Perham Collection Creator Profile: Charles and Sybil Herrold

Perham Collection Creator Profile: Charles and Sybil Herrold

View items related to Charles & Sybil Herrold and KQW in History San Jose’s Collection


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)

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)

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).

Sybil True

Sybil True (formerly Herrold), accomplished radio operator and wireless teacher, exemplified the ideal of the New Woman of the New Century. She met Charles Herrold while a student at nearby San Jose State Normal School (today’s San Jose State University), and they were married in 1913 (they later divorced, and Sybil remarried). While teaching Morse code at Herrold’s College of Wireless, she developed a weekly Wednesday night program of entertainment for his pre-World War I broadcasting experiments. Perhaps the first disc jockey in the United States, she created an important support network by highlighting phonograph records (and thus providing advertisement) for local music stores. Sybil dubbed the young audience of amateur operators her “little hams.” Her listeners would write and phone in requests to hear popular songs. Local music stores such as Sherman-Clay were eager to loan records, usually selling out the day after broadcast. The Wiley B. Allen Company, which sold Victrolas and sheet music, even entered into an agreement with Herrold’s College allowing them to operate a “listening studio” in the store to encourage public interest in radio technology.

Sybil also ran promotional contests and gave away weekly prizes. She recorded the prize winner’s receiver location, which in turn provided Herrold with feedback about the station’s broadcast range. An accomplished telegrapher, she also helped with wireless experimentation.

Sybil Herrold and son Robert “on the air,” 1914

Station KQW equipment

Some of the original equipment from Charles “Doc” Herrold’s first broadcasting station in San Jose is part of the Perham Collection of Early Electronics, including Herrold’s water-cooled microphone invention, in which water flowed through tubes at the back of the microphone in order to offset the heat created by the electric current.

In 1913, broadcast control room operators Ken Sanders and Emil Portal use Charles “Doc” Herrold’s invention, the water-cooled microphone, to transmit a broadcast from Herrold’s radio station atop the Garden City Bank Building in downtown San Jose. Charles Herrold looks on from the doorway as technician Frank Schmidt monitors equipment. The station was given the call letters FN, and would re-register after World War I as KQW. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

While the Perham Collection was housed at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, the original KQW broadcasting equipment was recreated to match the above photograph, using a combination of original and replica components. This display is still part of the collection, and has been shown in several exhibits, including San Jose Calling: Radio’s First 100 Years and The Wireless Age: Electronics Entrepreneurs Before Silicon Valley. The legend below identifies each piece in Herrold’s pioneering radio station.

The KQW broadcasting control equipment as displayed at History Park in 2015-2016 (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

This table contains two complete transmitters, likely operating on two different wavelengths.

(1) Ammeter
(2) Voltmeter
(3) Tuning Coil for Transmitter #1
(4) Tuning Coil for Transmitter #2
(5) Multiple-arcs for Transmitter #1
(6) Multiple-arcs for Transmitter #2
(7) Telegraph Key for Transmitter #2
(8) Variable Condenser for Transmitter #2 (Used for Power Adjustment)
(9) Water-Cooled Microphone
(10) Victrola
(11) Telegraph Key for Transmitter #1