Charles Herrold with sextant

Charles “Doc” Herrold

Charles “Doc” Herrold (1875-1948) began experimenting with electronics even before studying physics and astronomy. In 1898, he dropped out of Stanford to devote himself to invention, devising an illuminator for deep sea diving, a remote control for explosives, a high speed turbine, improvements for pipe organs and medical equipment, and innovations to wireless spark and arc transmission. His heart, however, was in radio.

In 1909, Herrold opened his College of Wireless and Engineering. From its rooms in the Garden City Bank Building in downtown San Jose, Herrold and students, many of them teens, pioneered uses for the new technology then called “wireless telegraphy,” or “radio telephony” – soon shortened to “radio.” Their first wireless voice signal, transmitted by a 15 watt spark transmitter, carried more than 20 miles, delighting a small but growing number of crystal set operators around the valley. Listening in on headphones, they were surprised to hear the human voice and music rather than just the dots and dashes of Morse code.

Charles Herrold and student Gene Wilson, at Herrold's School of Wireless, San Jose, ca 1910 (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)
Charles Herrold and student Gene Wilson, at Herrold’s School of Wireless, San Jose, ca 1910 (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

Herrold’s team was not the first to broadcast voice, music and news — ships of the Great White Fleet had entertained San Francisco Bay listeners with music in 1908 – but as delighted “ham” operators called in, Herrold began regularly scheduled programming in 1910 that included news and music. Moving from phonograph records to live entertainment, “San Jose Calling” (soon given the call name FN) broadcast local music groups and drama productions at the State College. In 1915, he created programming for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, heard at a special “Radio Booth.”

With tuition income from the school, and talented students providing manpower, Herrold improved the transmission quality. Concerned about the raspy sound of his spark transmitter, Herrold invented the Arc Fone, which reduced background noise by raising the frequency of oscillations, using an arc transmitter. However, the high frequency made the microphone too hot to handle, so he developed a water cooled microphone, patented in 1915.

Herrold's Mobile Radio Sound System, using Magnavox horn connected to an inside car radio. (Courtesy Stephen True, History San Jose)
Herrold’s Mobile Radio Sound System, using Magnavox horn connected to an inside car radio. (Courtesy Stephen True, History San Jose)

His FN radio station continued broadcasting until America intervened in the war in Europe in 1917, when the Army shut down all non-military wireless transmission. By the time the government returned stations to commercial use in 1919, Herrold’s technology was already out of date. A single frequency (of 360 meters) was mandated, which was incompatible with Herrold’s equipment. He developed new equipment, and his station was re-licensed in 1921 by the new Federal Communications Commission as KQW. Experiencing the bust as well as the boom of the radio craze, however, Herrold had to sell the station in 1925. The station continued as KQW until it was purchased by CBS in 1949, which changed it to KCBS (740 AM on the dial).