Abstract: Regulating the Ether: The Bureau of Standard, Quartz Crystal, and the Growth of the Radio Frequency Measurement and Control Industry in 1920s America

Christopher S. McGahey


In 1922, radio broadcasting burst onto the American cultural landscape with a speed unprecedented in the nation's history. Manufacturers such as Western Electric and RCA rushed to produce the transmitters and receivers needed for the new industry's growth. Radio's meteoric rise to popularity seemed to be a triumph of free market capitalism, with industry rapidly meeting the tremendous demand for station transmitters and home receivers. Yet, one crucial aspect of the emerging technological system—quartz-based frequency measurement and control instrumentation—did not spring forth from the free market without prodding and assistance. This technology required a midwife, if you will, to provide market stimulus and aid in the translation of laboratory technology into commercially viable products. By using archival records of the Federal Radio Commission and the Bureau of Standards, as well as catalogs of the General Radio Company, this paper shows that the role of midwife here was played by the Radio Division of the U.S. Bureau of Standards, led by physicist J. Howard Dellinger. The Bureau's strategies for encouraging commercialization of frequency measurement and control technology are examined, as well as some possible reasons why the Bureau's intervention was necessary.