Delaware County (one county over from Philly) saw the installation of the first 50,000 watt AM transmitter for Philadelphia's WCAU. It was at 396 Bishop Hollow Road in Newtown Square. However, according to Charlie Miller, one of the people involved in the planning, construction and operation of this building, "In the 1930's, there were no blocks on this road and the address at that time was simply WCAU, RFD Bishop Hollow Road.... The first broadcast from Newtown Square was on (Sunday) September 18, 1932." He wrote this in a letter to Charlie Higgins in 1986. Charlie Miller (Charles B. Miller) was the Plant Engineer for the WCAU stations, (also known as the Transmitter Supervisor), from 1930 until his retirement in 1972. He built the Newtown Square plant, including W3XAU, and the Moorestown facilities still in use today. Charlie died at the age of 91 in the late 90's. According to Higgins, Miller "could remember everything."
Operating from the same site was the first International Shortwave commercial broadcasting station in the United States, W3XAU, sister station to WCAU. Remember, the use of commercial radio shortwave broadcast stations started when radio manufacturers like RCA and Crosley, and the NBC and CBS networks tried, unsuccessfully, to make commercial shortwave pay as a commercial entity.
Broadcast Pioneers member Charlie Higgins, a long-time tech at WCAU said that the call letters were changed in 1938. Broadcast Pioneers member Jack Jones (not the anchor) was Chief Engineer for WCAU AM & FM and Assistant Chief for WCAU-TV. He said that the shortwave call letters were changed to WCAB, Philadelphia. Charlie Miller confirms this adding it was "...broadcast on four different frequencies with directional antenna to Europe and South America."
Note in the lower left hand corner was a very faint (now digitally enhanced) verification by John G. Leitch,
who was at that time Technical Director for WCAU
Jones told us the story of when he first went to WCAU in 1949, one of the engineers who had been there for many years was training him. A highly seasoned veteran announcer walked into the radio announce booth. The long-time engineer told Jack when to cue the announcer and then told him to point his thumb down. Jones did so and the announcer said live over the air, "WCAB, Philadelphia." After the break was done, Jack asked what that was all about. The long-time engineer said that before they dismantled the shortwave station (this was before FM), WCAU had two stations. One on AM with the call letters, WCAU. The other was the commercial shortwave station whose call letters were WCAB. Thumbs up meant the announcer was to use the WCAU call letters. Thumbs down meant the announcer was to use the WCAB call letters.
Higgins also said that the shortwave setup was dismantled during the Second World War and sent overseas to aid in the war effort. He states, "...(the transmitter) was sent to aid Great Britain's and the BBC's effort to counter Adolf Hitler's propaganda broadcasts...."
The picture of the building dates from 1942, according to the Delaware County Historical Society. This plant was shut down by that year. Charlie Miller adds, "...the plant never moved to City Line Avenue but to Moorestown, NJ in 1941. The studios during the 1932 to 1941 period (and actually until 1952) were located at 1622 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The City Line studios, as I recall, were opened in the summer of 1952."
Charlie Higgins e-mailed again this story about Charlie Miller. Higgins sais:
One time Charlie was telling me that Mr. Leitch had ordered all the men at the transmitter to wear ties. Charlie refused to carry out Mr. Leitch's order citing the danger of getting a Technician's tie caught in one of the pieces of rotating machinery. Do not forget that the high voltages needed by the transmitters in those days were generated by moving machinery, i.e. generators.
Thank goodness that Charlie Higgins saves everything. On February 28, 1992, Charlie Miller mailed him a personal letter. In it he talked about W3XAU. Miller wrote:
Thanks for sending me information on the 50th anniversary of the VOA (Voice of America). It was very interesting to me, especially the use of manual switching of the anntennas for various parts of the world. It reminds me of the company's (WCAU) shortwave activities at Newtown Square in the 30's. First we started off with a home built 1 kw transmitter using a single vertical dipole. The call letters were W3XAU. This transmitter was re-built at Newtown Square for 10 kw output power to use on frequencies from 6 to 21 mhz using high level modulation with four water cooled tubes as modulators and output amplifiers. Was quite a project. The call letters were changed to WCAB. Two V type antennas were erected, one for South America and the other for Europe. We also used manual switching for the transmitter output.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Photo courtesy of the Delaware County Historical Society
QSL Card courtesy of Phil Finkle's QSL Website
Written and researched by Broadcast Pioneers member Gerry Wilkinson
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