Astoria man set out to do something nice for his wife, ended up inventing cable TV
The nearest TV station was in Seattle. But Ed Parsons figured out he could catch a very weak signal on top of a building in town. All he had to do was figure out how to boost the signal without boosting the noise as well, and ... the rest was history.
This photo of the John Jacob Astor Hotel in downtown Astoria shows
the building that was used for the first cable TV system, just after World
War II. (Image: Historic Preservation League of Oregon, www.
By Finn J.D. John — Sept. 19, 2011
Every term in the History of Telecom class I teach at Oregon State University, I always ask for a show of hands from students: “How many of you get your TV from an antenna?” I ask. “Not a satellite dish, an antenna. Rabbit ears, or a big thing on the roof.”
I usually see two or three hands, out of a class of 70 students. The fact is, broadcast TV is a ghost of its former self. Cable TV is how almost everyone gets his or her television these days. Cable TV — CATV, or “Community Antenna Television” — is a huge industry today.
And it all started, believe it or not, with a guy on a rooftop in Astoria, Oregon, pursuing the sweet and simple goal of doing something nice for his wife.
Here’s how it happened:
Television was great ... if you lived in Seattle
In the summer of 1946, Ed Parsons, owner of Radio Station KAST in Astoria, went to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Chicago with his wife, Grace. Grace — like millions of Americans — was enchanted by the demonstrations of television.
But, also like millions of Americans, Grace Parsons lived in a small city. There were only a handful of TV stations in the country, and they were all in big metropolitan areas — and the FCC had put a moratorium on new TV station licenses while they worked out some technical issues. It looked like Mrs. Parsons would have to wait years and years before she’d get her TV.
But Mrs. Parsons, unlike those other millions of Americans, was married to somebody who had the technical know-how to do something about it.
A year or two later, Grace Parsons was watching her TV. And the world would never be the same.
The breakthrough: Rebroadcasting
What Parsons figured out was that if he could bring in a really feeble signal from a faraway TV station, he might be able to pick it up, massage it, strengthen it and serve it up locally to televisions that would otherwise be far out of range.
When KRSC-TV (since renamed KING) started broadcasting in Seattle in late 1948, Parsons saw his opportunity to try this out, and in the process give his wife the TV she wanted. All he had to do was figure out a place in which signals from Seattle reached Astoria.
Parsons started building equipment and running experiments. He scouted all over the Astoria area. He started, of course, with the mountaintops and high places; there, he got nothing. Moving lower and looking around, he started picking up signals in odd places – the sides of hills, a small collection of blocks downtown, random places like that.
Hunting for a signal
Eventually he figured out that the signals came in like fingers, just a block or two wide and a few hundred feet high. The trick was to find one of these fingers that just happened to land on a place that was practical for an antenna. Every one he found was in some inconvenient place, where experimentation would be impossible.
Then he discovered that one finger pointed directly at a place he’d never thought to look: His apartment, located a few buildings away from the John Jacob Astor Hotel in downtown Astoria.
After that, the experimentation kicked into high gear. While Grace monitored the signal in the couple’s living room, Ed fiddled with equipment on the roof of the neighboring Astor Hotel; they talked back and forth on handheld radios. Finally the picture came in.
Success — and a new problem: Popularity
It’s not clear how long it took for them to realize their success had generated a new and unexpected problem. Suddenly Ed and Grace were the most popular couple in town. Dozens and dozens of friends packed into their home every time KRSC was on the air.
“Literally, we had no home,” Parsons told the Portland Oregonian.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, Parsons kicked everybody out of the house and resolved to figure out how to solve this new problem.
Ed had built signal-boosting devices to bring the weak signal from Seattle in clear enough to see. It was simple enough for him to make a bigger signal-boosting device, and split the signal onto coax lines leading to several other TV sets.
Thus was born the first CATV network on the West Coast, and possibly the first in the nation.
The FCC’s accidental guidance
Ironically, Parsons didn’t initially plan to use cables at all. His initial plan, after receiving the signals from Seattle, was to rebroadcast them on an unused UHF television frequency – you know, the frequencies on the “little knob” on old TV sets, numbered 14 through 83. If he’d done this, it’s hard to say what would have happened to his plan. It might have gone no farther than experimentation. After all, you can’t charge people to receive UHF signals, and you can’t sell ads on someone else’s rebroadcast programs. Without a means of collecting revenue to cover his expenses, Parsons would probably have had to abandon the whole thing.
So it was probably lucky that the Federal Communication Commission was taking a fairly dim view of the whole concept, pretty much from the start. And when Parsons came to them with hat in hand asking for permission to use a UHF channel, he was turned down flat. Parsons’ only alternative, then, was to send the signal out on coax cables strung from house to house.
(You may be thinking, why did Parsons ask them in the first place? Why not just go for it, and ask forgiveness later? The reason that couldn't have been a possibility is, Parsons owned a radio station. He had to stay on good terms with the FCC ... they had the power to yank his license at any time, for any reason.)
Ironically, the Federal Communications Commission’s response to Parsons’ project had a huge impact on its future influence over television broadcasting. This is why you can watch explicit sex scenes and learn new curse words on HBO and Showtime; they’re never broadcast over the air, so the FCC lacks jurisdiction to tell producers what they may show.
The FCC did try to assert regulatory authority over cable distribution at one point, but courts threw this idea out, noting that all CATV did was enable more than one person to share an antenna; it was really no different than having a second TV set in the kitchen hooked up to the same antenna as the one in the family room.
It must be noted that CATV was an idea whose time had come; there was tremendous demand for TV signals and many people were racking their brains trying to figure out how to bring them in. We know that at least one other inventor came up with the same idea at roughly the same time, out in Mahanoy City, Penn. We don’t actually know for sure who did it first.
But we do know that when Ed Parsons put that tower on top of the hotel, he was leading a movement that would utterly transform the world. And it happened right here in River City.
(Sources: Phillips, Mary A.M. CATV: A History of Community Antenna Television. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972; Long, James A. Oregon Firsts. North Plains: Pumpkin Ridge Productions, 1994; Portland Oregonian, Sept. 11, 1967)