Original Document
Original Document
John Walson, On the Birth of Cable Television in Mahanoy City, PA, (Interview Date: Tuesday July 21, 1970)

JOHN WALSON: I started in the CATV business in June of 1948. My past experience with the Pennsylvania Power & Light Co. got me interested in this type of work. Because of my vast experience with the company I have quite a bit of knowledge about poles and electrical appliances.

Some of my work with the power company involved repairs to the electrical appliances and also running power lines to customers appliances and increasing the size from two-wire to three-wire services for people who modernized to electric ranges.

The town of Mahanoy had a population of about 10,000 people and it was mostly a coal mining area. In and around 1945-1955 the coal mines started depleting and new industries started developing in Mahanoy City. I was an employee of the power company for about 14 years prior to 1955, and had become interested in the appliance business when the Pennsylvania Power & Light Co. decided to get out of the appliance business which was part of my work, repairing their appliances. They were selling different appliances to build up the load for their company. When the power company had decided that it became a conflict of interest to sell appliances in competition with the dealers in the area, I had decided to take on the General Electric franchises as of February 1945. I bought a franchise from Lara Electric Co, of Williamsport and became very active in selling appliances. I became their A-No. 1 dealer and won many contests and trips throughout the time of being in the appliance business. I started selling TV sets about 1947, and it became very difficult to sell TV sets in a place like Mahanoy City because Mahanoy City is a community that is completely surrounded by mountains.

In 1947 television started from the Philadelphia channels. The only place that television sets could be sold by me in my appliance stores was in the mountainous areas at the top of the mountains. There were several communities built on top of mountains such as Frackville, Pennsylvania; Volcan, Pennsylvania; Hazelton, Pennsylvania; which were complete cities on top of mountains. As a matter of fact Hazelton was the highest city in the state of Pennsylvania. I decided to sell TV sets and it became very difficult to sell those sets without being able to demonstrate.

People used to come in and ask for TV sets. At that time, those TV sets were 14 1/2" screens and they were very heavy. The TV sets that were brought out at the time were just experimental and they were very clumsy to carry. The only way that I could demonstrate those TV sets was to build a tower site on top of a mountain, and put a building up there. I would, from time to time, have people come into my store, and they would see the set that they would like to purchase and they would ask to have it demonstrated, and I would drive those people to the top of this mountaintop and demonstrate the TV set and make sure the TV set was working. If the customer was satisfied, they would pay anywhere from $450 to $575 for a TV set which was a 12 1/2" black & white. They didn't want to invest this kind of money unless they could have the set demonstrated.

… One of the things that I did at the time was to demonstrate the set up there and bring the set back, and deliver it to the customer. The customer felt satisfied first because the TV set worked and secondly because they saw a picture on the TV set. In order to increase my business, I was always looking to try to sell more TV sets, but the demand got smaller and smaller because the only place that you could sell them was on the mountaintop.

I wanted to increase the sale of those sets, so I decided one day that instead of demonstrating the TV sets on top of the mountain, I would actually bring a cable down. This cable was an Army surplus, heavy duty twin lead cable that was purchased at Reliance Merchandising which was a surplus house in Philadelphia. It was on Arch Street, the upper part of Arch Street. The reason that I don't have receipts on this was that back in 1952 I had a fire at my warehouse and all of those old records were destroyed all the way up to 1950.

In June of 1948 I went to Philadelphia and bought some twin-lead cable from Reliance Merchandising, and this twin-lead cable was run from the top of the mountain from an ordinary antenna and amplified every 500' with a top-of-the set booster made by ElectroVoice which is a broadband amplifier. They are the same people that manufacture speakers and microphones today. The boosters were bought and they were just small top-of-the-set boosters with a relay in there so that when you turned the set on, this would automatically pre-amplify the signal going into the TV set. What I have done with this booster, I have modified it and disconnected the relay completely and cut the booster through, and amplified the signal every 500' with the heavy-duty twin lead cable. The amplifier only had about 6 Db of gain. It amplified 12 channels at a time, but there were only three channels available. I essentially, in June 1948 had a broadband twin-lead system just as they have today, 12 channels which are modern. The system was only carrying three channels, not because it wasn't capable of carrying 12 channels but because there were only three channels available. Those three channels were 3, 6, and 10 out of Philadelphia.

I later developed the technique of building a five adjacent channel system and I had a fellow by the name of Luther Holt develop an amplifier which would develop on the low band part of the system, a commercial amplifier. That was about 1949, and that was a five adjacent channel system. The adjacent channel system was thought to not be able to work at the time. Engineers had explained that it wouldn't be possible to work because of the adjacent channels found interfering with the picture. My thought was to put a trap in the adjacent channel sound to lower the sound down by about 10-15 dB. You load a picture-carrier, therefore the sound would not interfere with the adjacent channel picture. Therefore they made a successful adjacent channel system work back in 1949.This system was originally a five-channel system in '49.

Later on I experimented with an expanded low-band system which included the FM band up to 108 megacycles. I inserted two channels in the FM band. The only people who could receive these extra two channels, equaling seven channels at the time, in 1949, were people who had a Crosley Tuner.

A Crosley Tuner was a continuous tuner which would tune in all channels, even in the FM band. What I did to improve my business was to increase my channels by two by putting two channels in the FM band. The only people who could receive the extra two channels were people who had a Crosley Tuner, so therefore it was very impractical and later on the Crosley people discontinued the continuous tuner and went into a click tuner so it made the systems inadvisable to use because some people could receive it and some people couldn't.

This later started me developing the concept of 12 channels. I later developed the concept of 12 channels and 12 channels were able to be developed, but the coaxial cable for long-distance runs wasn't practical because it was just an archetype of a cable with shielded cable which was not quite 100% moisture-proof and the VSWR of this cable wasn't quite good enough to cascade 12 channels for any distance. The temperatures would affect this cable very rapidly and you would have a condition between up and down of signal, that wouldn't be stable. Therefore a 12 channel system with the old type coaxial cable wasn't as efficient as the modern cables that are used today, which are aluminum cables.

When aluminum cables came out, all of my systems were changed to 12 channels and they were successfully changed to a transistorized amplifier. Then systems are presently carrying 12 channels as television TV channels plus 45 FM channels including stereo.

MARY ALICE MAYER: When you mentioned about the sheathed cable, was it true that with the twin-lead, the quality of the picture actually varied with the weather, so that when it rained you didn't have good pictures and it wasn't a reliable system?

WALSON: That was when I first started in 1948. I started with the twin-lead cable, and what would happen with the twin-lead cable was that whenever it rained you'd get a different VSWR and you would have a condition where your impedance would change and you would have a condition where you'd get snowy pictures. So it wasn't very practical and the phone would almost ring off the hook. At that time I had 725 to 727 customers connected to this twin-lead cable. We would have 725 calls at that time. That started me to think about running it into a coaxial cable which I studied about back in 1933.

I was going to electrical school in Chicago. I took up electronics at that time and they had cables at that time. I worked at different kinds of RF equipment at the time. My education was mostly RF and super-heterodyne radios had first come out and I got the fundamental principles of electronics at the time. I've got a book called Radio Physics and I learned the properties of different cables. I decided to use an RGA cable and an RGA-59 cable which is a 52 ohm cable which is not the same thing that is presently used. The present cables are 72 ohm cable. The mismatch was so insignificant that I was able to get away with a 52 ohm cable, and this solved the problem of losing pictures on a rainy day. …

MAYER: Could you tell us about the antenna that you described for the importation of New York signals?

WALSON: Originally, in 1950, in order to fill in the complement of five channels, I decided to bring in New York channels, and those New York channels were very difficult to get because they were 150 air miles away from Mahanoy City and I was only receiving the very snowy picture with one antenna. I decided that to be able to improve this picture I would increase the capture area by stacking antennas, that I could improve the reception and improve the fading ability of the TV signals. By stacking as high as 32 antennas for one channel, I stacked for channel 11 and channel 9 out of New York, I was able to bring in these New York channels with a viewable picture and had eliminated most of the snow. It made the system more successful because I had a competitor in and around that time, 1950, and I had to do something to try to get the subscribers over and above what the competitor was getting.

The competitor was the chief of police, A.P. McGlauglin of Mahanoy City, and I was competing with him for subscribers so in order to get the subscribers ahead of him, I devised this five adjacent channel system. The five adjacent channel system was developed and I had room to put two extra channels on it –channels 9 and 11 out of New York. Channel 11 was converted to Channel 5 and Channel 9 was converted to Channel 2.

In the early days, until about 1951 or '52, I only had five channels, but that was two channels more than the competitor had. So, I actually got about two thirds of the subscribers in Mahanoy City which was about 2,100 subscribers. My competitor ended up with 825 subscribers. Due to the fact that I was a step ahead of him, I was able to get the subscribers, even though the systems... The chief of police was a well known and well respected man but technology was the thing that got subscribers.

The next thing that happened after that was the development into 12 channel systems. That was later developed, and transistorized amplifiers in place of tube amplifiers made a substantial contribution. Jerrold Electronics which built the system for City Television in 1950, only had a three channel system. They didn't develop their five channel system until 1952 or '53 if I can recollect. They had what they called a K+W system. It wasn't the way that our system worked, it wasn't an adjacent channel in the same manner, and the trouble with this system was that there were beats...03 and 05 would interfere with 3 and 5 which would give a bar on the picture, so therefore I had a superior reception and was able to continue to get more subscribers.

MAYER: Was the reception reliable?

WALSON: The reception was reliable because it was going through coaxial cable and the distance from the tower site to Mahanoy City was only the distance of about one mile.

MAYER: Did the press cover your importation of the New York signal and the story of the crowds?

WALSON: Actually the press did not cover too much about this because the press figured that coaxial cable or cable TV would be competitive to their reading of newspapers. They felt that cable TV would put the newspapers out of business, so they didn't carry many reports.

Later on, in about 1955 or '56 we convinced them to start listening to shows. Originally they didn't even listen to TV shows or anything like that because they felt that this was a new competitor into the field of news media.

One of the things that got me interested in going into cable TV in a large way, was the crowd that gathered in front of my store when I brought the three channels down on an experimental basis in 1948. When I first put those three channels on, the street was completely blocked with viewers, people watching the pictures in the window. The television sets were displayed in the window, and the three channels with speakers outside allowed people to listen to one channel at a time. They were able to listen and they always...the old people stood right in front of the store, and they used to stay there until 12 o'clock, until the stations went off the air. They used to watch these television channels for about five or six years. This was advertising to get new subscribers on the cable and for people to buy TV sets. It became very interesting, and I felt that I would devote all of my time to CATV and discontinue the sale of appliances around 1955 and decided to go in completely with CATV.

Credit: Oral history interview with Cable Television Pioneer John Walson; interviewed by Mary Alice Mayer,  Interview Date: Tuesday July 21, 1970. The Cable Center, Barco Library,
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