The Commercial Radio Revolution Switched On 90 Years Ago Today

The Joseph Horne department store in Pittsburgh closed 16 years ago. I'd never heard of it—the place is dead and gone. But before flickering away, it convinced a country of millions to buy into the radio tech revolution.

The only reason the Joseph Horne store might have ever entered your consciousness is as the location of legendary zombie classic Dawn of the Dead (Yep, that's the mall). But 90 years ago today, with a simple print advertisement, the bland department store sparked what would within weeks become one of the largest revolutions in communications and the arts of all time—commercial radio.

Before 1920, radio was an esoteric technology far outside the thoughts of the average American. It was like sonar—a practical technology that had no place in the home. Those with an interest in radio tech, like those brave, huddled-together pioneers of Usenet in the 80s, formed their own minute communities. Radio was a hobby. Moreover, it was just a way of talking. You would buy a kit, assemble it under the watchful eye of your pipe-smoking father, who would muss up your hair and send you on your way with your proud new gadget, hoping to find someone else to beam your lonely signal to.

There was no such thing as an audience before 1920. That sucked. Big things were happening in the world—bigger than a handful of people wirelessly squawking to one another from their bedrooms and attics. Frank Conrad, an engineer at Westinghouse Electric Company, was also deeply interested in radio—but not satisfied. It was a great technology, but it was going to waste. People shouldn't just be shooting off a tiny message with little hope of a reply (Whatup Twitter!)—they should be hearing each other. Media should be massive. Conrad erected his own powerful transmitter, and, growing tired of beeping and booping with morse code, flipped things over to his gramophone, letting people miles away listen to music he chose. He was DJing, almost a century ago.

Interest in Conrad's transmission grew steadily, and on September 29th, 1920, The Joseph Horne store saw a very, very lucrative opportunity. Instead of letting techy amateurs construct their own sets, Horne stores could offer boxes with receivers only—a way of listening, not chatting. A way of soaking up Conrad's broadcast, without any of the fuss. Horne placed an ad in the Pittsburgh Sun, describing the following:

Air concert picked up by radio here. The music was from a Victrola in the home of Frank Conrad. Mr. Conrad is a wireless enthusiast and puts on these wireless concerts periodically for the entertainment of many people in this district who have wireless sets. Amateur wireless sets are on sale here $10 and up.

$10 was around $110 in today's cash—a little pricey to listen to one guy's record collection. But the idea of a box to receive wireless sound caught the attention of Conrad's boss at Westinghouse, who turned the tech into a melding of publicity stunt and civic service—a giant transmitter was erected atop Westinghouse HQ, allowing around 100 early adopters to listen eagerly to the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election results. Radio had proven itself. Within three years, over 500 other stations were operating around the country, and half a million radios had been moved off shelves. Ninety years later, you can't escape a passing car blasting Katy Perry on its radio. But we don't blame you for that, long-dead Joseph Horne Store (or Mr. Conrad). Thanks for the revolution.