Pittsburgh’s NBC Red Network affiliate was a little louder and prouder in November 1937.
“Cloud-capped on many a day at the farthermost tip of its towering, slim 710 feet is the new vertical antenna which a month ago soared to completion over the trim Saxonburg, Pa., transmitter of station KDKA, its fiery night tip already a spectral sight to motorists and a friendly beacon to airplane pilots,” reported the Pittsburgh Bulletin-Index magazine.
The unidentified but flowery writer, apparently under the influence of 1930s Timespeak, added that “it took a crew of nine men but 72 hours to sling and bolt its five-foot spiderweb of welded, streamlined (to cut down wind pressure) steel sections into place.”
The new diamond-shaped radiator, which tapered to a base of only 18 inches, weighed 60 tons. Buried at the bottom of the tower were 50 miles of copper wire, radiating in a 700-foot circle to form a grounding system. Eight smaller antennae around the main tower were intended to cancel nighttime interference.
The system was designed by engineers working for KDKA’s parent, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. “By such dogged ruses of research, transmitting efficiency has been stepped up to a new record,” the Bulletin-Index said, “KDKA’s clear signal multiplied by ten.”
Since signing on in 1920, KDKA had received permission to raise its power several times, from its original 200 watts to 50 kW in 1927.
Along the way, it experimented with several types of antennae, including four wires strung horizontally from the chimneys at the Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh and several complicated diamond- and ring-shaped aerials from a site on Greensburg Pike in nearby Forest Hills. (The Forest Hills site, which KDKA used from 1927 to 1929, is now known as the Westinghouse Recreation Center.)
The station’s first permanent vertical tower was designed in 1929 by famed Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad, whose amateur radio station 8XK was the direct ancestor of KDKA.
But the tower was never satisfactory; at night, radio waves bouncing off of the atmosphere canceled the waves transmitted along the ground, resulting in bad interference problems for listeners just a few miles from Pittsburgh.
The new tower, designed by U.S. Steel’s subsidiary American Bridge Co., stood fast for more than 56 years, though KDKA moved it from Saxonburg to its present transmitter site near Allison Park two years later. If Westinghouse would have received permission, it even would have carried a 500 kW “superpower” signal, like WLW in Cincinnati was briefly allowed.
From there, the tower transmitted news of World War II, the Kennedy assassination and the moon landings, along with three Pirates World Series victories and the whimsies of Rege Cordic, “Uncle Ed” Shaughnessy, Jack Bogut and John Cigna.
In June 1994, “Group W” erected a new tower and demolished the old one. The steel was cut into slivers and encased in clear Lucite; the pieces were then distributed as a fundraiser for the Free Care Fund at Children’s Hospital during KDKA’s 75th anniversary the following year.