End of World War I and the RCA Monopoly


By Jonathan H

Inside the Marconi Oahu Building

The interior of the Kahuku Marconi Wireless building remains very much like it was during its 1914 inauguration, except now — instead of high-power transformers, wireless transmission keys, and antennae apparatus — you have above-ground pool-like structures containing shrimp krill.

Editors Note: This is part 3 in a three-part series on Marconi Wireless and government takeover over vital communications networks during times of war. I highly suggest taking a look at Part I here and Part II here before continuing. I hope you enjoy the narrative! There will be more special series’ arriving in the future!

Marconi Satellite Image, HawaiiWhat came from the war was a vast network of powerful communication hubs. During the war, these hubs were under the control of governments like never before. Unique to the U.S., when compared with other allies, was its insistence on holding on to influence over these radio holdings. Wireless had gone from a “mere adjunct to visual signaling” to a vital factor upon which armies, navies, and air forces had relied (Baker 177).

And government reliance had come at a cost so long as Marconi retained control of the patents. As General Electric was about to ship off a huge order of strategically important high-frequency alternators to British Marconi, Admiral Bullard and Captain Hooper, at the behest of President Wilson, stepped in and offered a lucrative government contract to GE. In exchange, GE would purchase American Marconi outright. In October 1919, the sale was completed and spawned the Radio Corporation of America (Harbord 60).

Guided into being by the President’s top Navy advisors, RCA provided integral services to the U.S. military — free from foreign investments or patent disputes. It also provided another outlet that was yet to be realized, but would soon have an indelible effect on American perception and ideology. In 1926, the giants of GE, Westinghouse, and RCA took their boldest step of all: they joined forces to form NBC — the first major broadcasting network.

Government and Corporate Alphabet Soups Blend (1926-1943)
As a private enterprise, NBC had some rather undeniable statist roots — after all, its parent company was GE (who most recently filed the largest tax return in history). It took over nearly a decade after FCC assumed oversight over radio corporations before it begin investigating the network’s practices. By that time, NBC had split into its “red” and “blue” holdings. Congressional hearings in 1941 only led to a perceived slackening of the anti-trust rules against NBC.

Blue Network Advertisement, 1947

If it weren’t for the Department of Justice, NBC would have likely retained its control of the Blue Network. As it turns out, in 1943, it was forced to divest from its Blue holdings (selling them to the entrepreneur behind Life Savers and former commerce underscretary, Edward J. Noble). Still, though the ties between Blue and Red remained. Noble took the networks he had acquired from NBC and formed ABC.

At the cusp of the television revolution, the Second World War had begun, but not before three corporations — ABC, NBC, and CBS had claimed the lion’s share of communications in the country. In these three networks the ties to government were undeniable. And at the outbreak of World War II, this would prove invaluable. From CBS, CEO William S. Paley served as a colonel in the psychological warfare branch in the Office of War Information; from NBC, came the stalwart ties from its past inception as a Navy-formed corporation; and at CBS, a former undersecretary of commerce and confidante of NBC at the helm.

Administration Building of the original Marconi Building (later RCA)

Administration Building of the original Marconi Building (later RCA)

These three corporations began the new era of television with a new type of psychological control over ideas and thoughts — and one more more potent than even radio had been during Marconi’s time.

Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a three part entry on wireless radio from the Imperial Age to World War II. It was inspired by my visit to an abandoned radio station in Hawaii, but the station itself is an illustration of a much larger effort by government and corporations to form ties and to sow the seeds of the military-industrial complex.

Further Note: After the publication of this piece, it came to the attention of the writer: the newspaper that reported the opening of the wireless station at Kahuku (with much fanfare, suffice to say [quoted in part II]) was owned by conservative sugar magnate Claus Spreckels. Spreckels was widely regarded extremely conservative and colonial in his political proclivities, so the stance of the article carries its own eerie bow of recognition to the theories postulated within this series.

Please find Part I here and Part II here.

Further Research

Coe, Douglas. Marconi: Pioneer of Radio. New York: Julian Messner, Inc. 1943.

Baker, W.J. A History of the Marconi Company. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1971.

Harbord, J.G. “The Commercial Uses of Radio.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 142, Supplement: Radio. Mar., 1929. pp. 57-63.

Headrick, Daniel R. The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945. New York: Oxford University Press. 1991.

Headrick, Daniel R. and Pascal Griset. “Submarine Telegraph Cables: Business and Politics, 1838-1939.” The Business History Review. Vol. 75, No. 3. 2001. pp. 543-578.

“Marconi Wireless is Formally Opened by Governor Pinkham.” Pacific Commercial Advertiser. 25 Sep. 1914. pp A1, A9

“Patents. Infringement. Use by Government.” Harvard Law Review. Vol. 29, No. 3. Jan. 1916. p. 339.

Reich, Leonard S. “Research, Patents, and the Struggle to Control Radio.” The Business History Review. Vol. 51, No. 2. 1977. pp. 208-235.

3 comments on “End of World War I and the RCA Monopoly

  1. Bruce Swanton on said:

    The first two parts of this three part series is most welcome to one wishing to understand the position of wireless before, during, and immediately following WWI, with special reference to the Pacific Ocean.

    Keep up the good work and, if at all possible, if you can advise me as to when part III becomes available, please do so.

  2. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Hey Bruce, part III is available. In fact this one is part three :-). Perhaps you missed part one? http://www.terrastories.com/bearings/radios-rise-during-world-war-i

  3. john kelly on said:

    This article doesn’t make it very clear but I gather that the Kahuku radio station was built by the Marconi Company. My understanding was that it was an RCA station and from the description in this article I guess that makes it a Marconi station. According to what I’ve read elsewhere, it also belong to Mutual Telephone Company at least for some time in the 20s and 30s. Mutual provided inter-island telephone service. Being a non-Bell company all our telephones were made by Automatic Electric and were somewhat different from the Bell equipment.
    The RCA manager on Oahu lived in a nice house at the site and I met him. His name was Lee. I was told that his wife had been an opera singer. Mr. Lee described the alternators at Haiku.
    What interested me most was that although the station had lots and lots of empty space, there was no spare transmitter for any band.
    Your article mentions high frequency alternators. I am unaware of any alternators used at high frequency (>3MHz), only VLF. My understanding is that there were two Alexanderson alternators at Haiku and very late, maybe into the 70s, the US Navy operated one at Yosami, Japan. Haiku became an Omega (navigation) transmitter and I presume they used the existing antenna but don’t know about a transmitter. An alternator was probably incompatible with the Omega waveform (which I know nothing about). Omega transmitted on 10kHz as I remember.
    I’m sure I’ve read that when Kahuku opened there were so many operators that a hotel was built to house them, and a stop of the Oahu Railroad & Land Co. added to serve the hotel. I thought I knew the name of the stop but it must be wrong and I’m still digging for that info. In about 1956 my brothers and I attended a day of sports car racing at the Kahuku airstrip, which was very close to the radio station, as I remember, and there were lots of radio antennas around the airstrip, probably belonging to KHK. At that time I knew nothing about KHK.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


HTML tags are not allowed.

  • Archives