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Adventures in Research: A Radio Drama of Discovery

An advertisement for Westinghouse radio programs that mentions Adventures in Research, in the magazine Broadcast Advertising, April 17, 1944.

“Adventures in Research! This is Paul Shannon bringing you another transcribed story of science, produced as a public service, in cooperation with the Westinghouse Research Laboratories, and today telling you the story of…”

So begins Adventures in Research, a radio show broadcast from 1942 to the mid-1950s that brought listeners into the world of researchers and inventors on the brink of discovery. Broadcast by the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company (or, Group W) in partnership with Westinghouse Research Laboratories,  Adventures in Research featured dramatic reenactments of historic discoveries and inventions, complete with organ accompaniment and sound effects. At just under 15 minutes a piece, these short programs were narrated by radio host Paul Shannon and written by Westinghouse physicist Dr. Phillips Thomas, whose voice was also heard on the program for a number of years.

Adventures in Research began in 1942 at the KDKA station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company or Group W stations. Advertised as an educational “public service” program and designed for young people, Adventures in Research quickly garnered a large following in children and adults alike. It was soon heard all around the country, and by 1944 was even translated into Spanish and broadcast in South America, according to an issue of Broadcast Advertising. By January of 1952, the trade magazine Telecasting tells us that the program was broadcast on “243 commercial and educational stations, 64 AFRS [Armed Forces Radio Service] stations, and 78 member stations of the Inter-Collegiate Broadcasting System.” Teachers could also acquire the transcripts of the show for use in their classrooms.

Dr. Thomas at work. Bain News Service, Dr. Phillips Thomas, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, loc.gov/item/2014716828/.

The program’s original format involved listener-submitted questions, which Shannon would use to interview long-time Westinghouse physicist Phillips Thomas. In its earliest episodes, Thomas was not the only Westinghouse scientist to be interviewed: a short article in a 1942 issue of Broadcast Advertising tells us that the first program actually presented R.E. Peterson, manager of the Mechanics Division of [Westinghouse Research Laboratories], and that future programs would present Dr. E. Bruce Ashcraft, developer of the ‘Tom Thumb’ Tools, a Westinghouse lighting expert, and others. By 1943, according to another article from Broadcast Advertising, the Q&A format was more established. Shannon, Thomas, and his fellow Westinghouse scientists discussed a wide range of listener questions, from those that dealt with “prosaic household gadgets” to questions which delved deeply into the “maze of science.” Eventually, the program began to include anecdotes and dramatic reenactments written by Thomas and moved away from the Q&A format.

The Westinghouse Electric Corporation, founded in 1886 by George Westinghouse as the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, began to explore radio broadcasting technologies in the 1910s. As Joseph Baudino and John Kitross describe in their 1977 article about the first commercial radio stations, Westinghouse assistant chief engineer Dr. Frank Conrad received a special experimental license in 1916 for an amateur radio station in Pittsburgh—a station that was allowed to continue its experiments during World War I due to government contracts when most of the country’s amateur stations were forced to suspend their work. In October of 1919, as amateur broadcasting around the country resumed, Conrad began playing phonograph records and live music (sometimes provided by his sons) over the air on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. The following year, Westinghouse was issued a “Limited Commercial License” for a station with the call letters KDKA, and was on the air by election night—November 2nd, 1920—broadcasting music and news of the Harding-Cox presidential race. The Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, later also known as Group W, became the broadcasting arm of the Westinghouse Corporation, and later also moved beyond radio into television. KDKA was one of the first commercial radio stations in the country and remains in operation today.

[Radio pioneer Dr. Frank Conrad, half-length portrait, seated, facing front, holding radio tube] (1945), New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, loc.gov/pictures/item/2002719638/.

Broadcast from Westinghouse’s flagship Pittsburgh radio station, each episode of Adventures in Research tells the story of an important discovery or invention, and dramatizes the words and actions of those involved in the discovery. Early broadcasts featured science and inventions related to the participation of the US in World War II, with programs such as “Attack by Fire,” focusing on the bombs used in the war effort, “Machines that Talk,” describing communication devices developed for pilots and others in the armed forces, and “Instruments for Victory,” reporting on electronic devices used in the war.

In “Eyes and Ears for the Millions (Part 1),” hosts Shannon and Thomas discuss the history of radio broadcasting and take us back to election night in 1920 through a recreation of KDKA’s first broadcast of the Harding-Cox presidential election returns.

In “The Rain Wizard,” Shannon and Thomas introduce us to the science of climatology through stories of “rainmaking.” We hear about the travails of Nebraska farmers in drought as they hire a rainmaker, as well as the too-successful work of a rainmaker in San Diego who purportedly caused major flooding in 1915.

The Library holds over 200 16-inch vinyl discs of the program, episodes of which are available for listening in the Recorded Sound Research Center in the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress. A list of the episodes in our collections is available by contacting reference staff. A number of the episodes are also available online on through the Internet Archive and other sources.

Westinghouse is represented in the Library’s collections in both recorded sound and moving image materials. A number of films of Westinghouse factories created by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1904 are available in a digital collection on the Library’s website: Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904. These 21 films were named to the National Film Registry in 1998.

Adventures in Research is the kind of old time radio program that has something for everyone–science, history, entertainment, nostalgia–and is one of the many gems of the Library’s radio collections. As host Paul Shannon would say: “Join us again next week for another transcribed story of science… on Adventures in Research!”

 

For more information on the programs and on how to listen, contact the Recorded Sound Research Center.

Sources:

“Research in Industry.” Broadcasting: Broadcast Advertising. 22:3 (January 19, 1942), p. 41:
https://archive.org/stream/broadcasting22unse#page/n151

“‘Education’ Made Popular: KDKA Pet, ‘Adventures in Research,’ Wins Adult Interest for School Feature.” Broadcasting: Broadcast Advertising. 24:20 (May 17, 1943), p. 38: https://archive.org/stream/broadcasting24unse#page/n1203

“Milestones…” Broadcasting: Telecasting. 42:4 (January 28, 1952), p. 44: https://archive.org/stream/broadcastingtele42unse#page/n337

“In the Public Interest” (advertisement). Broadcasting: Broadcast Advertising. 26:16 (April 17, 1944) p. 19: https://archive.org/stream/broadcasting26unse#page/n1081

Baudino, Joseph E., and John M. Kittross. “Broadcasting’s Oldest Stations: An Examination of Four Claimants.” Journal of Broadcasting, 21:1 (1977), pp. 61-83.

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