 2009. The key difference is that, in due time, Gruen may have faced doom regardless of managerial malfeasance, as sales of mechanical watches would eventually be pummeled by the onslaught of cheaper, more accurate quartz watches in the 1970’s. Still, one can’t help but wonder… What if?

In 1913, outgrowing their downtown Cincinnati facility, Gruen purchased a plot of land northeast of town that overlooked downtown and much of the surrounding area. They built a chalet-style plant, and renamed the hill Time Hill. (It had been dubbed Nanny Goat Hill. The less said about that, the better.) Gruen opened the plant in 1917.

Now, when you build a watch, you want to be able to set it correctly and test it for accuracy before it leaves the plant. Swiss made watches today go through a third party certification process to be granted “chronometer” status, but in those days no such service existed. Gruen horologists wanted only the most accurate source for their testing. The most accurate source is, of course, astronomical observation – where are we in the universe. The official timekeeper for the United States was the Naval Observatory in Arlington, Virginia. (This was in an era when naval observatories were actually near the ocean.) The observatory broadcast radio time signals to the eastern half of the country. And that is where Time Hill’s geographic position was put to use.

A state-of-the-art device known as a wireless receiver was installed at Time Hill, capable of picking up radio signals sent from the Naval Observatory. This relatively long-range reception was made possible by the fact that in 1917 there were few radio transmitters in operation, most of them operated by the Navy along with a scattering of experimenters struggling to make a breakthrough in wireless telephony. Radio was strictly Morse code in those days: bursts of pops fired through the ether by means of what is known as the Spark Gap transmitter. (Remember back in school those Van de Graff generators the teacher hooked up in science class that could throw a lightning bolt several feet? Or think of a giant spark plug. That’s basically a radio transmitter in 1917.) One pop represented the number 1, two pops meant 2, and so on. If all this sounds rather less exciting than Rush Limbaugh let me remind you that in the day telephones were noisy and unreliable, and the ability to hear a ship at sea giving the location of a German U-boat during World War I was nothing short of miraculous.

But if you look close in the photo on Schliesser’s web site that won't publish here due to some crazy html hoopla, you’ll see there are two antennae on the roof of Time Hill. Gruen was not content with just receiving time signals. In a precursor to the motivations that would lead to department stores, car dealers, and eventually a certain radio maker named Crosley to build radio stations, Gruen installed one of the most powerful radio transmitters in Middle America. (That’s one really big spark plug.) Schliesser’s web site claims a signal range of up to 3,000 miles, a signal that would dwarf the current WLW nighttime contour and allow a gentleman of the day to set his Gruen – or any other brand of watch – to “Cincinnati Standard Time” in Tijuana, for whatever practical purpose that could serve.

Thus, as early as 1917, Cincinnati was a leading broadcasting city. And the question must be asked: Is this Ohio’s first radio broadcaster? Certainly, there must be a ship-to-shore station along Lake Erie that can dispute this claim. But for sheer audacity and commercial enterprise, Time Hill must lead the way in radio history.

Today, Time Hill sits obscured behind the MacMillan Street overpass. A few blocks away WKRC would locate their studios and transmitter through radio’s golden era. That studio and transmitter site is now the home of WAIF-FM. Just a block and a half east of the Gruen site stands the WCPO-TV tower.