In 1921, when my mother was thirteen, there was only one licensed radio station in the U.S. , and it was in Pittsburgh .  And yet, on the first Saturday of summer vacation, she got together with friends in Queens , and they listened to a radio.  All over the Northeast, people were doing the same.  Many years later, she would look back on that afternoon, and tell me how exciting it felt.

As you can guess, this month’s Ancient Hixtory is not really about Hicksville .  It is about one episode in the history of commercial radio – specifically, an extraordinary event that helped to establish the world of radio stations in which we grew up.  If you can recall the feeling you got as you listened to a car radio on the way to Jones Beach, or tried to hide an earphone wire while you sat in a classroom, or did your homework while you listened to Murray the K, then you may want to read the following, about a day that helped make those things possible.



We tend to think of inventing as a process that culminates in clear-cut change.  Bell had never been able to speak to Watson by telephone, and then one day he could.  Until a certain Thursday in 1903, the Wrights had never experienced powered flight, but on that day, they took turns and flew four times.

Radio’s story was different, because after being created, radio still had such a long way to go.  In the decades leading up to World War I, it achieved success only as a form of wireless telegraphy, relying on “spark-gap” technology (almost as primitive as it sounds).  Spark-gap radio waves are incapable of carrying audio signals.  It would take many more inventions and inventors before audio-friendly radio waves existed.  Remarkably, what it did not take was many more decades.  As the 1920s approached, radio engineers in the U.S. realized that audio transmissions finally were feasible, and as a group, they were trying to attack the remaining problems.  The issue that stymied them, however, was not a technical one – it was how to overcome the American public’s inertia.


Americans had been hearing about radio – at least what they thought was radio – for almost thirty years.  By now, the word radio triggered mental images of a guy with earphones on his head, and with one hand glued to a telegraph key, and that image didn’t excite them very much.  Whatever else they had been told about radio had not impressed them.  They were skeptical that radio could improve their lives, and they were too used to what they already had.

People read a lot then – books, magazines, and newspapers.  The papers actually were marvelous in terms of providing the latest news.  They received constant feeds from national and international news wire services; many papers printed both morning and evening editions, so that they could deliver the latest information to their customers.  They delivered other things, too: short stories, mysteries in serial form, special columns for crafters and hobbyists, and most important of all, the comics.

For further diversions and entertainment, people could go to movie theatres and band shells, even in small towns.  They might also attend events held in a local auditorium or church hall.  At home, many Americans had phonographs and player pianos, which let them hear the music they liked on-demand.  Indeed, a paper piano roll let them hear “live” performances – a copy of a master roll that been generated by a pianist as s/he played a special piano, the piano roll literally played the piano as if the keys were being struck.  It was as if, say, Scott Joplin, or a classical pianist, was invisibly playing right in front of you.  Why would anyone want a radio?


Trying to overcome this inertia through technology led to frustration and multiple circular arguments, such as

People had to experience radio in order to want it.
To experience it, radio stations had to broadcast programs.
Until people bought radio receivers, there would be no real radio stations.

No one manufactured receivers, because the public did not want them.

In addition, one had to factor finances into the same quagmire: stations counted on advertisers, advertisers counted on listeners, listeners counted on stations.  Things would remain at an impasse, circling each other like two boxers in Round 1, until some external catalyst intervened.


The “Other” Radio

Thus far, in discussing what might be called “radio for the masses,” this article has ignored radio enthusiasts and amateur radio operators, people whose story arc was quite different.  In some ways, these people were the forerunners of 1990s computer nerds.  They were unafraid to build or modify assemblies of parts.  They wanted to converse and bond, not just listen.  They wanted to understand how things worked, and to try out new ideas.  And they were happy to communicate by using a code.

I don’t know how many enthusiasts there were, but I’m certain that a newspaper like the Long-Islander carried its regular RADIO column primarily because of them.  Looking at it now reminds me of the columns you’d later see in the early PC magazines; I’m almost tempted to go out, buy some wire and vacuum tubes, and get to work.

Excerpt of a RADIO column which discusses exploiting
Lee de Forest’s invention of the vacuum tube triode;
the tube shown in this article’s opening graphic is one
his “Audion” triodes from 1908

Huntington Long-Islander for July 7, 1922

Although the world of amateur radio operators was distinct from the world of those who wanted only to listen to commercial radio, as a group, these enthusiasts would play many important roles, as well as one truly essential one, in kick-starting commercial radio.

Because they learned from each other, they tended to network, and they maintained contacts with engineering-based organizations.  They had ready access to a large pool of technical knowledge.  If a given enthusiast did not know everything that professional radio engineers did, s/he still knew enough to be able to converse comfortably with them and learn.  They also had a good awareness of which engineering companies were building, or experimenting with, which equipment at any given time.  Furthermore, some of them had actually participated in experimental broadcasts of local events, and had gained invaluable experience in the process.

Any entrepreneur who was thinking about a project that involved radio would have done well to begin by talking with the amateurs.


Thanks to enthusiasts, and even to people who were only on the fringes of “radio enthusiasm,” there were many “crystal radios” scattered across the country.

A crystal radio is an inexpensive and fairly primitive radio receiver.  At its core is a small crystal of germanium, an element which was unknown until the late 1880s.  The crystal’s electric properties (it is a natural semi-conductor) allow it to detect radio waves.  The device incorporates earphones and a home-strung antenna, but it needs no source of electricity.  The quality of the audio it produces depends on the quirks of the crystal being used.  Generally, it is suitable only for listening with simple earphones.  As it consumes no electricity, a crystal radio yields audio only at a low level of volume.

Student-made crystal radios have been featured in many entry-level science fair exhibits.  In concept, it seems magical to simply combine a crystal, some wire, and not much else, and then snatch voices and music from the air.  In continued practice, on the other hand, the magic may wear thin, as one yearns for better sound quality, and a more useful range of volume.  But a crystal radio can be, and at times has been, good enough.  If you wanted to do a one-time broadcast to a public who had never heard radio at all, letting them use cheap crystal radios to hear might be satisfactory.


The Makings of an Unlikely Catalyst

As it happened, one of the first times that the stars aligned for commercial radio was practically an accident.  A now-forgotten Mr. Hopp suggested something which caught the correct person’s ear, and which – with help from enthusiastic radio fans – also tapped into a great reserve of pent-up energy in the radio engineering community.  As things played out, scores of engineers got involved, as did the young Radio Corporation of America, the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, a French war hero, a one-time Klondike prospector, a tough guy accused of dodging the draft, and the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy.

Tex Rickard

The 1920s already were roaring loud.  Newsmakers kept making bigger news, athletes kept winning bigger victories, and just to make sure that you didn’t miss something big, press agents and promoters made certain that you heard about everything.  In the latter category, there was no one like George Rickard.

Tex Rickard

Rickard was a dapper man with a flashy résumé.  He once had been a cowboy, until a Texas town elected him its Marshal.  He later went to the Klondike , where he really did strike gold, which he used to build several hotels.  He then traveled to Paraguay , where he lost his fortune when war broke out because of disagreements over international boundaries.  Back in New York , the old Madison Square Garden still stood at Madison Square , so Rickard leased it, hoping to promote prize fighting.  He made so much money as a boxing promoter that in a few more years he would build a new, bigger Garden, designed primarily for boxing, at 8th Avenue and 50th Streets.  When the new arena was ready, into it he would place a new hockey team called the Rangers, who would win the Stanley Cup in their second year.

In 1921, Rickard was working on his long-term plan.  He hoped to heighten public interest in boxing, partly by publicizing fighters so that people saw them as stars, partly by building a string of seven large boxing arenas across the country.  He would make his biggest fortune ever.  A key element of this plan would be promoting a fight that garnered worldwide attention.  Instead of calling it The Biggest Fight Ever, Rickard more modestly labeled it The Fight of the Century.  He already had decided who the fighters would be.


Orchid Man

At the age of 14, French youth Georges Carpentier had become welterweight champion of Europe .  Five years later, the slim Carpentier was so highly regarded that he was chosen to referee Jack Johnson’s heavyweight title defense in Paris .  His World War I service as an aviator earned Carpentier multiple decorations, including a Croix de Guerre.  After the War, he resumed boxing, and he quickly won European championships in both the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions.

Perhaps no boxer of the era appealed more to women, who found him cultured and handsome (he later would appear in several films).  Rickard may have been dapper, but Georges Carpentier was positively suave, and downright graceful.  Even as a heavyweight he still looked slender; someone dubbed him The Orchid Man.  Whatever it was supposed to suggest, the name seemed to suit him, and it stuck.  He fought in the U.S. in 1920, winning the light heavyweight world championship by defeating the wonderfully-nicknamed Battling Levitsky.  That one fight was enough to make Georges Carpentier the favorite of a great many American fans, not all of whom were female.

Georges Carpentier in training at

Manhasset , NY , June 2, 1921

New York Daily News, June 3, 1921

Tex Rickard realized that the public would see Carpentier as the perfect opponent for heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.  Both men had begun boxing at an early age; both had well-honed instincts.  The Frenchman was fast, agile, and determined, and maybe quick enough to make some of Dempsey’s blockbuster punches miss their mark.  Even better, the public would see Carpentier as a natural-born hero – and in their eyes, that would make him the antithesis of Dempsey.


Jack Dempsey

Dempsey was a tough, superb boxer, the product of a hard life.  On his own too early, he had spent much of his youth boxing to survive.  From his early teens, he would walk from one Colorado mining town to the next, heading directly to the town’s rowdiest tavern.  Once inside, he would announce his name and age, and seek to fight with “the meanest guy” in the place.  The bystanders would place bets, and Dempsey would fight whoever came forward.  The victor would win an impromptu “purse.”  Dempsey usually won it, and if there was enough money, he would mail some of it home to his widowed mother.

Jack Dempsey just being himself

He was a good man, but the public didn’t want to believe that.  Rather than suave, Dempsey’s appearance was rough, even uncouth.  In photographs he tended to look intense and fierce (he was both when he fought).  Rumors kept circulating that he had dodged the WW I draft – not true; he both registered for it and tried to enlist, but he was rejected for undisclosed medical reasons.  All in all, Jack Dempsey was just what a fight promoter needed to draw a crowd – a powerful, skilled, intimidating man to play the role of the villainous cowboy in the black hat.


But None of This Has Anything to Do With Radio!

Well, not yet; please be patient a while longer.

Hype, and More Hype

With the unwitting cooperation of his peers and competitors, Rickard kept the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in the news during the six months that led up to it.  If one believed the newspaper reports, rival promoters were constantly trying to outbid him for the rights to the fight.  Syndicates in London , Baltimore , Montreal , Philadelphia , and other cities organized competing bids.  There were frequent “unsubstantiated reports” that Rickard had silent partners who were growing impatient, and who were thinking of withdrawing their money from his bid.  There were new investors, who wanted to put their money into it.  One known partner actually went missing for several months; when he resurfaced, he offered no explanation for his absence, prompting a flurry of news about “the mystery” of his disappearance.

Whether it was real or not, the hype worked.  Interest in the bout rose steadily.  It was obvious that no indoor arena would be large enough; Rickard needed a stadium.  He led the press on forays, mostly around the east coast, ostensibly scouting for suitable sites.  The searching paused when a reality, heretofore ignored, generated headlines – New York ’s Governor, who always had strenuously opposed the sport of boxing, announced to the world that his government would oppose any effort to stage the match in the State.


Radio (Finally!)

By this time, a parallel universe was being planned – a universe of radio waves, wires, and electrons.  The plan had got its start in the offices at Madison Square Garden .

Julius Hopp was the Garden’s manager in charge of all musical events.  One day, hearing people discuss the fight, he recalled that his boss once had voiced an interest in “someday” incorporating radio into the venue’s events.  The fight was not an MSG event, but it was Tex Rickard’s, and that was close enough.  Hopp suggested to his superiors that the fight might serve as suitable content for a pilot radio broadcast.  He also reminded them that recently, a local political convention had been aired via a little experimental station, with the assistance of a radio enthusiasts’ group.  The broadcast had earned positive reactions in the newspapers.  It is not clear if he spoke directly to Rickard, but someone did, prompting Rickard to order Hopp to follow through on the idea.

Through the amateur radio people who had volunteered for the convention broadcast, Hopp approached several organizations, the most useful of which for his purposes proved to be the National Amateur Wireless Association, and the project took off.  Hopp was admitted to a world of willing volunteers, experts, and innovation.  Radio people got excited about the project, and they wanted to make it work.  The cooperation was impressive, and the parameters of the technical approach soon were set.


The broadcast – incidentally, some say that the word “broadcast” was coined by those who worked on this very project – was to be a fundraiser for the ongoing relief work in post-war France.  People would go to registered public venues (e.g., theatres) to listen, and they would make donations.  People with crystal radios would be free to listen in their homes.

Some engineers and businesses declined the chance to participate – there still was uncertainty about audio broadcasts, especially with respect to connecting radio loudspeakers, and a failure would not look good.  Nonetheless, dozens of people, groups, and businesses chose to work on the project.  Not only did they donate their time; they loaned the project use of valuable, and sometimes unique, equipment.

Confident that the broadcast would work, Rickard added another criterion for choosing the site for the bout: it would have to be compatible with the requirements for the broadcast.


Goin’ to Jersey City

The site Rickard chose was a mostly vacant spot in Jersey City , near a railroad yard.  Those attending the fight could drive to it, or they could reach it from almost any direction by public transit.  On it, he would build an immense, temporary octagonal stadium.  At first, it was to have a capacity of 70,000, but thanks to the ever-swelling demand, he bought a lot more lumber.  The capacity of the final stadium was 90,600.

New York Times, July 1, 1921

General Electric offered the use of a new transmitter it was constructing for the military.  It was more powerful than any other transmitter in the world.  It was sent by rail from upstate New York , and installed on the site by RCA.  A four-wire antenna, 450 feet long, was strung at Hoboken , between a railroad yard light tower and the highest point on the clock tower of the DL&W terminal, at an average height of 250 feet.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy until Woodrow Wilson had left office in January 1921, reportedly was the person who arranged to keep clear a radio frequency which the Navy normally employed to communicate with its blimps.

Poorly retouched photograph of broadcasting antenna

Telephone lines were installed at ringside, in the press boxes, and at a broadcast booth a short distance from the stadium (i.e., the ringside announcer sat amidst the noise and described the fight into a telephone; in the quiet broadcast booth, another announcer would listen to the phone, and repeat the words he heard into the broadcast microphone).

International news reporters benefited from the temporary installation of 200 telegraph key stations, each supplied with its own operator, to whom foreign correspondents dictated reports during the fight, reports which went directly by wire to South America, Europe, Japan , and the Philippines .


Immeasurable Success

How Many People Listened?

At the time, the most conservative estimates of audience size gave a figure of 250,000 to 300,000.  Certain recent estimates are significantly lower.  Given that no one knew how many crystal radios existed, or how many people listened in their homes, or in those of their neighbors, it is impossible to know the actual number.

In terms of technology, most things worked well, although there were glitches.  The New York Times had intended to connect loudspeakers directly to the broadcast, sending it booming across Times Square .

Times Square , July 2, 1921

Alas, before the main fight began, the connection between the loudspeakers and the radio signal failed.  With no time to investigate the problem, the Times resorted to instead use telegraphed reports, which were read into microphones connected to the loudspeakers.  At the time, the public probably was unaware of the change.  In addition, staff posted reports in summary form on a billboard-like display mounted on the newspaper’s building (see photograph above).  Westinghouse relayed the broadcast input from Jersey City via wire to its station KDKA in Pittsburgh, but technical problems prevented its also relaying the signal to its as-yet unlicensed radio station in Newark. 

There were some inherent factors that probably limited the size of the radio audience.  Some newspapers carried advertisements that told readers about it, and advertised where people go to could hear the broadcast, but others refused, foreseeing that radio would become a threat to the newspaper industry.

Sign advertising the broadcast at
Loew’s New York Theatre, June 28, 1921

Brooklyn Standard Union

July 1, 1921

The use of a Navy broadcast frequency made things tricky.  The Navy had, and needed to use, several radio frequencies for its blimp program.  Which frequency would be expendable on the afternoon of the fight would depend on weather conditions, and on which blimps needed air time – factors which meant the decision had to be postponed as long as possible.  Thus, it was not until the day before the fight that a choice was made, and only then could the frequency be announced to the press.  As it would take time for novice listeners to locate the broadcast signal, and adjust their antennas and receivers appropriately, the broadcast would begin with a preliminary bout.  This pre-broadcast gave listeners lots of time, which the radio novices in the audience definitely would need.

There were people who had not known of the broadcast in advance, but discovered it accidentally while it was in progress.  Perhaps the most prominent among them were members of a Fourth-of-July weekend yachting party on Long Island Sound – the family of William K. Vanderbilt II, of Vanderbilt Cup racing fame.  A crewman on the vessel chanced upon the broadcast, and everyone crowded around the radio, marveling.



Based on what I’ve read, conditions in the venues varied considerably.  Some had loudspeakers, some had earphones tied to megaphones, and some even placed earphones in large bowls to reflect the sound towards the audience.  My father remembered listening in the latter manner; he laughed about it, but he said that it worked well enough.

Skeptic though I am, I think I understand why such measures worked adequately.  In 1921, most theatres had been built to be used without microphones and amplifiers – a theatre had to have excellent acoustics to function that way.  Good acoustics work.  You can understand that very well if you ever took a Hicksville High Senior Trip to Washington , stood at the right spot in the U.S. Capitol while a guide spoke very softly to you from a second “right spot,” many yards away, and you heard him/her perfectly.

As I indicated earlier, my mother spoke to me about how she listened to the fight.  A neighbor deliberately put a radio (she did not recall if it was a crystal radio, but I think it was) on a window sill, so that the neighborhood kids outside could listen.  The sidewalk was narrow; some of them sat on the curb, some sat or stood close to the open window.  There was not much road traffic, and they were able to hear clearly.

Being kids, they probably had never actually seen a prize fight, but hearing the broadcast was enough to get them excited.  Despite the need to be quiet, she and the other girls found themselves cheering, “Come on, Carpentier!”  Clearly, the immediacy of the experience was impressive.  She did not pause to rhapsodize about the miracle of radio; she just embraced it, and let it pull her by the imagination.

School kids, Maspeth , NY c.1920

On the right is my mother, Agnes Siłakowska;
her siblings Edward and Isabelle are on the left.
Between them are close neighborhood friends
who likely joined them at the window to listen.

I think that my mother never was able to like television in the way that she liked radio.  Perhaps that was because it was too captivating; she could not watch it unless she stopped doing the other things she wanted to do.  In my very earliest memories, our home is a space that is filled happily by the sound of radio, with my mother going about her housework, listening, always listening.  I think that she never tired of being drawn into its world.


Outcomes and Aftermath

Tex Rickard got all the fame and fortune he wanted.  Among the tens of thousands who sat in the Octagon to witness his Fight of the Century were John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, George M. Cohan, Al Jolson, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, and H. L. Mencken.  The old record “gate” for a prize fight had been substantially less than $1,000,000; the gate for this fight was an astounding $1,789,000.  Rickard was said to have personally netted more than $1,000,000.

The one-time small town marshal would never get his national chain of boxing arenas, although his Boston Garden did open in 1928.  Early in 1929, while on a business trip to Miami , he underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis.  He died of post-surgery complications.


The Orchid Man did not unseat the World Champion.  In the second round, he hit Dempsey hard but awkwardly, and broke his own wrist.  He continued to fight, but he was increasingly hampered by the injury, so that by the fourth round, his ability to attack his opponent and defend himself had diminished critically.  He was knocked down by a flurry of powerful punches.  While Dempsey stood aside, Carpentier struggled to get up, finally standing up at the count of nine.  The referee permitted the fight to resume; Dempsey quickly stepped in and mercifully delivered a single half-hearted body punch that floored the challenger.  The fight was over.  The champion bent over his foe, helping him up.  He half-carried him to the correct corner, and remained at his side until Carpentier’s head was clear, and he could respond coherently to Dempsey’s questions.  The contest ended with compassion and respect, not gloating.

The two men would remain long-distance friends for life, exchanging Christmas cards, sometimes writing letters, now and then enjoying time together when they got together for special events related to boxing.


The fight broadcast’s impact on the story of commercial radio is difficult to assess.  Change would have happened someday, even without it, but the broadcast likely hastened the widespread public embrace of radio.

First, it certainly made more Americans aware of radio’s “coming of age,” and of what it could offer.  Rickard’s tying radio to his “biggest ever” event meant that scores of millions of people learned that there had been a broadcast of the fight, had got some idea of what the broadcast was like, and also had read positive feedback about what listeners thought.  Americans en masse began to understand why they would want radios in their homes.

Second, businesses and investors who had been waiting on the sidelines realized how close they were to a new, profitable world, and money began to flow.  People soon were investing more in radio stations, and in companies that made radio equipment.  Business in general realized that radio advertising would be practical.  The public was confident that there would be more broadcasts on more stations, and it was willing to buy receivers in anticipation of that day.

In any event, commercial radio’s impasse crumbled quickly.  The number of new FCC-licensed radio stations began to increase, especially in the Northeast.  Equipment development and production accelerated.  “Radio sets” – with speakers, not headphones – began to appear in stores, and people bought them.  The time had come. 

Early ad for off-the-shelf radio receiver

Huntington Long-Islander, October 20, 1922

1922 Vocaphone receiver (restored)

Dan Morphy Auctions



" Battle of the Century": The WJY Story

On This Day: Jack Dempsey Headlined Boxing’s First Million Dollar Gate

Voice-Broadcasting the Stirring Progress of the " Battle  of the Century"
(originally published in The Wireless Age)

Numerous newspaper articles, some of which are cited in the captions

Various Wikipedia articles re the event and the people involved in it


’Bye for Now