More Power: Powel Crosley and the Cincinnati Flamethrower

We tend to think that there was a time in America when invention was a solo game. The picture of the lone entrepreneur struggling against the odds to invent the next big thing is an enduring theme, if a bit inaccurate and romanticized. Certainly many great inventions came from independent inventors, but the truth is that corporate R&D has been responsible for most of the innovations from the late nineteenth century onward. But sometimes these outfits are not soulless corporate giants. Some are founded by one inventive soul who drives the business to greatness by the power of imagination and marketing. Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park “Invention Factory” comes to mind as an example, but there was another prolific inventor and relentless promoter who contributed vastly to the early consumer electronics industry in the USA: Powel Crosley, Jr.

Born a Gearhead

Powel Crosley, Jr. and Bonzo with his "Crosley Pup" radio. Source: Ohio History Central
Powel Crosley, Jr. and Bonzo with his “Crosley Pup” radio. Source: Ohio History Central

Although Powel Crosley’s fortune would be made with radio, his first love was the automobile. At the turn of the 20th century, a thirteen-year-old Crosley started building his first car. His father, a prominent Cincinnati lawyer and clearly a man of means, bet the princely sum of $10 that his son couldn’t complete the car. Powel enlisted the help of his brother Lewis, and together they finished the car, complete with a hand-built electric motor. They won the bet and began what would turn into a long business partnership.

College eventually beckoned, but Powel’s interest in cars distracted him enough that he dropped out after a couple of years. He tried various automotive ventures with mixed results; while starting a car company was his dream, he seemed to be more adept at inventing various small gadgets for the burgeoning car culture in America. By 1919, Powel and Lewis had amassed a two million dollar fortune and began to look for opportunities in other parts of the growing consumer markets.

Crosley’s Pup

The big growth industry in the 1920s was radio, and it was clear to the Crosley boys that there were fortunes to be made in the new field. But radio was still new, and even a rich man like Powel would balk at the $100 price tag for a store-bought set. So when his son asked for a radio, Powel chose the hacker way – he bought a book on radio so they could build one together.

Crosley Pup. Source: Stone Vintage Radio

Intrigued by radio’s potential and with the resources of a manufacturing operation to draw on, Crosley was soon selling complete radio sets. By 1924, Crosley was the biggest radio manufacturer in the world, and in 1925, their iconic “Crosley Pup” radio hit the market. A simple one-tube regenerative receiver, the Pup brought radio to the masses. Its $9.75 price point was possible because of its low parts count – the tube acted as both amplifier and detector, a simple LC tank circuit tuned the radio, and a “tickler coil” could be manually adjusted to feed part of the amplified RF signal back to the tuned circuit and create a positive feedback loop to further amplify the signal.

Thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign using Powel’s dog Bonzo as a mascot, the Pup was a consumer hit. But Crosley wasn’t satisfied, and saw trouble brewing on the horizon. His Pup radio was threatened by a simple fact – there just weren’t that many radio stations on the air at the time. Those that were on the air were generally low-power broadcasters, which also posed a problem for the Pup – it wasn’t a particularly “hot” receiver given the sacrifices made to keep the price affordable.

Powel’s answer to the problem is a classic of early 20th-century capitalism and a model of vertical integration: he would build his own radio station.

More Power

In the much simpler regulatory environment of the day, Powel had been experimenting with radio broadcasts since 1921, and in 1922 station WLW began operation from Cincinnati on 700 kHz. Radiating a measly 50 watts at first, Crosley began goosing up the power over the years, on the theory that the more power he used, the cheaper he could build his radios. First 500 watts, then 1,000 watts by 1924, and 5,000 watts the next year. In 1928, Crosley increased WLW’s output to 50,000 watts, making it the most powerful radio station in the world. It could be heard from New York to Florida on a clear night, but Crosley had his sights set higher. Much higher.

In 1933, construction began on a 500,000 watt amplifier for WLW. It’s not clear that there was a valid business justification for taking WLW to ludicrous power, since about 90% of the population of the United States was already in range of WLW at 50 kW. But Crosley was on a tear – 1934 was also the year he purchased the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. So hubris no doubt played a part in WLW’s power boost.

But that hubris came at great expense. A new electrical substation devoted exclusively to WLW had to be constructed, as did ponds to cool the water used to handle the heat from the amplifiers. Gigantic antennas sprouted from the WLW campus in Mason, Ohio, and in January of 1934, WLW began broadcasts at half a million watts.

The complaints began pouring in almost immediately. WLW was blasting other stations off the air, with Toronto stations being particularly vulnerable. By December of 1934, WLW was required to reduce its nighttime emissions back to 50,000 watts while it worked on solutions to the interference problem. New antennas were built and were fed out-of-phase signals to shape the radiation pattern enough to solve the Toronto problem, and WLW was turned back up to full power around-the-clock operation in 1935.

But WLW’s days as the most powerful radio station in the world were numbered. As is often the case with new technologies, politicians finally saw something that could be regulated and in 1938 passed legislation banning broadcast stations over 50,000 watts. WLW’s 500-kW license expired and the Cincinnati Flamethrower was back to the new 50 kW legal limit, where it still operates to this day. Even at this level, WLW can still be heard at night in 38 states.

Since Crosley had plans to take WLW to 750,000 watts before Congress got involved, it’s safe to say that he was disappointed by what became of his baby. But Crosley was never one to rest on his laurels, and while radio remained a huge focus of his business – he would own WLW until after WWII – he had many other business interests. He was a pioneer in home refrigeration, inventing a kerosene-powered fridge for use in rural homes without electricity and putting the first shelves on the door of a refrigerator. He invented the concepts of night baseball and play-by-play radio broadcasts, both of which increased revenues from his Cincinnati Reds so much that all Major League Baseball franchises soon copied his model.

Cars, radio, sports, appliances, airplanes, even early TV broadcasts – Crosley had a hand in almost every major piece of the 20th-century’s consumer culture.

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