Interview Date: Friday August 14, 1992
Interview Location: University Park, PA
Interviewer: E. Stratford Smith
Collection: Penn State Collection
Note: Audio Only
SMITH: This is August 14, 1992. My name is E. Stratford Smith. We are about to record an oral history interview with George F. Gardner, a pioneer cable television operator in the state of Pennsylvania and other places. Mr. Gardner’s second wife, Elizabeth, will be present during a portion of the interview.
We are in the conference/seminar room of The National Cable Television Center and Museum at The Pennsylvania State University. This interview is part of a series of oral history interviews being conducted under the auspices of the Center. The interviews are with early pioneers in the industry and current leaders. The objective is to record, as accurately as possible, through the memories of pioneers and of the day-to-day experiences of current leaders, a definitive history of the evolution of the cable television industry.
George, with that speech it’s going to be your turn. I’m going to ask you if you would give us some of the vital statistic information in your background–when and where you were born.
GARDNER: Well, let’s start with when I was born. It was June 16, 1924, in Alexandria, Pennsylvania, which is possibly twenty-five or thirty miles southwest of State College. After a couple of years my parents moved to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. It’s probably sixty miles west of State College near Altoona. I graduated from high school there in 1941.
SMITH: Before you get too far into that, I’d like to ask you to give us a little background on your parents. Where they came from, their ethnic background … just a little bit to fill out your family background.
GARDNER: My parents came from Huntingdon County. My mother’s name was Viola Snively before she was married in 1921 to my father. She was of Swiss-English ethnic background. My father’s ancestors, as near as I can find out, were from Clearfield County originally and beyond Clearfield County I can’t trace the Gardner family. His mother was named Ida Wilson and she was definitely Scotch-Irish. The Gardner, we can’t really figure out what nationality it was.
SMITH: What did your father do for a living to support his family?
GARDNER: He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which almost everyone in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, did. He worked with them from the time he was sixteen. He falsified his age as being seventeen or eighteen, if I recall, and managed to start working in Alexandria in the railroad station. From there, he went on and when he finally retired he was the station manager at Lewistown, Pennsylvania.
SMITH: That’s near State College . . . Lewistown.
GARDNER: Lewistown’s just south of State College about thirty miles.
SMITH: And Alexandria is just over the mountain from here, isn’t it?
GARDNER: Yes. I was from central Pennsylvania.
SMITH: Did you have any brothers and sisters?
GARDNER: I have one sister. She’s still alive and she lives in Altoona. Her name is Norma Wyerman.
SMITH: I interrupted you when you started to talk about your early education. Can I take you back to that now … your boyhood education and interests?
GARDNER: Well, my education was entirely in Hollidaysburg up through graduation from high school. I went to a grade school called the Gaysport Elementary School because I lived in a little suburb of Hollidaysburg called Gaysport which was the end of the Pennsylvania Canal.
The canal came from Harrisburg to Gaysport and there they loaded the canal boats onto flatcars and hauled them over the Allegheny Mountains. That had ceased long before I was a resident there but the remains of it were still there and the town was still called Gaysport.
SMITH: That’s sort of a railroad portage to haul boats from one canal to another?
GARDNER: Yes. They had a canal system that began again on the west side of the Alleghenies at Portage and they hauled the canal boats by a rail system. They had a donkey engine at the top of the mountain and a cable and the car was on the end of the cable. I’d say it was about six miles. They would load the boat onto the rail car and then drain the water out of the lock and haul the rail car up to the top of the mountain with this engine. Then they would let it down the other side and put it back in the water again on the west side of the Alleghenies.
That was a project that was sponsored by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, funded by it. It was the sort of project that should have been funded by private capital. The state decided they needed a transportation system but private capital came along when the railroad engine was invented and put the railroads in and that put the canal system out of business. If I recall, it was in business for thirty or forty years, effectively. Went from about the early 19th century to about 1890 and then the canal system was bought out by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
SMITH: If they had to do that today, they’d tunnel through the mountain, wouldn’t they?
GARDNER: There was some thought of that, yes, but the Allegheny Mountains apparently were such hard rock that they decided to go over it instead of under it.
SMITH: You mentioned that the name of one end of the railroad was Portage. That name was probably taken from the term that they apply when they take a boat out of the water and carry it over the hill and put it in the river on the other side or around the falls. Is that portage?
GARDNER: Yes, that’s what it was. That was the reason for it. And it was called the Portage Railroad, if I recall. There may have been a little bit more of a name to it but I believe Portage Railroad was the name that they used. The Portage Railroad was largely the same roadbed as what the Pennsylvania Railroad is now in the Hollidaysburg-Duncansville-Portage area.
SMITH: You mentioned that the name of the town on the other end from Portage was Gaysport. Am I correct?
GARDNER: Yes. Gaysport was the area in the Hollidaysburg area where I lived. That was the terminus of the canal that came from Harrisburg. Hollidaysburg was a town that was right adjacent to it but they were two separate towns at one time. One was Gaysport and that was considered the place where the working people were. Hollidaysburg was the place where the business class and upper class people lived. So I normally was referred to as coming from the wrong side of the tracks when I was a kid.
SMITH: Didn’t take you long to get over on the other side, did it?
GARDNER: As fast as I could.
SMITH: The whole reason for my inquiring about Gaysport was to ask you how to spell it for the record.
SMITH: When you were in school at Hollidaysburg High School, were you active in any sports?
GARDNER: I wasn’t much of a sports person and still am not. I was more in the music end of it. I played the clarinet and was in the high school band and high school orchestra, that type of thing.
At that time they had competitions between the high schools where they would draw the musicians together and have a district band and a district orchestra and a district chorus. I didn’t participate in the chorus. But from those district groups they would draw people to have a state-wide band and an orchestra. So there were districts that you could compete in to get to state meetings. Usually they happened for two or three days at a time. If you were selected to participate in the district from your local high school, there were several days of practice and then concerts. From that you were selected to go to the state meeting for several days where you practiced the music and then put on a concert. I was fortunate. I was always interested in the district bands and orchestras and the state bands and orchestras when I was in high school.
SMITH: Did your groups win any awards for being the best in the state or in the county?
GARDNER: Normally it was an individual type of competition. The high school took the musicians that they felt were worthy of competing. If you competed successfully at the high school level, then that teacher or musician, whoever was in charge of it, would put your name in as being in the district competition. If you competed there you could then proceed to the state competition. The state competition was sort of the end of it. Everyone just was there as being an example of the musicians from all over the state that were brought together as being the best example from those high schools.
SMITH: Well, how did you fare in the individual competitions? You knew I was going to ask you.
GARDNER: I managed to go to the district bands and orchestras on a regular basis. Probably the last three years I was in high school I was at the state level band and orchestra. Within that you would have a competition–like I was a clarinetist–to see where you placed in the group. You could place anywhere from last to first, obviously. They rated your talent and your preparation. At the state level I could usually place second or third. If I ever placed first, I don’t recall. There was a lot of heavy talent there.
SMITH: Didn’t know you were a potential Benny Goodman.
GARDNER: Well, to carry that theme on, I played in the Penn State Blue Band when I attended Penn State.
SMITH: Oh, did you. Don’t hesitate to volunteer. I’m just supposed to needle you into talking.
GARDNER: Well, let’s mention that. As I told you, I wasn’t must of an athlete and the Blue Band did a double time step when they were out on the field. So when I transferred to the campus here I went over to Hummy Fishburn and asked him if he was interested in a clarinet player that didn’t like to go out for the marching band. And he said, “Well, not very much. I’d rather have you come out for the marching band.” I said, “Okay, forget it then.” But he said, “I’ll keep you in mind and we’ll probably have some tryouts for our concert band.” So I did get a call and I tried out for the concert band. I was in the concert band when I was here at Penn State not the marching band.
It was an interesting experience. The concert band was much smaller. At that time I seem to recall there were no women allowed in the marching band but there were a few women allowed in the concert band.
SMITH: Made it more fun.
GARDNER: Well, I guess it did. But women were not allowed in the marching band at all. I do play the piano, also.
SMITH: Have you ever done professional work as a musician?
GARDNER: Not really. When I was a kid we would put bands together. You could make a little bit of money that way. I played the piano in the dance bands. I’ve never been good on the clarinet in popular music. It was all classical or band music–I really liked that. I could play popular music when I was younger. I have a hard time playing any type of music but popular music is just not something I play anymore with either instrument. And to some extent I have let the clarinet go. I can still play it but I don’t play with any groups. Elizabeth has motivated me to get back into piano playing a little bit. So I play that for her.
SMITH: All right, following your graduation from high school, what was the next step in your education?
GARDNER: The next step was I matriculated at the Altoona Undergraduate Center of Penn State in the fall semester of 1941. I had graduated from Hollidaysburg High in the spring of 1941. I matriculated in mechanical engineering and went for two years until May of 1943 … let’s back up here a little bit, that’s not right. In the fall of 1942 I came down to the main campus. I went one year at the Altoona Undergraduate Center and then came to the main campus in the fall of 1942 as a mechanical engineering student.
In December of 1942 the draft required everyone to register, if I recall. The college had set up a program where you could register and be deferred from the draft for one semester. I registered and volunteered to go in the service in May of 1943. That allowed me to finish the spring semester at State College. Then I went into the service at some date in May of 1943.
SMITH: What branch of the service, George?
GARDNER: Well, I was put into an infantry training group at Camp Wheeler, Georgia. My induction was at Fort Meade, Maryland. I went through the induction and then was sent to Camp Wheeler, Georgia. That was an infantry basic training camp. When I finished that they sent me to Collegeville, Georgia, for an interview and testing for their Army Specialized Training Program. Following that they sent me to the University of Pennsylvania. That would have been sometime in the fall of 1943.
At the University of Pennsylvania they put me into an electronics training course. It wasn’t an electrical engineering course; it was an electronics training course. I trained there for probably six months and at the end of that time they sent me to Manhattan College which is at 242nd Street and Broadway in New York City. It was in the Bronx. It was a Jesuit school. For about three months there they gave me some advanced electronics training.
At the end of that time I went to an embarkation center. I believe it was at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. They were putting a group together to go overseas. It was, again, an infantry training group. I trained with this group–the 272nd Infantry Regiment of the 69th Infantry Division. I think that’s correct. I trained with them for about another three or four months. Went through an advanced basic training. And then they examined us all to go overseas and said that I wasn’t eligible to go overseas because the correction in my eyeglasses was over what they would allow for overseas duty. So they shuttled me off into some sort of a headquarters group there for reassignment while the rest of the group went overseas.
The 69th Infantry Division was put into Germany. In fact, the people that I talked with when they came back said that they were the ones that went through Germany and met the Russians in Poland. They reached a point that was about thirty miles beyond where Eisenhower and Stalin had decided that they were supposed to go and they then had to backtrack about thirty miles and let the Russians take over the territory that the Russians were supposed to have and the Americans had taken by mistake. I have largely lost track of them. The few people I had kept track of from the 69th have died and I have no contact with it anymore at all.
After that group went overseas, I was put into a military police battalion–the 801st Military Police Battalion–which was attached to the 4th Corps. It was headquartered in Atlanta. This was a zone of the Interior Military Police Battalion. They were charged with maintaining order in the United States, east of the Mississippi River. They were headquartered in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, which is outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
The first assignment that I had was to activate an area for communications where people were being brought in for processing. Of course, having a background but no practical experience, it was a steep learning curve. The first thing I learned was that the EE-8 telephone, which was a standard battery-operated telephone that the Army used at that time, had batteries in it and if the batteries weren’t any good, you couldn’t talk on it. So my job became to replace the batteries in all the telephones that were located around in all the buildings. They were crank telephones. You cranked it and it rang at the other end. You picked it up and if there were batteries in it you could talk to somebody. It was a very simple telephone system.
SMITH: You gave a model number. Was that EE-8?
GARDNER: Yes, EE-8. I don’t know what that stood for but I remember the EE-8 telephone system.
From that I became the resident expert on anything that was connected with electronics, electricity or anything else . . . We had a lieutenant colonel who was in charge of the group and he had a couple of lieutenants and a captain and not much else. He would ask me if I knew anything about it and I’d say, “No,” and he’d say, “Well, go find out something about it.”
We gradually started accumulating people. The military had a habit with people that were released from military hospitals after they had recovered from service-connected injuries, to assign them for further duty to a center like we had there. Largely, we were given people that came out of the North Africa Campaign–fliers that were shot down and people that had been shot up in the mechanized warfare that went on in North Africa. They were still able to function but they weren’t able to be combatant anymore. So we had a lot of high-ranking people, mostly noncommissioned officers that had either five or six stripes. They were accumulated from the Air Force and the tank divisions, and a lot of people like myself that just couldn’t pass the rigorous requirements to go overseas–mostly in eyes. There were a lot of people there that had one eye. How they were brought into the service originally, I don’t know. But they had one eye and they hadn’t been in combat or they had been in combat and had one eye or had limbs that were intact but not quite capable of normal use. A lot of people that had shrapnel in their heads, in their legs, and things like that. At that time they left the shrapnel in instead of trying to operate and take it out. Apparently it was in locations that made it difficult to take it out. So we wound up with those people.
It was a very nice group except that they were a lot of old soldiers and I was a draftee more or less even though I had volunteered.
SMITH: How old were you at that time?
GARDNER: Oh, probably nineteen. So in order to make this group function as a zone of the Interior Military Police, they needed a communications department. I managed to get in that and set up the radio end of it–operated the radio end of it.
We had missions at times like when . . . Montgomery Ward, I think, was run by a fellow named Sewell Avery who decided that he didn’t want to make military clothes. The military wanted him to make military clothes so we sent a detachment up to Chicago where his office was. I can remember the picture. They picked Sewell Avery up in his chair, carried him out of the building and set him on the sidewalk. It was a couple of our guys that set him on the sidewalk. Of course, that picture hit the national newspapers. You might remember seeing it.
SMITH: I personally remember it and I can still visualize the picture of his being carried out. I did not know, however, that the issue was that he didn’t want to make military clothing. I knew, vaguely, that there was something he wouldn’t do but I didn’t know that was it.
GARDNER: Well, that’s what was told to us. We didn’t know much about it except that there was this guy out there that the Army had a fight with and we had to go up and take him out of the building. So we took him out of the building and, of course, occupied the thing until they decided how they were going to do it. We were there for some period of time. I was not there. My role was to maintain communications with our group that went out.
Being a sort of second-rate outfit, we weren’t given good equipment. We were given what was obsolete and not usable in the military overseas. It was sort of antiquated. It would work but with difficulty. I wouldn’t say that it was badly used. A lot of it was brand new but it was not of a technology that was capable of doing what they wanted us to do. So we were able to maintain communications with these groups that we sent into the field.
At one time I recall we had to send a group to Florida. There were crops in the field and they didn’t have enough people to harvest. So our people went down there and harvested the crops. It didn’t seem to have much to do with what our responsibilities were but that’s what we did. Of course, we had to maintain communications with them that was separate from the land facilities supplied by the telephone company because that was reserved for more high-priority communications. At times when our communications wouldn’t operate correctly, we did use some land lines. My job was to train people and to maintain the contact.
As the war went on, Henry Kaiser built a thing called a liberty ship that was made out of concrete. He built them out in California or some place on the West Coast. They would cast them out of concrete and put them in the water and outfit them. He was launching these liberty ships at the rate of one every eight days because they had had such heavy losses in shipping, and they had to have replacements. They were made into troop transports run by the Army Transportation Corps. The Army Transportation Corps actually was an ocean-going shipping company.
Since it was part of the Army, the Army had to staff the people on the ships. They didn’t have enough radio operators, so they asked us if we could set up to train radio operators for these liberty ships. I was given the job to set up the school. We set up the school and taught these people how to operate the radios that were on the ships. We were given radios and manuals and whatever equipment we needed to do it. They were all operated by Morse code.
We set up a thirteen-week training course. There was a lieutenant who was in charge of our communications. He had been a tank commander in North Africa and knew a little bit about radio. He was in charge of the school. Generally, it wound up that I had had a lot more schooling than he had on the subject. We would write the stuff and he would put his name on it. We set up a thirteen-week course to begin with and by the end of thirteen weeks I could graduate a person that could transmit and receive Morse code. Usually they could get up to a speed of fifteen to eighteen words a minute. It was amazing. That was a rigorous course. We even had a couple that could learn to work a typewriter with it. I couldn’t type but the fellows that came in to us that had been clerks or something like that and had typewriter experience could use the typewriter and get much faster. I can remember one fellow got up to about thirty-five words a minute. He could receive thirty-five words a minute. We had people that could transmit with a Morse code key at thirty-five words a minute but they might only be able to receive at five or ten words a minute. There’s a lot of difference between transmitting and receiving. But he could actually receive reasonably accurate copy at thirty-five words a minute. Most people wrote it out longhand.
Of course we had to encrypt the messages. We had encrypters–I have forgotten what the model number was. A big nuisance. You had to encrypt any message and then send it. It came back in groups of five letters which made it a little difficult for anyone that wanted to transmit normal code. They had to transmit groups of five letters and then receive it. When you receive groups of five letters they almost have to be completely and 100 percent receivable. You can’t just get a couple letters and then write the word out. So that made for a lot of grief.
But we managed to teach them the Morse code and how to turn the transmitter on, how to turn it off, how to make minor adjustments in it, and hope that there would be somebody else along on the ship that could maintain the transmitter.
The demand for radio operators became so great that the course had to be cut down. It was eleven weeks first and then I cut it to eight. I believe I cut it to about five or six weeks finally. I couldn’t cut it below that. At five or six weeks I was graduating … I was letting people leave the school who could receive Morse code at about five words a minute, transmit maybe a little faster than that, and really shouldn’t have been called radio operators–but they were. In fact, I got correspondence back from people from all over the Pacific because that’s where most of the ships were–they were in the Pacific–and the general gist was “I wish I would have paid more attention” or “I wish I would have been able to learn more.” But they actually were able to go out as radio operators and I guess learned from there.
It was an interesting occupation. I spent at least a year and a half doing that. The radio school occupied more of my time than anything else. We still had to maintain the units in the field. It was, all around, a very interesting experience–from 1943 to 1946. Because the military discharged people based on a system called “Points” and you didn’t get very many points for being on this side of the water, everyone that came back had far more points that I did and it took me awhile to accumulate enough points to be discharged. I finally was discharged at Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1946 and immediately came back to Pennsylvania and tried to get back into Penn State.
My folks had moved to Lewistown during the war. My dad had been transferred from the Hollidaysburg area first to the Clearfield area and then finally to the Lewistown area. I reapplied at State College and I guess it was in the fall of 1946 before I could start again. That’s a little unclear. Maybe it was the spring semester of 1947. In any event, when I came back I had had two years at Penn State in mechanical engineering. Because of my experience during the war in electronics, I found I was much more interested in electronics by that time than mechanical engineering so I switched my curriculum to electrical engineering and graduated in January 1949 as an electrical engineer.
SMITH: When you were discharged from the service, what rank or rate did you have?
GARDNER: I was a technician fourth class. That’s three stripes and a “T” under it. I’ve forgotten exactly what they called the job that I held but it was a five stripe . . . technical sergeant. Because we were so overstaffed with people from the Air Force, mainly, who had been brought into the group, they would not permit me to have the grade. So I was paid as a technician fourth class. It was decent pay. I didn’t really care about the rating.
I had people that were under me that outranked me almost all the time. I had two people directly under me. One who was the wire chief and one who was the radio chief because at that time we still strung a lot of telephone wire. The wire chief was a master sergeant–he had six stripes. The radio chief was an Air Force radio operator and had four stripes–he had one rocker underneath his three stripes. I remember his name, particularly. His name was Bill Williams. That’s an easy one to remember–William Williams.
So I was outranked all the time but they were very gracious. They allowed me to run the operation. They didn’t have the formal training. That’s how I managed to stay in charge even though I was only nineteen or twenty years old and all of them outranked me in grade or in age. I had the technical training. I had the Army’s Specialized Training Program’s electronic training and it was very useful. It helped me understand most everything that we needed to do. The only thing that I didn’t have any training in was the Morse code.
The 801st group had a little military-style building that had the communications equipment in it. What wasn’t there we requisitioned and put in there. It had positions for training people on Morse code. We had a perforated tape player about that was a couple feet wide and a foot high and a foot deep. It had a perforated tape that you would run on it and the Morse code was punched into that tape. There was a loudspeaker that you could use or, if you wanted it individually, you could run individual machines. You had a headphone set up so that you could put people at individual tables with a headset and run the tape just for them. When you first started a group you would run one machine through the loudspeaker because everybody was starting from ground zero. But after they started to progress, each person would be allowed to progress at his own speed. I probably had half a dozen tape players and I could set up tapes for each individual according to his level of skill and run them at different speeds.
The first thing I had to do was teach myself the Morse code which, as I say, I didn’t know anything about. So I taught myself the Morse code using the machines and had other people start to learn with me. As a result of it I joined the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which I think still is in existence, as an amateur radio operator. They call themselves “ham” radio operators. The FCC gave the test and to get the rating you had to accurately receive thirteen words a minute of Morse code. I passed that test–I don’t recall when–and got my license as a ham radio operator. I held that for a number of years and because I didn’t use it, I finally let it drop in probably the early 1960s.
End of Tape 1, Side A
SMITH: This is Side B of Tape 1 of the oral history interview with George Gardner. George, I think when we broke for lunch we had gotten you through your military career and back to Penn State. I believe you had advised us that you changed from mechanical engineering to electrical engineering and you graduated when?
GARDNER: I graduated in January of 1949. Before I graduated, though, I married my first wife Marian Shoemaker on February 1, 1948. Our first child was born December 21, 1948–David Gardner. Following that I graduated in January of 1949.
SMITH: Was your wife also a student at Penn State?
GARDNER: No, she was a graduate of Hollidaysburg High School a few years later than I graduated. I believe she graduated in 1944 and then went to the Altoona School of Commerce, which was a business school and was working in the Altoona area prior to our marriage.
GARDNER: Well, I met Marian, my first wife, when we were in school in Hollidaysburg High. I was probably a senior and I think she was probably in about ninth grade. Some friends of mine took me over to her home one day to play cards. I don’t remember what kind of cards–it was probably pinochle. I think they taught me how to play it. Marian was there. I was playing with her older brothers who were in the same class as I was. She was there every time I would go over to play pinochle. Somehow or other I guess we got together. I can remember when I came down to State College in the fall of ’42, she wrote me about something that I had asked her about and that started a correspondence. Whether it was a steady correspondence, I don’t remember. But I do remember she wrote to me. Of course my family was in Hollidaysburg–that’s where she lived–and I saw her frequently. After the war we carried on our relationship and finally got married in February of 1948.
My first son David was born in December of 1948. My daughter Mary Anne was born in Lewistown in January of 1952. My son Michael was born in Lewistown in November of 1954. And my fourth child Nancy was born in Lewistown in August of 1955. The first ones you can remember fairly easily and the younger ones you have more difficulty with. My fifth child was Jennifer and she was born in May of 1966 in Carlisle. My sixth child was Jon who recently graduated from Penn State and he was born in 1968. I believe his birthday is in November, also.
SMITH: Jon did volunteer work at the Cable Television Center while he was at Penn State.
GARDNER: Yes. He told me one of the projects he worked on was the Duplomat switcher that we had donated. I’m not sure it was in operating condition but he said that he got it in operating condition. How much work there was to it, I don’t know. It was still in fairly intact condition when we donated it but it had been a number of years since it had operated. They tell me now it does operate.
SMITH: Well, it was operating when I came here and that was three years ago.
GARDNER: Well, Jon has managed to put himself through not only a course in business administration here at Penn State but also through the National Cable Television Institute series for cable technicians. He’s completed all of their courses for technicians. I think he holds an advanced technician’s certificate.
SMITH: And is he in the cable industry now?
GARDNER: No, he’s not in the cable industry. I think he’s between jobs right now but when he graduated from Penn State he did work for a group called Panamac in San Rafael, California, in sort of a related field. They made instruments to protect computers and other electronic equipment from the surges in the power lines. He worked as their customer service manager. He did do cable system design work for me during his summer vacations from Penn State.
SMITH: Are any of your children in the cable business? Of course we don’t have you in it yet.
GARDNER: Well, let’s get the children in it. My oldest son David is a cable pioneer. He qualified probably fifteen years ago. He had started working summers for me in Carlisle working on the line crews that were putting cables up. He worked summers until he graduated from the University of Miami in 1972 and then came to work with me and has been with me ever since.
My oldest daughter, my second child, Mary Anne Adams, has been working with me but in ventures other than cable that I have been involved in. She does some auditing work in our cable accounting department but doesn’t work a regular job there. She comes in to more or less look over the other people that are working there to see if they are able to do their job correctly–internal auditing type job. But she generally works on other things that I’ve managed to get myself into outside of the cable industry.
My second son, my third child, Michael, worked with me for a period of three or four years and is not working with me now. He is involved in laser drilling in the Baltimore area. He works for a company that makes micron-size holes in plastics or whatever else they might want it in.
My other two children, Nancy and Jennifer, have never worked with me in the cable business.
SMITH: Just before we leave Penn State, was there anything during your college career that stands out particularly in your memory as having been unusual or that you enjoyed?
GARDNER: I think I enjoyed the idea of attending Penn State. It was a very interesting experience. I would have preferred to have continued on. Obviously, that wasn’t possible. The G.I. Bill was putting me through school and after my first child arrived it was obvious I needed to get a job and pay attention a little bit more than I had been. The days of studying were going to be behind me.
So I interviewed, as most graduating seniors do, with several different companies that came to the campus. Lo and behold, one of them which I was interested in actually offered me a job and I went to work shortly after I graduated with Sylvania Electric Products Company. I think that company is more properly called GTE now.
At that time it was a company that had been put in business remanufacturing light bulbs. As I understood it, at one time when light bulbs burned out you didn’t throw them away. They took them apart, put new parts in them and sold them as used light bulbs … but they worked.
SMITH: I’ve never heard of that.
GARDNER: That was how Sylvania Electric Products got in business–remanufacturing light bulbs. They were interested in staffing up so that they could start to produce television picture tubes. They had a small group that made specialty oscillograph tubes and wanted to expand that and go into the manufacture of television picture tubes since television had now come on the scene and was starting to get customer interest. They really weren’t able to produce picture tubes in the small laboratory where they made these specialized tubes.
So we moved to Emporium, Pennsylvania, where Sylvania had their headquarters and had a lot of their development work going on for various projects that they were involved in. They had small plants in other towns like Williamsport and Altoona. These were more satellite facilities of the headquarters group. They had started to manufacture television picture tubes, but their ability to provide space in Emporium was limited so Sylvania had purchased a former lawn mower plant in Seneca Falls, New York, at the tip of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region. Seneca Falls is also on the New York State barge canal. It’s a small town but they had this facility that they had used to make lawn mowers and turned it into a television picture tube plant.
I moved up to Seneca Falls about three or four months after I had joined the company when they were installing machinery in the plant to start production. I worked for the chief engineer. My job as a junior engineer was to take various things that he was working on and carry them through to see if it made any sense to have any further work done with them. He would assign me various projects along with some other engineers that had come from Penn State and other colleges. We would take them from an idea and put the parts together and try to make them work. If they worked, then they would go into production. Of course, I served my stint on the production floor as a production engineer. That’s certainly no fun. It’s a manufacturing job. It didn’t especially appeal to me, although the development work really did.
We were developing all kinds of things to try to make the television set manufacturers happy. When we first started to produce tubes, the ten inch round picture tube was the only one that anyone could produce and make any money on because as soon as you got larger than that, you had so much breakage of the glass and so much scrap that they did not want to produce them. We finally managed to start making twelve inch picture tubes and became profitable at that. Naturally, as soon as we were able to make that size, the customers wanted larger sizes and particularly ones with flat sides. They didn’t want round picture tubes because they had to build a lot of cabinet to hold these round tubes and they wanted to down size the cabinet.
The round tubes were structurally very practical because any round shape is much more able to withstand the stress that the atmosphere puts on the glass since the inside was evacuated to near zero atmosphere. So it was quite a problem to get the rectangular idea made and have it workable.
I was assigned, fortunately, to one of the fourteen-inch rectangular tube projects and worked with Corning Glass. We managed to get tubes that when you would take the air out of them they wouldn’t immediately crash in on themselves. It was called “imploding.” Once we managed to get the structure so it would withstand the atmosphere, the next problem was to be able to put the picture out to all of the corners. Scanning mechanisms that were in use were not really designed for it. So there was a good bit of development work that went into making a tube that would withstand the rigors of ordinary stress and would put a picture that was filling the screen out there so that it was in focus and able to be enjoyed by people that watched television.
Of course I was fortunate. The first one that I made that worked I took to the boss and I showed it to him and said, “It actually works.” And he said, “Well, now you have to give it a life test.” And I said, “Okay, how do we do that?” He said, “Why don’t you take it home and watch it.” So I got to take it home and put it in a set that I had built at home. It was built for a round picture tube but it was not that hard to adapt for the rectangular. I used it from then on. It lasted for the rest of the time that I worked for the company.
So from the fourteen inch … as soon as we got that able to go in production I, unfortunately, also had the job of trying to get it into the production line. Taking equipment that is designed for round pictures tubes and making them work on rectangular pictures tubes sometimes was not too interesting a job. It gave you problems that were not easily resolved. But with a lot of help from the machine shop and that type group, we managed to get the fourteen inch into production in two plants–in Seneca Falls, New York, and then I managed to get it in production in Ottawa, Ohio, which was south of Cleveland.
As soon as we got them in production, obviously, Corning had developed a sixteen inch rectangular bulb and everyone had to put up with fourteen inch bulbs until we could get the sixteen inch developed. I worked on the sixteen inch project. The larger the picture tubes got, the more problems you had with them. At the same time we had a group working on color picture tubes and one of my fellow engineers was working on that. I can remember he would commiserate with me the problems he was having and I’d commiserate with him the problems I was having. Sometimes we’d solve each others problems because two sets of eyeballs did a better job than one.
You more or less worked on your own. This was a new industry; the problems were brand new. While there was a lot of expertise within the company as far as electronic emission because they did make a lot of receiving tubes and transmitting tubes and that type of thing, the television picture tube industry was in its infancy. We were allowed to go to the RCA plants and the Philco plants and look at what they were doing and we let those engineers come to our plant and look at what we were doing. It was sort of … everybody was learning how to do something and everybody else was copying it. The picture tube business finally managed to get off the ground and we started to make decent picture tubes.
I also had under my responsibility the production of kinescope tubes. My boss Bill Dickinson had given that to me because he said somebody had to do it and the company didn’t make any money on it so he didn’t want to assign somebody on just that one so I got that job, too.
The early television programs were recorded in what was called the kinescope process. This is where they took a picture tube, at that time it was about a ten inch or twelve inch picture tube, and coated the inside with an aluminized film which was able to withstand the tremendous electron bombardment that came out of the electron gun and it produced extremely bright pictures on the face of it. So as the television cameras were picking up the program live, it was fed into this receiving tube and the brilliance was turned as high as it could stand and then they had a camera with ordinary 35mm film trained at it and it was recorded on film. It was called a kinescope recording. Those picture tubes took a beating. You had to work them to fairly high standards as far as the impurity gas evacuation because of the tremendous amount of electrical energy that was impinging on the screen and bouncing anything that was impure in the screen right back out. If you had very much of an impurity in the screen, the tube would go gassy on you very quickly and, of course, fail.
We had to make sure that we produced an extremely high quality product. I think we did a good job. It was a nice product. I can remember installing them in the network studios in New York City. They’d call up and say they were about out of tubes and they needed somebody to bring something down immediately. I’d test one or two and make sure it was good, pack it up and get on an airplane and go down. We hand delivered the product. We couldn’t even take a chance on letting the ordinary freight companies handle that type of product because it was pretty valuable. I don’t know what they paid for them but they paid a pretty hefty price. Obviously there was a large market for some other method of recording and I think Phillips then came out with their magnetic tape recorder shortly after that.
But while I was with the company, we did a good job supplying kinescope tubes to the networks–DuMont, ABC, I recall both of those. I think RCA supplied their own and I think CBS may have supplied their own.
But my stint at Sylvania Electric Products took me into another area and that was review of the current literature of things that might help in our product–patents review–and RCA was the major patent producer at the time … reviewing their patents when there was one that might be useful to us, calling them up and seeing if they would let us see what application they were making of it, how we could use it. I also reviewed literature such as Al Warren’s TV Digest to see what was going on in the industry. That was where I first discovered cable television.
It was yellow at that time, I recall, just like it’s yellow paper today. This was probably in late 1950. I remember reading an article in it about this fellow Bob Tarlton in Lansford, Pennsylvania, who had managed to put television into homes that weren’t able to receive television through their antenna. Then I seem to recall he followed up with a second article and if I recall that was in early 1951 sometime.
I had visited my father in Lewistown and asked him how the television was around town and he said, “There isn’t any.” I talked to a radio dealer to ask him about it and he said, “Nah, no television comes into town.” Of course, with the idea that Bob Tarlton had developed or refined in Lansford, Pennsylvania, I said to my dad, “Well, this looks like it might be something that might be useful around here.” He put me in touch with some people–a fellow that ran the radio station and a fellow that ran the newspaper. I talked with them about it and they said it sounded like a great idea. I said, “Well, it will probably take some money to do it.” And they said, “Well, if you’re interested in working with us, we’ll find the money.” At that point I said, “Obviously, we’ve got to find out if there’s any television signals around.”
As soon as the weather got decent, I suspect it was around April of 1951, we started trying to find a television signal on one of the mountains. We really didn’t find much for a while and then I got onto another mountain and started to find a signal that at least I could look at on the television set. I had a generator and a television set and it would produce a picture from Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
SMITH: How did you do this, George? Were you just driving a jeep in the mountains looking for it or hiking up the hills or flying in a helicopter? How did you go about searching for the signals?
GARDNER: Unfortunately the mountains around Lewistown are so steep and rocky that there weren’t any roads to the top so we hiked up and we carried a generator, a television set, an antenna and a mast. We had to get it up high enough so that we could get over the trees. So it was all a case of just carrying it up.
Of course, during the day you couldn’t see the picture so we had to stay overnight to see if there was a picture there. The television sets weren’t good enough to produce a bright picture in the daytime. You couldn’t watch television outside. The pictures were dim and even after dark you had to have some shielding if there was much of a moon. You had to be very careful. If you had a vehicle you could work inside the vehicle but we couldn’t get a vehicle up on top of those rocky mountains.
The signal that we viewed was fairly consistent. I didn’t know much about television pictures but I had been viewing them as an ordinary viewer at home and I could tell that, okay, it was a picture I would watch. We had no way of measuring the signal strength. Not much of any expertise. I knew more than anybody else in the group and I didn’t know anything.
SMITH: Tell me how many were in your group that did this hiking and testing around.
GARDNER: We had one person to carry the television set, one person to carry the generator, one person to carry the mast and the antenna, and one person to carry the gasoline can. I think there were about four of us.
SMITH: Over how long a period did you search before you found what you were looking for?
GARDNER: We set up on a couple of different mountains and couldn’t find anything. I was afraid maybe there was something defective in our equipment. I was just about ready to say, “Well, we’re going to have to go check this out someplace. Somehow go find a signal in the valley where we might have to drive 50 to 100 miles and find a signal to watch,” when we did run across a spot. We could hear some sounds and by the time we got the antenna up above the trees we could see a picture.
SMITH: How many channels had you gotten on?
GARDNER: That’s interesting. When we built the system we had one channel.
SMITH: A single channel.
GARDNER: A single channel–Channel 13, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
SMITH: And you built that at Lewistown?
GARDNER: Yes. We actually built the system and started selling it to the customers with one channel. We couldn’t receive the Philadelphia channels. They were too weak. The closest station was in Lancaster but it was on Channel 4 operating at very low power. They have since moved to Channel 8 and gone to high power. That happened many years ago. But at that time they didn’t produce enough power to be able to be viewed. Of course there were no UHF stations on the air at that time. They hadn’t been built yet. So we had to work with the VHF stations and Johnstown on 13 was the only one that we could get.
SMITH: How long an antenna run was it from your mountain into town–from your headend so to speak? Could you really call it a headend in those days with a single channel?
GARDNER: What we did was build a little stone building. There were so many stones around that you could practically just pick the stones up and lay them down and make yourself a building. The only thing we had to carry up was some lumber for the roof. We put our equipment in that little stone building, built a tower to get up above the trees. The antenna run was probably less than a mile to where the first home was that we were going to serve. The equipment was Jerrold equipment. At that time Jerrold hadn’t solved all of their technical problems with feedback so we had an amplifier in the building at the top of the mountain and then about 400 feet away we had another amplifier. They discovered that they could make the pictures work that way. If they put a high powered amplifier right at the antenna site, the cables that they were using leaked so much signal that it fed the signal back into the antenna and you got a series of pictures instead of one.
SMITH: All on the same channel.
GARDNER: All on the same channel and we operated on that channel. We did convert 13 down to Channel 2 but even the Channel 2 output would get back into the converter and cause us all kinds of grief if we raised the signal very high. So we had to come off the Channel 13 antenna and go into a preamplifier and build the signal up so it would come out of the converter without too much noise in it on Channel 2 and then we amplified it a little bit on Channel 2 so it would go about 400 feet further down the mountain and then we put a more powerful amplifier down there. The output of that amplifier then was far enough away from the inputs to the other amplifiers up on top of the mountain so that you didn’t get the multiple picture. The problem was poorly shielded cable and we just didn’t have good cables. We were working with a lot of military surplus cables at that time. They weren’t designed for this operation.
SMITH: And you say your first customer was about a mile away?
GARDNER: It was a little less than a mile away. My first paying customer was a little more than a mile away. My first nonpaying customer was a local fire company who agreed to let me put the signal into their fire company and let people come in to see it. So I sort of had an office there where I could show people, “Here’s television.” Of course it was inside a building which helped a good bit because our picture was probably so poor that if you had tried to view it anyplace where the brightness was very great, you wouldn’t have seen much of a picture. But it was a picture. There was no picture better than that in the area so we were able to sell it.
The first customer that I connected was an over-the-road semi-truck driver who had been seeing television in the cities where he stopped to eat and stay overnight. When he discovered that television was available, he wanted it for his home. I got sort of word of mouth advertising to get my first customer. Once he got it and his neighbors discovered that it was actually something that was there all the time, they started to buy it, too.
SMITH: Did you serve these first couple of customers directly off your trunkline?
GARDNER: What we did was contract with the Jerrold company to design this first phase, shall we call it, of system construction. They used a trunk and distribution system that is not unlike what we’re using today. There was a trunkline which was made out of RG-11 cable and a distribution line that was made out of RG-59 cable. The RG-11 cable had less loss and that’s why it was used for the trunkline. Even at the Channel 2 spacing that we had the system designed at, it seemed to me that we could only go about 1,500 feet before we had to put another amplifier in. Of course this system was designed as a one-channel system because we didn’t have any other channels available. So the one channel was carried through the system on the RG-11 and then we had distribution locations where we would take signal out of that and put it into a distribution cable–the RG-59–through a unit that Jerrold called a WADO. I’m not sure I remember what those letters stand for but it was a WADO-3, I think for three outlets, and WADO-8 for eight outlets. The amplifiers that we used were called W … I’ll have to think about what the rest of the number was. They were single channel amplifiers. You could buy them either one channel, two channels, or three channels. I don’t believe they went beyond three channels.
SMITH: And this was what year?
SMITH: 1951 . . . right early in the game. How much did you charge for your service for those early subscribers?
GARDNER: I seem to recall that we charged something like $150 for the connection and about $3 a month, roughly, for the service. It might have been $2.95 or something of that sort. I believe we got those rates by looking over the shoulder of other cable operators like Bob Tarlton and Marty Malarkey who was operating in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
SMITH: Did you go to see Tarlton’s system when you decided you might build one yourself?
GARDNER: Oh, yes, before we got too far into it. I guess I should go back and say that we did our testing beginning about April 1951 and tested for a month or two on weekends. I would take weekends off and drive down and do our testing. It was a four to five hour drive one way, for me to get there. We’d do our testing and, as I said, the testing had to be an overnight thing because of the problems of the brightness of the television picture.
We managed to decide there was a signal there and I talked to people who said, “If you can get a signal in here and distribute it, we’ll go in business with you.” We had the political problems of obtaining franchises so we brought a person into the business that we thought could help us with that. He was an attorney. By about the end of June 1951 I had turned in my notice and terminated my employment with Sylvania Electric Products.
SMITH: Did it take a bit of courage to do that under the circumstances?
GARDNER: Probably more courage to withstand the questions my wife was asking me than anything else. She was, shall we say, a little bit skeptical about the whole idea, especially where the paycheck was going to come from. Being a brash young person of twenty-six or twenty-seven, I figured it was either now or be locked into a manufacturing job for the rest of my life. And I was interested in this. I was willing to take the chance. She didn’t see the solutions to some of the problems, as I say about the paycheck, but she was game enough to go with me. I can’t say that she held me back at all. She was willing to go with me, she just couldn’t see the answers to some of the problems. And, frankly, I didn’t look for answers. I was just so interested and thought that I could make a business out of this because here was a situation where other people had made a business out of the same type of situation. I had a market that I thought was there because there was no television reception in the area at all. I didn’t count on some of the other problems that were there such as since there was no television reception, there were no television dealers, there were no television sets, people weren’t interested in television and all those types of things. Nevertheless, we managed to get a signal, get a company together, and demonstrated our first picture on December 26, 1951. I demonstrated it in the Yeagertown fire hall, in Yeagertown, Pennsylvania, which is just north of Lewistown.
End of Tape 1, Side B
SMITH: This is Side A of Tape 2 of the oral history interview with George Gardner. It is August 14th and we’re in the seminar room of the Cable Television Center at Penn State.
George, we were just finishing a discussion about the system that you built and, I think, turned on on December 26, 1951, in Lewistown–the day after Christmas.
GARDNER: That’s right.
SMITH: We were talking a little bit about the uncertainties, the problems that you said you didn’t even know existed. The fact that there were no dealers–no sets–in the community but you had gone ahead and started this system. Would you like to elaborate on that?
GARDNER: Yes. The problem that I hadn’t counted on was that Lewistown had no interest in television of any sort. There were no television dealers, no television sets, no off-the-air possibilities for reception at all. One of the first things that I found I had to do was get people to realize that television was something that the rest of the country was starting to take an interest in. I put on demonstrations. As we would build the system, I would locate a building of some sort so that I could put a display in and invite everybody to come in and look at it. Not very many people came in. I tried to get the local radio dealers to stock television sets and to put them in the display areas that I was able to develop. But it was pretty slow going.
The problem I had was we had one channel and the area we were building in was just a valley. It might have gone one city block on either side of the main street but there wasn’t much beyond that. So we were just building along in this valley. We would complete an area and then try to get people in the area interested and try to get enough money so that we could build some more plant. So it was pretty rough going.
In addition to that, the Korean War was on and the federal government didn’t really feel that the cable industry was a priority item and we couldn’t get a lot of types of equipment. I can remember one of the problems that I had was getting strand. The only strand that I could find that was available was barrage balloon cable. This apparently had been used in England during the Second World War to tether balloons above London. They sold it as surplus after the war and the government said that was okay–we could buy that. But it was a little bit undersized for the clamps that were normally used by the telephone company to clamp their strand. So we had a little difficulty making it work properly. The problem was even further complicated by the fact that I couldn’t buy bolts to bolt the clamps to the poles with because I didn’t have a priority number there. I finally wound up going to the junk yard where the utilities discarded their old bolts and nuts and plates and everything and buying that back from the scrap dealer. It’s surprising what a bucket of aluminum paint does to that stuff. It makes it look like it’s new again. We had a little garage where we replated all of the discarded utility hardware. It was then acceptable to the utilities for us to put back on the pole and that’s what we held our strand up with.
The Korean War also gave us the problem of getting cable. It got so bad, I recall, Milt Shapp finally managed to talk a dealer into giving him a warehouse full of cable and he would give you a certificate for a certain amount of cable every time you bought a piece of equipment from him. So you could go buy his equipment and pay for the cable and get this slip and then you went over to the bonded warehouse and you could redeem that for cable. So there were a few problems other than lack of customers that plagued us a little bit. Plus the fact that, as I say, we had one channel and people were interested in more than one channel.
It wasn’t too long after we managed to get enough plant built that we had to go back and rebuild. We had designed it for one channel and lo and behold here’s Channel 8 in Lancaster now coming on with a signal that we could pick up. We had the luxury of doubling our signals if we could rebuild our system and double our channel capacity. At that point I decided why not go for broke and we went from one channel to three channels. We redesigned the system and rebuilt it–our first upgrade–to three channels.
SMITH: What kind of amplifiers did you use for the second and third channels?
GARDNER: We used the original amplifiers. In the first place, I had not remembered the model number of the amplifier–it magically comes to me now. It was called the WMC-1 amplifier. I recall talking to the Jerrold people … this started out as their MC-1 and it was used in hotels as a headend amplifier in a hotel. They would run the signals in Philadelphia through these amplifiers and then run them to the rooms. I think they did that also in Atlantic City. But when they tried to use it in Bob Tarlton’s system, the problems of the amplifiers became apparent. They were not made with a wide enough bandwidth to carry the signal to be cascaded. In other words, having more than one amplifier carry the signal. So they had to widen out the bandpass of the amplifier. So they put a “W” in front of it–that meant wide. So it was the wide master chassis-1 amplifier.
SMITH: Then it wasn’t a single channel strip amplifier. It would carry three channels.
GARDNER: No. These were single channel strips and they fit into this master chassis. The MC was master chassis, if I recall. The wide was the wide master chassis amplifier series and it had three amplifiers on it–three channels.
SMITH: It was a wide chassis rather than wide band amplifier.
GARDNER: No, wide bandwidth. The original chassis, the master chassis, had spaces for three amplifiers and they could use that when they were just taking the signals off the air, putting them through this one amplifier, and distributing it to a room in a hotel. But when you tried to take the signal off the air at a mountain top, run it through this amplifier, and then run down the mountain and run it through another amplifier and then run through the town and run it through another amplifier, the bandwidth of the amplifier was too narrow. And it got narrower as it cascaded through the amplifiers and pretty soon the picture wasn’t there. So they had to widen out the bandwidth of each one of these amplifiers that were on the chassis. So we used that wide model amplifier–the wide MC-1 series.
As I say, we rebuilt the system, went to three channels and put two channels on–Lancaster and Johnstown. The Lancaster signal was a much better signal and worked quite well. At that point Johnstown changed their frequency from 13 to 6 and started to give us a much better picture. So all of a sudden we had two channels of much better quality.
At that point as far as quality was concerned, we discovered that the more you pass the signals through succeeding amplifiers, the more types of distortions started to appear in the pictures. It became a learning curve, again, trying to figure out how you pass signals through cascaded amplifiers and still keep them watchable.
We had very little test equipment. I can recall that the main test equipment we used was the eyeball and the television set. We would adjust the amplifier gain control until the picture became distorted and then turn it back about a quarter of a turn. You learned that empirically by adjusting it and turning it back a little bit and adjusting the next one and turning it back a little bit. If you couldn’t get to the end of your amplifier series cascade, you would go back and turn each one back a little bit more until you finally did produce good pictures at the end of the cascade.
SMITH: That was simple trial and error until you got it.
GARDNER: Yes. You learned how much to turn the gain control back from where the television picture was distorted. You would set the television picture up … and we had a generator in the vehicle. You’d turn the television set on, connect to the output of the amplifier, turn the gain control up until it distorted and then turn it back a set amount–like a quarter of a turn or whatever you had determined was the proper amount. And that’s what you did with each one. That set the gain of the amplifier.
That was pretty crude and, of course, Jerrold was interested in finding some better way. They did that by taking an ordinary Philco television set and putting a voltmeter on that measured the bias voltage of the amplifier–the video amplifier. That would tell you what the relative signal strength was of the signal that was coming into the set. The higher the signal, the more bias voltage would be developed. We could tell from that what the signal level was. If you got into difficulty and called Jerrold, they would be happy to send an engineer out with their newest model signal measuring device and they would adjust your amplifiers and you would have a lot of envy for them because you wished you had one. But, of course, they were too expensive. We couldn’t afford them. I imagine they cost several hundred dollars but we couldn’t afford that type of equipment at that time.
SMITH: Jerrold charged you for the engineering service, did they?
GARDNER: Jerrold charged you for anything they did. In fact, they had an interesting way that they sold their equipment which we engaged in to begin with and for a short period of time until we finally decided the heck with it. You signed a contract with Jerrold and you paid them a royalty for every customer that you connected to the system. I’ve long since forgotten what the amount of the royalty was but we had to keep paying the royalty amounts and reporting the number of customers we had or they would not sell us any equipment.
As long as it was important for us to buy their equipment, meaning that we couldn’t get drop cable anyplace else to connect up the customers, we maintained payments of the royalty. Once we were able to start buying cable on our own, we told Jerrold, “We’ll buy your equipment but we’re not going to pay you any royalty anymore and if you don’t like it, we’ll do without–we’ll buy something else.”
And lo and behold there were other equipment makers starting to become available. The Entron company started to produce amplifiers we could use. Blonder-Tongue had a very economical line of amplifiers that we started to use. They weren’t really made for a commercial cable application but because of the unavailability of funds to buy commercial equipment, we made do with what we could buy.
Jerrold tried to make a case against us for not paying the royalties but I guess they lost out on that and it sort of went away. We used Jerrold equipment for a number of years for some of the things they had that we couldn’t buy from other vendors.
The other vendors became stronger and started to produce equipment that was usable. One of the first retrofit companies was Community Engineering Corporation in State College. It is now called C-COR. Community Engineering in the middle ’50s actually made equipment that you could plug into the Jerrold chassis. It was a higher quality amplifier called the distributed amplifier such that if one tube failed, the entire system didn’t go out. We found that to be a useful item. It took the system from three channels to five channels. That was our next channel expansion.
Obviously, we had to find channels to put on when we had all these extra channels available. Sometimes it was difficult. The systems that were closer to the metropolitan area usually had three channels coming out of that major city. When you got out as far as Lewistown, we didn’t have very many off-air channels to work with so, many times, we had more channel capacity than we could fill. If we could identify a signal off the air that we could make work somehow or other we would put it on. That got us into low noise amplifiers and high gain antennas and a lot of experimentation.
In fact, we finally decided to move our antenna site. Our antenna site had originally been at Jacks Mountain which is just north of Yeagertown. By about 1956 or ’57, we had moved the antenna site to Shade Mountain which was south of Lewistown in order to be able to pick up signals from the metropolitan areas and even Harrisburg. At that point, of course, we had more channels than we had channel capacity and it has more or less continued that way to this day. That’s the way most cable systems work today. They have more channels available than they have channel capacity for. But we started out just the opposite in the early ’50s.
SMITH: When you were getting the system underway initially with the single channel, what maximum number of subscribers did you achieve with the single channel and how many amplifiers did you have in cascade to serve them?
GARDNER: I seem to recall that we were able to build through most of the highly populated areas of Yeagertown, Burnham, and Lewistown. By the time we finished building Lewistown, we had four channels on. These four channels were on the Jerrold WMC-1 chassis. It had three amplifiers on originally designed for Channel 2, 4 and 6. We widened out the Channel 2 amplifier on the high side and the Channel 4 amplifier on the low side and put Channel 3 from Philadelphia on half of each strip. Believe it or not, it worked. Everyone said it wouldn’t work but we put it on and we actually had four channels on a three channel amplifier.
SMITH: And you did this work yourself, your staff, your technical …
GARDNER: I did it myself. I was the technical staff.
SMITH: You climbed the poles yourself?
GARDNER: Well, I finally hired an installer because we started to get enough connections that I couldn’t do the maintenance work on the system and do the installs and that type of thing and have any time left. And we were still building plant. I started to design the plant after we had some run-ins with Jerrold about the expense of it and I found that I could design it. So we started to design our plant. I hired an installer and he took care of anything that he could–he was non-technical. I was able to teach him how to adjust the levels because that was more just eyeball technique than anything else. Until they started to deliver signal level meters, the techniques that we used were effective. It’s amazing that it worked as well it did but you can do a lot with your eyeball. Your eyeball is probably the most sophisticated distortion analyzer that you can find in any type of visual signal. Even today we have difficulty measuring and determining distortions with measuring devices. You can still see them with your eye but it’s difficult to measure them with any test equipment. So I think we were pretty lucky. We had the eyeball and that was a pretty good measuring device as long as it was calibrated properly. You could take a fairly untrained person and teach him how to calibrate his eyeball and he could do a fairly good job of maintaining the plant then.
SMITH: When you got to the point where you had to hire an installer, was Marian beginning to feel a little bit better about the enterprise?
GARDNER: I can remember Marian saying …. At first the company had enough funds so that I had a weekly paycheck. And then at some point it ran out of funds and I stopped getting my weekly paycheck. She said, “What am I supposed to do for food?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know. We’ll have to figure something out.” I didn’t give her any answer. She had some savings that we had put aside. After about a year she said to me, “When are you going to start getting a paycheck again?” And I said, “Well, I hope it’s soon.” And she said, “I’ve just about gone through every way of cooking hamburger that I know and I’m getting pretty tired of it.” So, we did go for awhile without a paycheck.
That’s one of the tough things that you go through. In fact, I suspect I was bankrupt and just didn’t know it. We operated that way for awhile. In fact, I can recall I managed to buy wire–that’s RG-59 drop cable–from Frank Dilcher in Pottsville. He ran a little distribution shop. I think it was on Norwegian Street. Frank was very generous. He allowed me to have credit. I can remember talking to him and telling him I didn’t have any money to give him and I needed more wire or whatever. He’d say, “Well, whatever you can give me.” But he’d give me what I asked for and finally I started to pay him. I suspect that without people like Frank Dilcher who helped some of us in the cable business, a lot of us would have gone bankrupt. I know there were systems that went bankrupt. We managed to stay out of that situation.
As I said, our biggest problem was the fact that people weren’t beating our door down to buy pictures. They weren’t even interested in television programs. The radio set dealers weren’t even interested in stocking television sets. I finally wound up having to stock television sets in our own office. I had an RCA floor plan, which means that they put them in and I had to pay interest to them on each one that they sold me. Whenever I sold it, then, I had to pay them whatever the price was that they had charged me plus interest on it up until the time of the sale. They floor planned me; Motorola floor planned me. It seems there were a couple other set manufacturers, I’ve forgotten their names, that floor planned me.
Then, lo and behold, a Zenith radio dealer came over one day and asked if I would connect him up if he would put television sets in. His name was Frank Zampelli. I said, “Frank, I’ve been waiting for this day. You’re my first dealer.” We connected them up. I made a practice then of never charging a dealer for anything. I don’t charge a dealer to this day. If they are an honest to goodness dealer, we wire them up and try to make as good a picture as we can for them. The only thing we ask is that they allow us to put little tent signs on the sets that say television service is provided by TV Cable or whatever the company happens to be.
But Frank Zampelli became my first dealer. When he started to sell sets, things became a good bit easier because as he sold each set he sold a cable connection. Of course, it was in our best interest to encourage him to sell the cable connections. He found that there were some areas where he could get pictures by then because higher powered stations had come on the air and he was able to put antennas up. So we encouraged him by giving him a payment every time he brought a cable connection in.
Of course there were a lot of other facets to it such as the $150 connection fee was pretty stiff. We found that it helped to make sales if we could discount that at the bank and have the people make payments on their cable bill. We would have them sign a contract, take it to the bank, and the bank would give us the money. It was a recourse loan. If the people didn’t pay if off, we had to, but we could take that money and build more plant. They just had to make monthly payments on it.
SMITH: Did that monthly payment include their monthly subscriber fee or was it just a monthly payment on the, let’s say, $150?
GARDNER: A lot of people liked to pay their cable service separate from the installation charge. We financed it just about anyway anybody wanted. We had several different plans. It was the financing of the installation charge, which I think finally started to put us in business.
You asked about how many customers we had. I don’t have the faintest idea how many customers we had before we started to really get into being a viable business. I suspect that it was probably on the order of a few hundred–300 or 400 customers. I can remember when I got to 500 customers, I said to myself, “Well, it looks like if we can just keep it going, things are going to turn out all right.”
Because at about 500 customers, I was able to start paying down the bills that I owed every month. I owed everybody and I talked to everybody every month. I had to keep my credit lines open. I’d say it took us at least two or three years after we turned the signal on before I was able to start paying the bills as they came due. In the meantime we had borrowed everything that the stockholders would agree to. As I say, we were probably bankrupt and didn’t realize it.
SMITH: Where did you borrow the money to the extent that you did?
GARDNER: Well, we borrowed the initial money from a local bank. Of course, the notes were signed by the people that were the shareholders. Each of the shareholders put in a certain amount of money, including myself, and then we borrowed from the bank. It finally got to the place where the shareholders didn’t want to sign on for anymore money. Then at that point I started to borrow from the suppliers. As I say, the suppliers carried us until we could get the program working where the customers started to carry us. We kept the $150 installation charge and managed to get the bank to accept it and give us the funds. I think they gave us 80 percent or 75 percent, something like that. We got over $100 every time someone would connect. We would use that $100 to build more plant. As we managed to get customers on, then the monthly revenues started to carry it to the place where we could meet our bills.
SMITH: In your accounting did you treat that connection fee as a contribution-in-aid-of-construction for tax purposes?
GARDNER: Well, you bring up a point. I remember the name contribution-in-aid-of-construction and I seem to recall that it was an 8 percent tax or something in there.
SMITH: That was another item.
GARDNER: Yes. Marty Malarkey called a meeting about the 8 percent tax, I remember that. The contribution-in-aid-of-construction rings a little bit of a bell in my mind but how we treated it I honestly don’t remember.
SMITH: You don’t remember whether you paid income tax on that $150? See, that was the issue.
GARDNER: Yes. And I had an accountant. I didn’t understand much about accounting. I had not been through a business administration course. In fact, I had never heard the word accounting until my wife said that she had studied accounting in business school. So, at that point I said, “Okay, anything dealing with accounting you take care of.” And she did. She handled the books and worked with the accountants and did a marvelous job of raising a family and helping me with the things in the business that I either had no knowledge of or just didn’t want to bother with or frankly didn’t have time to do anything with.
But the contribution-in-aid-of-construction, I’m sure, is something that she would have handled however it was best tax-wise. I don’t ever recall paying any taxes in those early years. There was no profit so I don’t think there were any taxes. But, yes, contribution-in-aid-of-construction I think is the term that we called it.
SMITH: Now you had your first child when you were in college, is that right?
GARDNER: That’s right.
SMITH: And this time when you were building the system with no paycheck, what were you doing in terms of the number of children?
GARDNER: Well, our second child was born right after we managed to turn the system on and connect our first customer. She was born January 27, 1952, and that was just a little over a month after we had turned the system on. So we had two children by that time and that made it a little bit rougher. We managed to find places to rent so that we were able to keep a roof over our head. There weren’t very many luxuries. The little bit of savings we had went. I’d say it was probably about 1954 before we were able to take a regular paycheck and act like a business. Before that it was more like a nonpaying hobby. It had more questions than answers.
After we were able to get good quality pictures on with the WGAL and WJAC signal, we managed to get more customers because our first signals were of really low quality. Johnstown, I don’t know how many miles away it was from our head end, but the signal was certainly less than adequate. And probably we should not have gone in business with a signal that poor. I would say it was probably not something we should have gone in business with. And that probably inhibited our sales a good bit. We were bailed out the next spring when the FCC changed the channels around. I think it was in the spring of 1952 although my memory might be a little off on that.
SMITH: That was when they lifted the freeze and adopted the new allocation plan.
GARDNER: Was that in the spring of ’52?
SMITH: Yes, that’s right.
GARDNER: I recall somewhere around there that these stations … they were in a straightjacket. WGAL had such low power that could hardly get their signal anyplace and they wanted to have a higher power signal. They were forced to move from Channel 4 to Channel 8. At that time Channel 8 was something like a pariah … like the UHF. Nobody wanted up there. Everybody wanted a low number channel. But they took it. They went up to Channel 8 with a high power signal. Of course, we were able to use their signal then. WJAC went from 13 down to 6. Because they went to 6, we were able to get a much better signal from them. And I think they went to high power also.
So the higher quality signals … and even then they were probably not as good a signal as what a normal cable system delivers today but they were good enough that people started to act interested in them and we were able to start to put the elements together to make a business out of it.
As I say, the additional channels, the higher quality, the fact that I could get a dealer interested in selling sets, the discounting of the installation paper at the bank … all these things helped us manage to get by some of the thorny problems that seemed to be in our way of continuing business. And I must hand it to Frank Dilcher, he carried me on the books. There were other suppliers that gave me limited amounts of credit even though they knew that I wasn’t going to pay them right away. I told them that right up front.
So we managed to get enough together so that it worked. The biggest problem we had was lack of capital, obviously. The investors that I had just weren’t interested in putting the amount of capital in that was needed.
In fact, when we put our business plan together, I looked at it later and it was so inadequate as to be ludicrous. We didn’t realize all the problems and the difficulty in getting the utility rearrangements so we could get on the poles. The enormous amounts of time and money that were required to obtain customers and the inability of the equipment to produce quality pictures when you extended it very far. It was a very difficult situation.
SMITH: Did you have any real problems getting on the poles? Getting attachment contracts?
GARDNER: We didn’t really have too many problems. The Bell Telephone Company wanted to do everything their way and we were forced to learn to do it their way and had no difficulty. The power company just said, “We’d just as soon that telephone would take care of everything.” So we leased the power company’s poles through the telephone company. That made it fairly good. We would go out with one engineer and we had one group to work with. Everything was expensive but it was possible. We never really had problems with the utilities. They weren’t interested in our business at that time and they made a little bit of extra money by leasing the space to us.
SMITH: How much did they charge you for a pole?
GARDNER: Oh, I don’t really recall but it wasn’t very much. It was $1.00 or $1.25, somewhere in that range.
SMITH: A year?
GARDNER: A year, yes. It was very inexpensive. And as I say, our biggest problem was in the rearrangements. They would decide that they should have a certain amount of money for us to attach to that pole and they wanted it in advance. They would take their good old time just like they do now to do the rearrangements and we weren’t allowed on the pole until they had completed it. So we tied a good bit of our capital up in rearrangements.
SMITH: For the record, why were rearrangements necessary?
GARDNER: Rearrangements of the cables are where they assign a space for you to attach but that space is occupied by something else or the clearance from that space to other wires or transformers or whatever it might be is less than the amount that they feel is necessary. These were mostly for safety reasons, especially with the electric wires. They wanted to make sure that our wires were separated from the electric wires by a certain distance so that there wouldn’t be a problem of our people getting into electric wires and having difficulty with the voltage that was on those wires.
There was nothing wrong with the premise; in fact, it’s the way we do it today. It’s called “make ready” today. We called it rearrangement back then. I still call it rearrangement to some extent myself. But the utilities required that the make ready or the rearrangements be done before we attached to the pole. And sometimes in the congested city areas, even though Lewistown isn’t very big, there was a lot of congestion of wires and roads and whatnot and the poles were inadequate and we had to replace the whole pole. That got very expensive for a little company like ours. We weren’t prepared for the cost of rearrangement.
SMITH: How big a city was Lewistown at that time?
GARDNER: I don’t recall the exact population. I’d say the area that we had the wire through was probably in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 people. Of course, then, outside of that there were lots of other areas where the density of homes was just too small–we couldn’t build there.
There were other companies that came along that built outside of our area using other techniques that we weren’t really interested in using. They used what was called open wire. That type of technique has low signal loss but it’s not exactly a professional or commercial way to do it. So we didn’t engage in that but there were other companies that did. They were to the cable industry a little bit like the REA–the rural electrification industry–is to the electric utilities. They took the low density areas and wired those and we wired the higher density areas using coaxial cable.
SMITH: You mentioned at the beginning just passing and we didn’t stop to talk about it, a franchise. What sort of a document did you get for a franchise in Lewistown?
GARDNER: I don’t recall the exact document but it was sort of a liability type of franchise in exchange for the rights to cross the borough’s streets and alleys. I don’t believe it even addressed underground. But in exchange for those rights we agreed to maintain liability insurance and save them harmless from any damages. It was a small franchise–probably a couple pages long–and defined that we were going to use the existing poles to the extent that we could and where we felt we had to place a pole of our own, we would obtain a permit from the borough. And if that pole became an obstruction, we would move it at the borough’s request.
They were more or less just nuts and bolts paragraphs strung together for the things that the attorneys that drew them up could foresee as problems that might arise. It was sort of lean and right to the point and was very workable.
SMITH: Sounds like it was more a license agreement than anything … a license to use the right of ways.
GARDNER: I think you could probably term it that, yes. I don’t recall what it was called. It may have been called a license. These are documents that at that time I would look at once or twice and then file them and probably not have to look at them again so the exact contents is not something that was impressed in my mind enough to remember now.
SMITH: I’m going to turn the tape over, George, and then we’ll take up there again.
End of Tape 2, Side A
BEGINNING OF TAPE 2, SIDE B
SMITH: This is Side B of Tape 2 of the oral history interview with George GARDNER:. I had asked you off the record, George, whether you had kept copies of any of those early franchise agreements.
GARDNER: My answer to you was that no I hadn’t because they went with the records of the system when it was sold to Cox in about 1960 or ’61. I would not have kept anything like that. I obviously kept a lot of my personal papers and made copies of some of the things that I thought I might want to keep for my own records. But a copy of a franchise at that time wasn’t something that I would have copied. So it’s with the Cox records someplace.
The system was sold to Cox. I think it was Cox Newspapers although they call themselves Cox Cable, I believe, now. I believe it was their first system when they went into the cable business.
SMITH: Do you recall who it was you dealt with at Cox at that time?
GARDNER: The names don’t come to my mind. I can see their faces but I’ll have to think a little bit. Maybe I can come up with their names.
SMITH: Well, I’ll mention a name–Marcus Bartlett.
GARDNER: Marcus Bartlett, yes, was more or less our direct contact. The fellow that ran the company, I can’t think of his name …
SMITH: J. Leonard Reinsch.
GARDNER: J. Leonard Reinsch, yes. How could I forget that. Leonard Reinsch put that whole Cox empire together is the way I look at it. He was a powerhouse in the Democratic party. He delegated most of the work through Marcus Bartlett. But, obviously, Leonard Reinsch knew what was going on. He was able to understand what was going on there. I know that because when I would talk with him, which wasn’t frequently, he was well aware of everything that we were doing.
SMITH: Well, he was … the Cox organization was very big in broadcasting–television broadcasting–at that time, as you know, as well as newspapers. When Cox decided to go into cable, it was like joining the enemy camp as far as broadcasters were concerned. So I was curious. I didn’t realize that your Lewistown system was their first venture. As you are well aware, today they are one of the largest in the industry.
GARDNER: That’s right. Cox does not own the system anymore. They bought it and proceeded to make an exemplary system out of it. They spared nothing in putting a first class operation in there. I was amazed when they sold it because while it may have had some franchise restrictions that a normal cable system doesn’t necessarily have or doesn’t like, it was a steady operation. It provided a regular customer base and they had built a first class plant there. So I was amazed when they sold that.
SMITH: What type of restrictions would they have had, George, that you described as restrictions that a cable system might not ordinarily like and who imposed those restrictions?
GARDNER: The main restriction that I was aware of was after I terminated as manager, and this was an amicable termination …. When Cox purchased they asked me to stay on as manager for a year and I signed an agreement for a year with them so that they could get themselves oriented to operating a cable system. I ran it for them. At the end of that year they brought another person in as manager and we had an amicable parting. Everything was operating well as far as the system was concerned. The customers were happy. The municipalities were happy. I had no problem at all. After that, I moved from Lewistown to Carlisle. I had another business and I moved that to Carlisle and moved my family to Carlisle.
SMITH: What other business was that?
GARDNER: In the early ’50s I had started to supply neighboring cable systems with materials. Being the large system in the area, when one of the smaller systems around wanted something, they’d come over and buy it from us. So I started to sell these to them. I started to stockpile things in greater quantities than what we needed and finally made a separate business out of it. We incorporated in 1953, I believe it was, as Television and Electronics Service Corporation. We branched out from just selling material to doing technical work, engineering systems, designing systems–the whole ball of wax you might say. When I sold the cable system, I had a warehouse operation, salesmen on the road, and an operation selling a good bit of material to the cable industry. It’s in existence today. It operates out of Hershey, Pennsylvania, as their headquarters and is called TV Cable Supply Company.
SMITH: Is it still yours?
GARDNER: No. I sold the supply operation off in 1973 to Wally Brong who has since resold it and is no longer in the business. I was in that business along with the television cable business in Lewistown.
SMITH: Were your cable partners in that business with you, too?
GARDNER: No, they weren’t interested in that. They declined my offer of participation. I’m the sole shareholder of that company.
SMITH: In what proportions did you and your initial partners share the Lewistown system?
GARDNER: Originally my father and I retained voting control of it– slightly over 50 percent–and they had the balance of the shares along with a couple of people who had helped the two of us in the initial stages by carrying equipment around and doing that type of work. But between our group, we had the control of it. When my father died the control passed to my mother and for whatever reason she and the other shareholders decided they would rather not be in the cable business anymore so they elected to find a buyer. I didn’t have a majority control so the system was sold. As I say, I was still in the TV cable supply business and that’s the business that I moved to Carlisle.
The reason that I moved to Carlisle was because I had the opportunity to buy the cable system in Carlisle. It had gone through a couple of different hands because it was not able to retain its customers. It hadn’t been technically upgraded and it was suffering serious deficiencies in revenue. And finally it became available and I bought it and moved my family to Carlisle.
SMITH: Before we go into that, just one further question on the Lewistown system. You built it up from zero customers to how many when the sale was made to Cox?
GARDNER: Well, I have a record here that says that I sold it in 1962 with 4,700 customers. That probably is a rounded figure but it had a fairly good customer base. Forty-seven hundred customers in 1962 you might even say was a pretty large system.
SMITH: I believe that was a large system then. This is not to get into your personal finances but what was the roughly going rate per subscriber in those days?
GARDNER: I think we were able to get Cox to agree to pay something like $550 per subscriber. That number sticks in the mind. It was roughly $550 a subscriber.
SMITH: That would have come then in about the second level. When they first started to sell systems in the early days, like Pottsville sold and so on, they were getting about $300 a subscriber in those days. So at $500 you had gone up a significant step.
GARDNER: I can remember Charlie Sammons stopping in to see me one day when he first started to buy systems and Charlie offered me $400 a subscriber and I’d say that was probably about 1957 or ’58, something like that. So when they were able to get $550 it was up from that. In fact, I called Charlie when I found out they were interested in selling the system and I said that they were talking about selling and was he interested. He said, “No, that’s more money than I’d pay.” So, obviously, they did sell it for the market price or better.
SMITH: Charlie was reasonably well known for being close with a buck as I understand it.
GARDNER: He bought right down there as close as he could. I’ve talked with other people who received purchase offers from Charlie, and they said that when they did decide to sell he just wasn’t interested in paying what they wanted. But he did manage to buy some respectable systems. I’ve got to hand it to him. He put a nice organization together. He did tell me that one of the biggest problems in his life was after he got that insurance company together …. What the devil did he call it. I should remember the name of that … Republic Life something. Well, anyway. He started selling life insurance and he said he didn’t realize that the main problem wasn’t selling it was figuring out what to do with the money after he got it. So that’s why he was out on the road trying to find someway to invest this money that he was getting in that insurance company.
SMITH: Nice to have that trouble.
SMITH: Now you indicated that you moved to Carlisle from Lewistown. Did I understand you to say you bought the system at Carlisle?
GARDNER: Yes. I had the opportunity to buy the system. I bought it from Chet Buttorf and his partner and I’ll have to try to remember his partner’s name. Chet was a printer and he worked in Lock Haven or Jersey Shore, I guess it was Jersey Shore. His partner’s name was Lloyd Tate. Chet was not in the cable industry but Lloyd Tate was. He had been a salesman and a technician over the years. He had worked at various places.
I guess they ran across this system in Carlisle and bought it. They were going to enhance the picture quality and get the customers back. The previous owners had not really been cable people. They had just hired a couple of people to try to keep the thing running and they gradually let the customer base erode. At one time our records show that they had 1,500 customers on the system. After I bought it my wife went out and made an automobile windshield survey of the connections. She knew enough to figure out what was a connection into a home. She counted 191–I remember that figure. So we started with 191 subscribers.
SMITH: And thought you got 1,500?
GARDNER: No. They had reached a maximum of 1,500 subscribers.
SMITH: I see.
GARDNER: But then when the Harrisburg television stations came on the air, the subscriber base just kept eroding because they delivered Baltimore signals, and they continued to deliver Baltimore signals. A lot of people from the area wanted Harrisburg area signals. But instead of upgrading the system to put the Harrisburg signals on, they put one Harrisburg signal on and didn’t put Lancaster and the other Harrisburg signal on. So the people disconnected. Plus the system was obsolete. It had a type of equipment made by Lynmar in Philadelphia that was no longer being produced and it had deteriorated.
So the first thing I had to do was try to figure a way to stop the customer disconnections and that required a lot of work. It required technical work. It required system upgrading like any plant that has been neglected.
SMITH: What name did you give the company in Carlisle?
GARDNER: Well, we had used the name TV Cable in another system. We had built a system in Waynesboro prior to buying the system in Carlisle and …
SMITH: Who is “we”?
GARDNER: I guess me. I had built a system in Waynesboro and I had registered the name TV Cable of Waynesboro. When I tried to operate in Carlisle I needed a name. It had been called Matthews, Inc., and that didn’t seem like a name for a cable company.
SMITH: Not too exciting, is it?
GARDNER: No. So I had the ability to use Matthews, Inc., but just really didn’t want to do that. So we named it TV Cable of Carlisle. Through the years, any where we operate, we use TV Cable of wherever it happens to be.
SMITH: You indicated that you built a system in Waynesboro before you bought Carlisle. Did you build the Waynesboro system while you were still in the Lewistown system?
GARDNER: No. I think after the Cox people purchased the system in Lewistown, I started to look for franchises that I could build. The franchises in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, hadn’t been granted so I went down there and started to look for interesting areas. Chambersburg was an interesting one. I applied for a franchise there. And the townships around Chambersburg … I received all of the franchises around Chambersburg. Then a local AM radio operator who lived in Chambersburg got interested and decided he was going to go for the franchise. So he got the franchise for Chambersburg and afterwards called me up and asked me if I’d be interested in selling him the other franchises. I said, “Well, it makes more sense for you to have them than me.” So I sold the other franchises to him.
In the meantime I had gone down to Waynesboro, which is southeast of Chambersburg, and they seemed interested in having cable television and gave me a franchise. The surrounding townships did also.
I went to the local bank and told them that I needed some money to build the system and lo and behold they were interested in loaning it to me. I was sort of amazed. I had a little bit of a history of building systems and operating them. They looked at that and I guess decided that I could do it there. Plus the fact that the borough of Waynesboro was situated behind enough of a hill, and they used the Washington and Baltimore signals, so on top of every building in town there was a mast probably fifty feet high with an antenna on top of it. When you looked across town you didn’t see anything but all this metal sticking up in the air. It was the silliest thing you’ve ever seen in your life. I pointed out to them that if they gave me the franchise the first thing that would probably happen was there would be a wind storm come through, blow a lot of those down and it would start to look better. Well, it didn’t exactly happen that way although in the wind storms they’d still blow down but some of them are still standing.
But we got the bank interested in helping us with the money. I think we borrowed $175,000 from the bank and put money in it ourselves and built the system in Waynesboro.
I built the Waynesboro system while I was still living in Lewistown but after I had sold the Lewistown system to Cox.
SMITH: I see. Tell me about the rooftop antennas on those fifty-foot masts. How long did it take to get them down?
GARDNER: As I say, some of them are still there. We engaged in all kinds of campaigns … trade your antenna in and we would go up and dismantle the antenna and take it down or just hope for strong winds which took them down. Surprisingly enough, there are still a lot of those antennas even though we have a penetration rate of probably 70 percent in the Waynesboro area. Almost no one uses those old antennas because the wires that connected the antenna and brought the signal down to the set were broken off in the wind years ago but the antennas are still up there. They fall down every now and then but at least we don’t have to go up and take them down anymore.
SMITH: I was going to ask, did you follow the somewhat traditional practice of offering to go in and take the antenna off the roof if the person at that household would subscribe to cable service?
GARDNER: We did that. Obviously, that was a ploy that worked with a certain number of people. Then I started to run into problems because my people who were taking the antennas down didn’t want to do it anymore. They were afraid of the wires …. Some of them had towers they had to climb to get the antennas off. They were up on top of roofs. It was just a little too difficult. I found independent contractors to some extent that would take them down but we finally just stopped the idea after awhile because we managed to get enough customers that we really didn’t need to do it. As I say, most of the antennas are just not operating anymore. We would not gain a customer by offering to trade in the antenna but we would gain a lot of liability trying to take it down.
SMITH: You’re still in Waynesboro today, are you?
GARDNER: Yes, we operate the system there. I should have a record here of how many customers it has. We’ve purchased a couple smaller systems around it that were built while we owned the system. Sometimes they were low density and we just weren’t interested in building them. Sometimes we didn’t have the funds to do it. For whatever reason, these other little systems would spring up. We’ve managed to purchase most of those now and build everything that we have franchised. My 1988 customer listing says we have 7,800 subscribers there. I think we have more than that right now. It’s probably in the 10,000 range … I just haven’t updated my figures.
SMITH: I see from your notes that it’s a thirty-two channel capability system.
GARDNER: I believe that’s now been increased to forty-two channels. The information here probably needs to be updated. I should do that.
SMITH: When you get to a thirty-two channel size system, this means you’ve begun to develop new program sources. You’re not just getting signals off the air from a mountain top location. That is, directly off the air without relay or some other type of service. What were your signal sources for your thirty-two channel operation?
GARDNER: Obviously up until the time that satellite signals became available, you had the off-air signals and to some limited extent microwave delivered signal. The Waynesboro system relied entirely on off-air signals. And, of course, there’s another signal source–locally generated signal. We relied on off-air signals almost entirely up until the early ’80s. At that point we started to introduce satellite signals into the system.
The increase in channel capacity that we are making now is because the satellite signals that we have available are ones that we feel there’s a good market share being developed on. We try to have channel space available to put those on. We have premium channels, obviously, like all cable systems do and carry the standard premium channel group. But the cable satellite channels probably are the main interest after you have the off-air signals. The off-air signals probably command 50 percent or more of the viewing audience. The cable satellite signals make up for the next largest proportion and then the premium channels after that.
We have some pay-per-view signal capability on this system. It uses TOCOM addressable converters. We carry some events pay-per-view but we haven’t gotten into movie pay-per-view on this system yet.
SMITH: When did you first get into satellite reception?
GARDNER: The first satellite reception we got into was probably about 1978 in Carlisle. We bought our first five meter Scientific Atlanta dish, found a place to make it work, and got our picture in the paper because of this new technology. Since that time we’ve managed to cut the cost of our dish installations by a tremendous amount and still get just as good a quality picture. In fact, we don’t need near as large a dish to provide the picture quality that we feel is necessary.
SMITH: You say you started with a five meter dish?
SMITH: How much did you pay for it?
GARDNER: I think that one cost us $25,000. I waited until it got down to that price because I just couldn’t afford it when they were up in the …. I don’t know where they were at but they were …
SMITH: They were in the hundreds.
GARDNER: They were expensive, let’s put it that way. This one cost about $25,000. It’s a very high quality dish. It still works. Probably is as well designed or better than anything we have that we’re buying today. But you don’t need that type of battleship to receive the signal. It really is solid construction.
The satellite signals we have on just about all of our systems today. Even today there are new satellite signals coming on. Just on Monday of this week we put Sci-Fi on. It came on the 9th if I recall. I expect it’s going to be a very well liked signal.
One of the most recent ones that we put on and had an immediate audience for was Court-TV. It seems to be an ongoing soap opera that people just really like to watch. I’m always amazed at what people find interesting. But that Court-TV … it amazed me that they want to watch what’s going on in somebody else’s life like they do.
SMITH: Let’s go back to the Carlisle system for a minute and follow through on that one. You indicated that Marian went out and counted about 191 customers when you bought it. Is that right?
GARDNER: That’s what she told me. That was her windshield survey.
SMITH: I take it that that was a pretty bare-bone system at that time then?
GARDNER: We had a lot of plant and we didn’t have very many customers. The system had been allowed to deteriorate. It was a five-channel system and it had never had a cable upgrade. In looking through my notes one time I discovered that in 1955 I had upgraded it from three channels to five channels. It was one of the technical jobs that I took on for Walt Brown in State College. I had upgraded it from three channels to five channels.
SMITH: That was before you owned it?
GARDNER: Oh yes. This was in 1955. It had never been upgraded anymore after that. I had supplied technical services to a long list of cable systems. The Carlisle system was one of them. They would have a problem and couldn’t find an answer with their own technical work force. I would go there and find out what the problem was, either correct it for them or suggest what they had to do to correct it.
I did that for probably fifteen years after I went into the business originally. We designed a lot of systems in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and some in southern New York State. We built head ends … a lot of far-out types of engineering. I remember one of those was a rhombic antenna we built for Gus Rigas in Wellsville, New York. He had a terrible problem with signals up there and we built a rhombic antenna for him to overcome that. Most people wouldn’t even know what a rhombic antenna is but it worked for him up there.
SMITH: How large an area did it cover? They could get pretty big, couldn’t they?
GARDNER: Yes. We built a number of rhombics. I just happen to remember his in particular. We built a two-stack rhombic for him. If I recall it was 200 or 225 feet on a leg. A rhombic has four legs. It’s like a square but it’s squashed in at the sides. I think the legs were 200 or 225 feet long on that one. It takes a lot of real estate to put one of those up. It worked quite well. It helped him get in business in Wellsville.
SMITH: What was the theory of a rhombic antenna? Why would it be, for example, better in a given instance than the standard yagi cut to the size of the channel that you were going to receive?
GARDNER: You have to get into antenna theory a little bit there. A yagi antenna is just a dipole which is a piece of wire that’s got connections in the center for a down lead to the receiver with elements in front or back or both that are called interference elements. What these interference elements do is take the wave and interfere with its normal travel through the atmosphere and use it to reinforce the signal that’s in the dipole. So with your interference techniques, you can take a small antenna and grab a lot more signal.
The theory behind a rhombic is a long wire. A long wire antenna has a lot more area exposed to the signal. The idea of the rhombic is to take a long wire and make it directional. So you take this long wire, say a 200 foot long wire, and you put other wires at an angle to it such that you can point the lobe of the antenna–the reception area of the antenna–in a certain direction. By the way you squeeze the sides in or expand it out, you can point this in whatever direction you want and it acts to enhance the signal that’s captured by one wire. One wire is more or less not directional–you can’t point it towards anything. With two wires you can get directivity and you get the additional reception of the second wire. The two wires act to provide the same amount of signal and you can add them together. When you have two wires that’s called a V antenna. If you go to the full rhombic, that’s four wires. So you have four wires that are adding electrically to the signal. In addition to that you can make it directive so it points towards a certain place which is the transmitting station which you are obviously trying to receive.
So a rhombic antenna, in addition to having four wires that give you high signal reception, also has high directivity. You can use it to eliminate signals that are coming from a direction you don’t want them to be received from. Like if you have a station which is co-channel to another station, meaning they’re both on the same frequency, and the one is interfering with the one that you want to receive, you can use a rhombic to just shut out the signal from the one you don’t want to receive. It’s a more or less specialized, very high gain, very high directivity antenna. It uses a lot of real estate. That’s why most people don’t use them.
So we built rhombic antennas in various places and did a lot of UHF work in the early days of UHF reception. The biggest problem that anyone had was finding a way to get the signal to the antenna site that they were dedicated to. The UHF stations are notorious for providing dead spots. If you happened to have your antenna site in a dead spot, you had a real problem when a station would come on the air. So we got a lot of business even from television stations who would hire us to go out and install their signal at each antenna site where the local operator said he either wasn’t interested in bothering with it or it was a dead spot. With a lot of sophisticated types of preamplifiers and some ingenuity as far as transmission lines, we were able to put UHF stations on some of the cable systems in Pennsylvania.
SMITH: You mean the UHF station would hire your consulting organization to do the necessary technical work to deliver their signal to a given cable system in order to get carried on the cable system?
GARDNER: That’s right. They would provide all of the headend equipment–the antenna, the transmission line–and pay my bill for doing the work. That way they got on the cable system.
SMITH: Did you encounter a lot of that?
GARDNER: We did it for a number of stations, the UHF stations in eastern Pennsylvania in particular. Many times the cable operator would want the signal on but couldn’t find anyone that would do it and we would do it. Generally you didn’t have much ability to have them put a new tower up or anything. You had to use what was there because most cable operators either weren’t that free with the money or just didn’t have it. Yet if a UHF station would come on the air, it was desirable to have them on. And the UHF stations were dead without being on the cable system because there weren’t even UHF television sets until the FCC said that all television sets had to have UHF on them or they couldn’t be sold.
SMITH: You were doing this before the all-channel tuners were …
GARDNER: Oh yes. Because once you got on the cable system, you didn’t need the all-channel tuner. It was translated to a different channel through the cable system.
SMITH: During what time span was this taking place?
GARDNER: This was probably between 1954 and 1960. As the television stations came on … they didn’t all come on at once. The UHF stations came on gradually. As they would come on the air they were faced with the problem of how to get out to the audience which in eastern Pennsylvania was largely on the cable systems.
SMITH: Wasn’t this the period of time, George, when the FCC and a large part of the broadcast industry were accusing cable systems of destroying UHF–impeding UHF from developing?
GARDNER: Well, naturally there were two sides to the coin. The biggest problem the cable operator had was how to use a signal that wasn’t there. No matter how grand the plan was or what the paper engineering said, when UHF stations started putting out a million watts and you couldn’t receive it, you had a problem. It didn’t matter whether you were in your home or whether you were connected to a cable system or where it was.
Channel 61-WHUM in Reading, I can recall, had an enormous tower on top of a tall mountain. In fact, the airplanes used to hit it regularly. They finally went out of business because they couldn’t get enough viewers and yet they had a very powerful signal. We received them in Lewistown. Yet local cable operators had great difficulty getting them even where they could see the tower.
SMITH: I asked the question only to emphasize the fact that quietly UHF stations were going to considerable effort to get themselves carried while at the same time the FCC was using as an excuse for some of its strict regulation the contention that cable systems were impeding the development of UHF broadcasting because it took the place of the UHF station. What you’re saying would suggest quite the contrary.
GARDNER: Well, I can only report it from my side and we were out there …. As I say, we usually had channel capacity, if you were away from the city area, and there weren’t that many cable systems built in the cities anyway, but as soon as you got out away from the city, we wanted those extra channels. And if there was any way that we could figure to get them, we did. One of the most difficult things we had was the higher UHF channels in particular. Above about Channel 40 the technology was so inferior that you just could not get a clean picture. You couldn’t get a cable usable signal no matter what you did.
I can recall trying all different types of converters, different types of preamplifiers, and everything to make that Channel 61 signal work. It was extremely difficult. We used a transmission line called G-line to bring the signal from the top of the tower down to the base of the tower because we couldn’t get enough signal any other way. If we put a preamplifier up at the top of the tower, the preamplifiers were so fragile that they would blow out every time there was a lightning strike on the tower. So we couldn’t use the preamplifier at the top of the tower. We put the antenna up there, ran a piece of UHF G-line down to the bottom, then into the preamplifier and managed to salvage enough signal quality so that we could convert the signal and use it on the cable systems.
SMITH: Well, I’ve heard of G-line being used out in the west a little bit but I didn’t realize it had been used here in the east.
End of Tape 2, Side B
SMITH: This is Side A of Tape 3 of the oral history interview with George Gardner. It is still August 14th.
George, while we were turning the tape over I spoke briefly to you about my surprise that you had become a consulting engineer in this business over the years. Also you indicated that apparently you had done quite a bit of sales work in equipment distribution. I would like you to amplify on that aspect of your career for this record if you would please.
GARDNER: When we completed the last tape I think I had just started to mention about G-line. Frank Thompson had G-line installed at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base near San Diego, California. The manufacturer of the wire had not supplied a quality level that we had requested. After Frank had it installed, it didn’t have the strength to keep itself up. The first time he knew about this problem was when the California Highway Patrol was calling him up and telling him to come out here and get this wire off the road so that the traffic could pass under it. He had to finally take the G-line down even though it did supply the signal that it was supposed to supply and there was no problem with the technical characteristics as far as signal transmission. The mechanical characteristics of keeping it up in the air were another matter. The problem there was having the right tensile strength of the wire.
SMITH: Was this in the Palm Desert area?
GARDNER: I was never there. He had a long antenna run and for whatever reason at that time he couldn’t run a signal from his antenna site that he was able to find down into the base and get the picture quality he wanted. So he elected to use the G-line which had a very low loss. In other words, you could run many miles of G-line without an amplifier and still recover a high quality picture at the end of it. It was almost like a microwave in that respect–it had no amplifier. But it had to be kept up in the air. This particular wire stretched and came down too low to the ground, and he just couldn’t continue to use it. I think he finally solved the problem with the microwave. But that’s a much more expensive solution. But we used G-line very successfully in UHF applications. From the top of high towers, say 200 or 300 feet, where we would put UHF antennas and then we could stretch a G-line down to the ground and keep it taut and the signal would just go down. It was a very low attenuation path. In other words, if you took an antenna and put a preamplifier at that location or you put a G-line down to the bottom of the tower and put a preamplifier, you had about the same quality of signal either place. The signal did not deteriorate going down this G-line.
That was the only way we could solve the problem of the UHF television stations in areas where we had high lightning strikes. The preamplifiers would not last on top of the tower but we could manage to get them to stay in the circuit at the bottom of the tower. With the G-line we got the signal down to the preamplifier.
SMITH: What was the theory of G-line as distinguished from ladder wire, for example, or coaxial cable?
GARDNER: The G-line operates on what’s called a surface wave principle. The idea there is that you take a wire, like a center conductor on a piece of coaxial cable, and put a semi-conducting sheath around it–an insulating sheath–right next to the wire and then a semi-conducting covering on the outside of it, but not a metallic covering. This semi-conducting sheath constrains the electromagnetic field. Normally a wire when it’s stretched out has an enormous electromagnetic field around it and it’s called an antenna. It radiates the signal out. Depending on the wavelength that you’re operating on, you can receive it thousands of miles away. The theory of the G-line is to contain that field so that the energy in the field isn’t radiated. The fellow that invented it was named Goubeau. Goubeau invented G-line by putting a semi-conducting covering on the outside of an insulator sheath around the center conductor. Instead of putting the conducting covering that’s normally on a coaxial cable–the aluminum tube–he put a semi-conducting covering on. This semi-conducting coating kept the field from being radiated like an antenna would radiate. We found that with various coatings that were put on the wire, you could keep the electromagnetic field to about eight feet in diameter around the center conductor. At eight feet you’ve got all of the energy traveling in that field down the wire. At the other end of the wire, all you do is install an eight foot dish antenna and it receives the transmitted signal just like it’s receiving it off the air. The dish antenna has a probe that comes out into the electromagnetic field. The probe takes all of the energy out of the electromagnetic field and puts it back into whatever wire you want to have lead it away from the antenna. G-line has very low loss because you’ve received practically the entire electromagnetic field that would have been radiated into the air. It’s a surface wave that travels down along the conductor.
The reason why a piece of coaxial cable has higher loss is because the field is constrained to stay right inside the pipe and you have a lot of loss in that constraining of the field. The G-line is similar to coaxial cable but you don’t have that outside sheath consuming the current that is flowing. You don’t have the high attenuation.
The idea was a very good one. In fact, Goubeau had a patent on it. We were able to make it work. You had to have mechanical consideration to keeping the wire up in the air. At the connecting points at a pole or wherever you lifted it off the road, you couldn’t use a normal metal clamp to hold it up because that would distort the electromagnetic field. We developed special brackets that would have low insertion loss. They were put out on the ends of a cross arm. It was a loop type plastic that supported the G-line as it went through.
The less interference you had in the electromagnetic field, the less attenuation you had. If you had high interference in the field, like if you had it go next to a building, you would have high attenuation. You could actually run it next to buildings. We ran it along a railroad track one time. There were places where we had to pass signal towers and things like that and we could notice that there was higher attenuation in the G-line than normal. But it still was extremely low attenuation. You could run it for miles. I think we had one installation along a railroad track that ran for three miles without an amplifier. If I recall, it was a 220 MHz passband in that situation.
But even at UHF frequencies, which are very difficult to deal with even today, with G-line it just acted as though the transmission line wasn’t even there. The UHF signal would come right down the G-line.
We did help a lot of the UHF television stations that asked us to. And we helped a lot of systems.
SMITH: Could you give an order of magnitude figure on the number of stations that you helped get on cable systems? I think that’s significant to the history of the industry, really.
GARDNER: Our biggest market was eastern Pennsylvania in the UHF region. Channel 61 had tremendous problems, mostly because of their frequency. They had the power and they had the location. Their antenna designs maybe weren’t quite adequate because the signal passed over so many close-in locations. It went out and reached the farther locations but even at that, it had great difficulty because of its frequency. It was too high a frequency for the technology that was available at the time. We did a lot of work for them.
There were stations in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area that had reception problems at certain cable systems and we helped them.
The dead spots in the UHF reception were really tough to solve. You could solve some of them but you couldn’t solve all of them. I don’t think anyone realized what kind of problems the UHF stations had at the time, except the stations. They knew the problems they had. People just couldn’t see them. The cable system operators, with the limited resources they had, were interested in solving the problem and putting the stations on the cable system. Most of them did not have the technical capability to really do anything about it. A lot of the systems had been built on a turnkey basis by someone who then didn’t want to really come back and do any additional work. It was expensive and most people didn’t want to pay the cost of it.
We took one contract with a UHF station, WDAU-TV, Channel 22 in Scranton, and I believe we put their signal on between twenty and twenty-five cable systems over a period of a year.
SMITH: I think it’s a very significant point, George. You don’t hear too much about that usually. Traditionally, the broadcasters and cable are supposedly miles apart and this type of cooperation where broadcasters were actively seeking to get on cable and even paying the expense to be put on at a time when it was official government policy to assume cable was blocking the development of UHF I think is fascinating. I knew that this had happened but I didn’t know it was to the extent that you were talking about.
GARDNER: Well, everyone was trying to stay in business and I don’t think some of the people realized how hard it was to be in the cable television business. It was the same thing with UHF stations. I owned the cable system in Wilkes-Barre and Dave Baltimore ran the UHF station, WBRE-TV, NBC on Channel 28. He had all kinds of problems. He tried to operate as economically as he could. He hated me for stealing any customers because I had stations on that competed with him. Like I had Channel 3 in Philadelphia on the cable system which was an NBC and people would watch that instead of watching WBRE-TV. We weren’t exactly friends but we talked to each other.
SMITH: He was a strong opponent of the cable industry. I remember it myself.
GARDNER: Yes. And he had good points, too. But he still talked with me. We realized that we were both in the television business together. I seem to recall he couldn’t afford to pay for a regular microwave to bring the NBC signal into Wilkes-Barre so he relied on picking up the Philadelphia signal and relaying it. He had a deal worked out with them. We carried the Philadelphia signal on the cable system. The cable system head end was directly across the state road from the WBRE-TV transmitter. When WBRE-TV would have troubles with their signal reception from Philadelphia, we supplied a connection to them so that they could use our cable signal. These were things that you just did. Whenever we needed help and one of his engineers could help us, they did.
The UHF stations had great difficulty making their stations viable. There’s no question about that. Their signals were strange. They weren’t like the VHF signal. A lot of people couldn’t understand why they had to point their UHF antenna away from the station instead of towards the station to get the signal. But up in the Wyoming Valley, you could drive through and see the antennas pointed north instead of south where Dave’s WBRE-TV transmitter was located. The off-air viewers were getting a better signal off the mountain north of Wilkes-Barre. The signal would go North, hit the mountain and then bounce back down into their antenna.
SMITH: A reflected signal.
GARDNER: Yes. It was a reflected signal because RCA didn’t know how to bend the beam down so it would go down in the valley. They learned how to do it later on but those early UHF pioneers had a tough job. They had a paper that said that they covered this area with signal but when you went out and looked at it, it didn’t work that way. They had to rely on the cable operator to get the signal down there to the people.
So we were able to find ways to help the UHF station although we were mainly in business to help the cable operator. From that we were able to get the cable operator to use our services and we learned a lot. It was mostly learning on the job. You run into a problem and you try to figure out how to solve it. Once you solved it one place, you’d try that solution someplace else. We had many times when we couldn’t solve a problem one place and then later on we’d find a way to solve it and go back and solve the other one. It was a lot of just learning on the job.
You called me a consulting engineer. I guess if that’s the definition of a consulting engineer, that’s what we were.
SMITH: Well, I was going to ask you in the next question … did you have other people with you to work in this capacity or did you do it all pretty much by yourself?
GARDNER: I had other people that did routine work like aligning the equipment in the head end. Back before the solid state head end equipment, the tubes would deteriorate in the head end equipment. Once it deteriorated, you had to go through and test them to find out which ones had deteriorated. And when you installed the new ones, you had to take a look at the response of the equipment. If the response had changed because of putting a new tube in, you had to realign the equipment so it would pass the signal. I had people on the payroll that normally did that.
We serviced a regular group of cable systems where we did the tube checking, tube changing, realignment and just generally making their head end function. Some of them had technicians that were not capable of doing everything. We’d go in and help them in the areas where they had problems–especially UHF.
UHF in the 1950s was such a problem for most every cable technician that all you wanted to do was never hear of it. We wound up with a lot of clients that way that were interested in having you solve the problem. Sometimes we could, sometimes we couldn’t.
SMITH: You mentioned something that reminded me of a question I meant to ask you back when you were explaining how you would have to adjust the gain on each amplifier in cascade to try to get it at the level where it would produce a good signal and not overdrive and not be under. You said when you made a mistake you’d have to go back and start at the beginning and go down the cascade again. What happened to you when the weather changed drastically? Were there changes in the attenuation with the onslaught of cold weather or hot weather?
GARDNER: Obviously, we learned early on that the signals varied with the weather. Jerrold had some fairly good solutions to that. They had automatic gain control units that you could put on each of their chassis and that would control the signal level of each of the channels.
The first time that we went to what was called broadband equipment, where you put more than one channel into an amplifier circuit, we tried to control the signals as tightly as we did with the original Jerrold equipment and it was much more difficult to do that. It was a routine. Normally you could establish a time period that your equipment would work properly in. Then at the end of that time period you had to go out, check all the tubes, readjust all the gain controls, and go through the entire system setting the level.
Some types of equipment were much more able to maintain their levels than others. System design had a lot to do with it. If you’d take a design that was sloppily done, you had many more problems. You didn’t have the headroom that you had with a system that was designed with a little more uniformity–the amplifier spacing is similar, the output levels the same. If there was disparity in the distance between the amplifiers, then you had less headroom for problems to be accommodated before the customer could see it. And, of course, then you had to go out and do maintenance on it more frequently because of that.
But seasonal changes are something that plagued every cable operator with the tube equipment and especially with the broadband amplifier equipment.
SMITH: This consulting work that you did resulted, I presume, in quite a bit of travel around the state and around the country?
GARDNER: I traveled a good bit. I can remember one year, I think 1955, I bought a new car and in 1956 I traded it in and it had 100,000 miles on it. That was probably the peak. I don’t think I put that many miles on in a year after that. But I was still reaching for enough income at that time and there was an awful lot of demand for anyone that could solve problems. The cable industry had technical problems through those years. Some of the problems were just plain outrageous–there were no solutions. As the industry matured and there were technical solutions that were discovered and made available, and you were able to afford to buy the equipment and put it in place, a lot of the technical work that was needed in the early years became unnecessary. Until the advent of probably the second generation of solid state equipment in the early ’70s, the technical problems at times were such that you couldn’t maintain a high quality picture for very long without having someone available to do some work on the system.
The solid state equipment became available in the early ’60s, and some of it could be used for certain applications. By the time the twelve-channel or more solid state equipment became available in the early ’70s, it was still nip and tuck. The tube equipment was outrageous to maintain. The early first generation solid state equipment was not quite as bad. And by the time you got the second generation solid state, things settled down so that we understood the problems better and were able to solve them better.
I’ve got to hand it to people like Ken Simons who did a lot of the understanding for us of the early technical problems. Even though we understood them, sometimes we didn’t know what to do about them. But at least he brought them to our attention so we understood them.
SMITH: You’ll be interested in reading the oral history that Archer Taylor did of Ken Simons for our technical oral history project here. We have the tapes and the first transcription of it now. It’s absolutely fascinating.
GARDNER: I’ll bet.
SMITH: And we had sense enough, you see, to have a technical person do the interviewing. He’s also done Don Kirk and Iz Shekel. I think we’ve got five of them done now. We’re going to do fifty interviews of those who contributed to solving the basic technology problems of the industry. Then we’re going to prepare a book and publish it based on the interviews.
GARDNER: It will be very interesting I’m sure of that.
SMITH: I imagine that you’ll enjoy reading that.
GARDNER: I went through the era. When they would come up with a solution for something, it was just the greatest thing. It was like eating steak.
SMITH: Well, George, I’m going to suggest that we terminate because to walk to the car and get you to the hotel comfortably by six o’clock we really should be going. Okay?
End of Tape 3, Side A
SMITH: This is Tape 4, Side A of the recorded oral history of George Gardner. It is August 13, 1993, almost a year to the day from when we finished the last interview with Mr. Gardner. We are located in the conference room of The National Cable Television Center and Museum at Penn State University.
George, when we terminated the last interview we had been talking about your activities as a consultant. One that particularly interested me was the historical record of work that you did assisting UHF television broadcast stations to get access to cable systems through the use of G-line technology. One question that we left unanswered was which television station it was you were referring to when you said that you had assisted the television station in getting on somewhere between fifteen and twenty cable systems. Do you recall at this time what television station that was?
GARDNER: Yes, it was WHUM and it was run by a gentleman by the name of Humboldt Gregg and it was located in Reading. He spent a good deal of time trying to get people to watch the station. The technology wasn’t too good to receive it and the cable systems that tried to carry the station either couldn’t get a signal or couldn’t solve the problems after they did get a signal. So he hired me to analyze a list of cable systems that he was interested in being on. I analyzed each one and would give him an estimate of what I thought it would cost in equipment and time to put his signal on the system. He would get the systems’ approval for me to do that and agree to pay for it. We put them on, as I said, between fifteen and twenty of the systems. It was a good usable signal. He had CBS programming, if I recall, at the time. A number of the systems were deficient in CBS programming so they were interested in it and the UHF receivers weren’t really adequate to use and no one would buy them because they didn’t work very well. When we got them on the cable system they were just as good as any other signal that they were using.
SMITH: On what channel or operating frequency was WHUM?
GARDNER: It was Channel 61. Some of the UHF channels, as you probably remember, were better than others and back then Channel 40 was about the cut off. I remember the stations that were higher than Channel 40 used to always go to the FCC and try to find a way to trade for a lower number frequency. The technology seemed to unravel above Channel 40 and the 61 frequency was difficult for everyone. Not only did he have problems getting the signal out but once the signal was received … the reception equipment, the television tuners just didn’t perform very well.
I think he had another problem that hadn’t been resolved at that time. The signal was so high on this tall tower that he had on top of the mountain that it just went over top of everyone. Until RCA came along later and started to put beam bending antennas to bend the signal down a little bit, the signals just weren’t there. They were supposedly there but the engineering was faulty in that.
He always tried to get the people to use the station … he advertised and did what he could to put in on the cable system. But eventually he couldn’t get enough people to view it and, of course, no one would advertise on it so he went off the air. They even dismantled the tower.
SMITH: This was the type of situation that was typically responsible for the development of the cable industry, particularly in Pennsylvania, was it not? Where the signals went over the mountains but didn’t get down into the valleys.
GARDNER: That’s right. They even had problems such as in the Wyoming Valley where I had a system in Wilkes-Barre. The signal would ricochet back and forth in the valley so that you couldn’t point the antenna towards the station, you had to use the reflected signal. You point your antenna away from the station and that would give you a signal. While it wasn’t the main signal, it would be useable. Later on they managed to solve that by some of the beam bending in the antenna but the UHF signal reception problems were pretty bad.
SMITH: Can you make any kind of an estimate or a guess as to the number of television homes you were able to add to WHUM’s audience by virtue of your activities with these cable systems?
GARDNER: I don’t really remember the locations of the cable systems by the name of the town. These were mostly smaller systems and they were in the hard coal region in eastern Pennsylvania. Probably a good area of definition would have been the Susquehanna River on the west … Although I operated west of the Susquehanna and had two systems there that I had it on, most of the work we did was east of the Susquehanna and south of the Wilkes-Barre area and north of Reading which gives you some sort of an area. I’d say they were mostly hard coal region mining towns.
As far as the number of subscribers, I can remember we put in on in Bloomsburg, which had several thousand subscribers at the time. I’d just have to guess probably somewhere between twenty-five and fifty thousand subscribers. Even then the cable systems didn’t have very good penetration. A lot of people didn’t have television sets. It wasn’t like today when you have a television set in every room. A lot of people just didn’t have television sets so the cable systems, themselves, didn’t have many subscribers.
It was an attempt by Gregg to get his audience built up and I think he did have an audience. I can remember he had a couple of loyal advertisers who he apparently had some sort of a deal with … they were always on there. I remember one fellow had a lumber yard and he got a lot of business in his lumber yard. It was located up in the coal region. I’d have to think about what his name was. It doesn’t come to my mind right now. But he did get some advertisers. It’s just that the cost of operating the station was so tremendous that he couldn’t continue in business.
SMITH: Was this operating cost a factor of the equipment … the UHF transmitter and so on?
GARDNER: I think it was his electric bill . . . probably the combination of his electric bill. This was more than a million watt station back at a time when that was unheard of. I suspect his liability insurance for that tower was pretty hefty. As I mentioned before, I can remember the airplanes used to hit the tower guy wires. So I suspect he had a problem with those operating costs. I really am unfamiliar with his normal station operating costs. But he did try which meant to me he probably had a staff of a minimum of twenty-five to fifty people and a payroll like that is something that you have to have a lot of revenue to cover.
SMITH: Did you say he had a CBS affiliation?
GARDNER: It was a CBS affiliation, yes.
SMITH: Do you recall any work that you did specifically with other television stations to try to assist them to increase their coverage area through access to cable systems?
GARDNER: Yes, I worked for WDAU-TV, a television station in Scranton. We did some work for cable companies that had UHF reception problems and helped them. Lots of times we would explain to them how to install the equipment and then they would go do it on their own. We sold equipment at the time, too. Occasionally we would make an installation for someone that didn’t have anyone that was technically capable of doing it.
The eastern Pennsylvania area relied on UHF reception. The Harrisburg area only had one VHF station available from Lancaster and there were three or four UHF stations. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area was all UHF. Allentown was UHF. You had VHF in Philadelphia and Lancaster. Then you had to go west to Altoona before you got another VHF station. So it was a strong UHF area. Everyone had to use UHF stations.
SMITH: Do your recall approximately what year or years were spanned by this period that you are talking about?
GARDNER: I’d say it was in the late ’50s, early ’60s.
SMITH: Would that have been before the so-called All Channel Bill that Congress passed that required all television sets be capable of tuning UHF?
GARDNER: Well, Strat, I don’t recall when that bill was. I recall of it, but I don’t have any recollection of the time frame there.
SMITH: Do you think this would have been within the period when the answer to tuning in UHF was simply a rotary dial that the television set owner was required to tune, like an old fashioned radio, in order to get the channel he was after?
GARDNER: Yes, the Detent tuners didn’t come out until much later. The UHF television sets were very difficult to tune. Of course, on the cable system you didn’t have to use the UHF tuner. That was one of the big draws that the cable systems used at the time. You could get all of the stations on the VHF part of the dial.
SMITH: Let’s discuss your career in the consulting business in a little more detail. George, do you recall any other specific consulting projects you had that you might say are illustrative of the problems of the cable industry in those early days of the industry?
GARDNER: What I did was help operators maintain their systems where they didn’t have a high level of technical competence on their staff. Normally they would hire someone to make installations after someone had built the system. They would hire an installer and hopefully find someone to do the maintenance on it. That gave them a limited technical capability. If they had to do something that was outside the range of that technical capability, we held ourselves out to do that.
A lot of it was realignment of head ends, installing additional channels, replacing antennas … general trouble shooting if the technical staff didn’t understand the problem. If they got hum on a system and didn’t understand how to find it, we would find it for them and try to train them how to find it the next time … what to look for.
You have to remember that the level of technical capability and the technical equipment–the test equipment–that was available was very limited. When we first started we used a television receiver to adjust the signal levels on the system. We then went to the Jerrold 704 when it became available and that at least allowed us to set levels and measure hum and that’s about all. Any of the additional problems that a technician would run into, you were usually on your own. Everyone would devise a method for determining what was wrong and how to fix it. Lots of times the local technician didn’t have that ability so we would help them with that.
We designed systems and built systems. We had a construction crew that would actually build systems. If we didn’t have enough manpower to do it ourselves, there were other people we could get to do it for us.
SMITH: Could you identify some of the systems that you designed and built.
GARDNER: I should have brought a list along of those. I have that and have been negligent in not bringing it with me. I’ll try to send you that. I did make a list at one time. We stopped doing that type, probably, in the middle ’60s … too far back for me to remember off the top of my head. I remember we did build a lot of systems and put extensions on systems where someone had originally built the system in Pennsylvania, southern New York State, northern West Virginia. There might have been a little bit of work in northern Maryland. It was mostly localized around the area we could work.
SMITH: At the time you were doing that sort of work, devoting time to other people’s cable systems, were you also active simultaneously building systems for yourself … franchising?
GARDNER: Yes, I would franchise as much as I could. The biggest problem after you franchise was trying to find someone to finance it. We weren’t very successful. Some of them we were able to finance and we actually built. Some of them we financed with the idea that we weren’t going to be able to retain them and would have to sell them as soon as we got them viable. There were many franchises that I was able to acquire and then could not finance.
I remember, in particular, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I wasn’t able to finance it and I managed to get a local motel owner to take the franchise and we built the system for him. I would have preferred to have had some ownership, but he didn’t want me to be part owner with him so I didn’t even get a little bit of ownership on that one.
SMITH: Did he then build it with his own money or did he just have better financing sources to go to than you might have had?
GARDNER: I really don’t know were he found his money, but I think he had been in the motel business long enough that I think he was able to finance it through his own resources. To the best of my recollection he didn’t have anyone else in with him. It wasn’t that large a system.
We would find someone like that every now and then that we could franchise it and get someone interested and then build it for them. Many times I was able to trade some of my expense as part of the ownership of it. When they decided they had had enough of it, we would sell it to someone else.
SMITH: The banks, I am assuming, were pretty much uncooperative as far as being willing to provide financial assistance.
GARDNER: The banks at that time, and I’m talking about in the ’60s now when I really was trying to find additional financing … The systems back in the ’50s were financed a different way and I’ll go into that if you want me to.
SMITH: I would like it if you would.
GARDNER: Okay. But in the ’60s, we tried to work with the banks but they were used to having something that had a profit where they could see how they were going to be repaid. If you tried to talk to them about a business venture that they had never heard of and didn’t have any reference in any of the material that they had available, they would just say we don’t have any way we can do this. If you had some real estate you could pledge against it, that was fine. If you wanted to pledge another cable system against it, that wasn’t something that was of interest to them. So we largely had to work on finding someone that had a business venture that they were willing to pledge against it.
In one system, I recall, we had a gentleman who operated the business and had a good relationship with the bank and they agreed to finance the cable system based on his say that he would see that everything got paid. He personally guaranteed it. They weren’t the slightest bit interested in our collateral, even our real estate. They didn’t want it. Who needs something on top of a mountain. I can remember the bankers saying, “How would I ever find a buyer for a building on top of a mountain?” So even our real estate that we had was of no interest to the bank as far as collateral.
SMITH: Particularly those head ends on the top of the mountains in those days. They weren’t much bigger than an outhouse were they?
GARDNER: I can remember John Walson built a head end in Hazelton that was a home because he had a microwave tower there. You worked for John, you know what I’m talking about there. He had to build a home because the zoning wouldn’t let him build a head end building … he had to build a home. So he just built a home with his microwave in it.
SMITH: That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that. He actually had to build a residence for the head end.
GARDNER: Yes, and it had be a two-story residence because he had the microwave dishes pointing out the upstairs windows. They were inside the windows, but the beam pointed through the windows. That was the way he solved that problem.
SMITH: Do you recall what town that was?
GARDNER: I believe it was in Hazelton. I can remember seeing the building. John was ingenious that way. If he had a problem he’d find some unorthodox method of solving the problem.
To get back to the financing, in the ’50s most of the cable systems that I was connected with and that I was aware of financed the systems by the contributions-in-aid-of-construction, which was another name for a large down payment by the customer. The idea was that a typical home antenna structure cost $150 to $200 and if you could get the customers to pay that to you for the cable connection instead of paying it to someone to build a tower, then you had the money and he had the signal and you could use that money then to build more cable plant so you could convince more people to pay you another $150 each. Then when you got that money and built that cable plant, you could go build some more cable plant. We sort of boot strapped ourselves into building systems. There are quite possibly not very many stories of people that had funds that could go out and just plunk the money down and build a system. I know a lot of systems that were built by using the customer contribution-in-aid-of- construction as the funds to provide capital to build additional cable plant.
SMITH: Let me ask you if you had an experience similar to this one that I have been told about with a few cable systems. That is the local banks would work out a deal to lend the amount of the contribution which might be $150 plus the price of the TV set to the subscriber if the cable system would guarantee the subscriber’s loan to the bank. I have heard of systems that actually guaranteed their subscriber’s loans to borrow the television set and the down payment. Did you encounter that at all?
GARDNER: We worked with the dealer to do that. The dealer was willing to guarantee the set part of the financing as long as we would guarantee the part that was the cable payment and then we would discount this at the bank. If the loan went sour, then the dealer picked up his portion of it and the cable system picked up their portion of it. Very few of them went bad, but these were recourse loans and we had to sign on everything that the bank would take. The banks wouldn’t take anything on cable without a recourse to someone. But I agree that eventually, if you stayed in business a few years, the banks would take recourse paper like that.
SMITH: It took a few years to prove to them that once you got a cable system in there it was going to stay.
GARDNER: Of course, if you recall the general opinion back then was that as soon as the FCC log jam broke and the UHF stations got on the air there would be no reason for cable and cable would go out of business. That was the general logical thinking and every day we stayed in business, someone would say, “Well, you’re going to go out of business tomorrow.” But the actual matter of fact was that the longer we stayed in business the more everyone got the idea, well maybe they are going to stay in business. But it took, I would say, into the middle to late ’50s before people really got the idea that the cable industry was actually going to stay in business.
SMITH: Well, this contribution-in-aid-of-construction scheme, as I understand it, was a financing system that was used in public utilities like power companies at one time where the customers, simply in order to get service, paid for the necessary amount of plant to get the service to him and then the company took ownership of the plant as a contribution-in-aid-of-construction. Then he didn’t have to pay income tax on the money. Is that correct?
GARDNER: There was a tax angle to it and I’m not quite sure I remember it all. It seems to me there was a federal excise tax or something of that sort that was placed on the payments that we requested for an installation. Instead of calling it an installation charge, if we called it a contribution-in-aid-of-construction, that tax didn’t apply or as you point out perhaps it was an income tax benefit of some sort to the cable company. The magic in accounting there escapes me. I believe there was some situation that allowed us to shelter it from taxes. But not being an accountant and not remembering too much about it back then … I remember we did it. Exactly why, I don’t know.
SMITH: It was common in the industry and the theory was that because the customer gave it to you as a capital contribution it wasn’t income, therefore you didn’t have to pay an income tax on it and you had it available to build the system. Do you recall that in due course that situation went to litigation and the courts ruled that you couldn’t treat that money as a contribution-in-aid-of-construction?
GARDNER: I can recall that, yes, we couldn’t do that. I also recall that we were required to refund some payments that had been made on behalf of the customer and I believe these were tax payments. We were required to refund those. It was a refunding of some sort. The details of that escape me. There were a lot of ingenious accounting methods used and some of them unraveled, I recall that.
SMITH: I think the refund situation that you are referring to was the tax you mentioned a minute ago, the excise tax that cable systems had to collect from their subscribers. It was a tax just like the tax on telephone service. In fact, it was a tax on telephone service that the government said also applied to cable service. And that was a case that the industry won. All those cable systems that had paid the taxes to the government got the money back and had to pay it back to their subscribers. That was a different tax from the contribution-in-aid-of-construction.
GARDNER: That was a different tax. And, of course, it was a different one than the reason that Marty Malarkey formed the NCTA for. That was a completely different tax also … an early ’50s tax. I’ve even forgotten what that one was. I know he ran the system in Pottsville and the government came around and assessed the tax to him and a couple of other operators in the area. He decided we’d better all get together and talk about this and see if there was some way we could cope with it.
SMITH: Yes, that was the motivation for starting the … I believe they called it the National Community Television Council the first year or two. Then they changed it to Association later. But it was both of those tax cases that did that. They both came up at the same time and the industry was so new that nobody knew whether the taxes applied or not.
The reason I got you started on the contributions is that I was going to ask you what you did when the courts ruled that you couldn’t treat it as a contribution and said it had to be income. To what extent, do you recall, did you get stuck with that in any of your systems?
GARDNER: I don’t recall what we did. I didn’t handle the accounting directly. I know we had problems with it . . . exactly how we resolved it, no, I don’t remember. Frankly, I was so bogged down with technical problems most of the time that I was very happy to have somebody else take the accounting and tax problems. The group that handled it for me at that time was Laventhol, Krekstein Company. They merged so many times that I don’t know what their name is anymore. They resolved it and we had to go from financing that way into financing either with direct capital contributions by shareholders or finding collateral that someone could borrow against and use that as collateral and a signature note. That type of thing.
SMITH: What was the most interesting or challenging cable system that you had to build? And I mean challenging both in terms of financing it and also the technical problems that might have been involved in getting and distributing the signals.
GARDNER: That’s an easy one. In the mid ’60s a group had started to build Reading, Pennsylvania, and for whatever reason they weren’t making out very well. I guess they were under-capitalized like all of us were. Milt Shapp got interested in it. I believe he bought the system and started to build it. About the same time a friend of mine who lived in the area suggested that since they weren’t really working very fast and he lived on the opposite side of the Schuylkill River and he wanted to have cable service before he died, why didn’t I come up and put a group together and build the west side of the Reading area. We got together, he found some people that were interested and we formed a company and built generally the west side of Reading which is Wyomissing, Shillington, Kenhorst, Cumru Township, West Reading. I probably have forgotten some of the other little towns out there. We also applied for a franchise in the city of Reading and it was granted. Part of Reading was on the west side of the Schuylkill River; a couple of the wards of Reading. I think the 19th and 20th wards.
We started to build the system and, of course, that got Shapp’s attention. He did his best to try to stop us from building and, of course, we did our best to stop him from invading what we considered our territory. It got to the point where I had to stop him. I had to license a lot of poles that I wasn’t quite ready to use, but we licensed the poles and that stopped him. That seemed to be a pretty effective method so I went over in his territory on the east side of the Schuylkill River and licensed a lot of poles over there, including ones that he was on but we found out he didn’t have a license for. We had a little bit of a prisoner exchange one day and we sold him the rights to 2,700 of his poles in exchange for his word that he wouldn’t give us a lot of grief anymore. That didn’t stop it.
We had another confrontation. I had to get a right-of-way from an Atlantic gasoline service station. I got the right-of-way and we went up one day to start to build and the fellow met me and said, “I’m sorry but I don’t own this station anymore. I sold it last week, so you can’t use that right-of-way that I signed.” Of course, he wouldn’t talk anymore. We found out that one of Milt’s friends had bought the service station to stop us. We then had to find another way to get through. We had already built the plant over on the other side so we had to provide service to it. It was a little difficult. We managed to get a right-of-way from a public housing project. In order to keep from having a public confrontation, we went up after dark one night and spaded in the wire and connected it up. The next day we announced that we had service up there. I understood from some people that were friendly to me that were in Milt’s office that he was furious about the whole thing. We played a little cat and mouse.
I was building a system in Mechanicsburg at the time so he came up–this was after he became Governor–and drove his black limousine up the alley, trying to steal my people. He offered them a job over on his system in exchange for leaving me. They got a big charge out of that. I’m sure Milt remembers it and will have a good laugh out of my telling this story. Fortunately for me, no one defected. We had our little problems back then. That was the most interesting one I had.
SMITH: That’s a fascinating story. Just for the record, people like you and me, when we get talking about people in the industry we just assume that everybody who’s going to read this will recognize the names. You’re talking about Milton J. Shapp who was the founder of the Jerrold Electronic Corporation and, perhaps for many years, the major supplier of components for cable systems. He was also an operator, a franchisee, and so on. He later became the Governor of the state of Pennsylvania. In fact, Milt also made a try at getting the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Do you recall that?
GARDNER: Yes, oh yes, and he was a good politician. He managed to get out there and tangle with a lot of big names. I recall the time he tangled with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was a good cable operator, too. He got out there and tried to make it as difficult for the competition as he could. We had a lot of fun over it. At the time it was difficult, but it was a cat and mouse game. If you were in first, you had the customer. If you got in second, then the customer wasn’t yours.
There was no such thing as competition. Two systems did not operate well in the same area. There are possibly some that are still operating. But if we found that someone else wired an area before we got there, we knew that our chance of getting customers was not very great and our cost of building the system were to the place where we couldn’t make too many mistakes like that and still stay in business. We tried to be very careful and get to an area first. Or if we couldn’t get to an area first, just not bother with it. That’s what made the Reading situation so interesting. We were over wired in some areas there, but neither of us purposely tried to over wire. Most of the over wiring was either by accident because we had already gotten the construction crews started when the other person was building or where you had to run a connecting line between parts of your system where the other system had already built the plant.
SMITH: That story of your head-to-head tussle with Shapp is a fascinating one. I had never heard that one before. Does that remind you of any other experiences you had in those early days in getting these businesses going?
GARDNER: Obviously, the franchising was a pretty cut-throat situation. Even back before the cities were franchised you had the situation where if you identified an area where you wanted to build, someone else would come in, perhaps just to see what they could make out of your predicament or to get a franchise that they could sell to you later. If you could get a main franchise and they got a less valuable area, then they could sell it to you. A little bit of “greenmail” there.
I remember in the Chambersburg area, John Booth was a radio operator, and I went in and applied for a franchise in the city of Chambersburg. They wanted to think about it and we worked around a little bit. We were just about ready to go into the final meeting when John decided he would apply for a franchise. Well, being a local he had a pretty good chance of getting it. In the meantime I had franchised the areas around it–the townships. When we finally got all through, John managed to get the Chambersburg city franchise and I had all the rest of them around the outside. So I called him and said, “Any chance you’d pay me my costs that I have in the rest of the franchise?” He said, “Sure, it’s probably less expensive than me going in and trying to get them now.” So I just sold him the other franchises for my cost. It seemed like the better thing to do than to argue about it.
But you didn’t win them all. There were franchises that you thought you had locked up; you’d agreed to all the fine detail. Then someone else would come in and for whatever reason, in his case he was local and had a lot of political prestige because of that, and they gave it to him. He built that system and sold it to United Telephone when they got into the business. He then went to Sarasota, Florida, and built the system down there and, I think, retired after that. There were a lot of franchising wars, you might say, before the franchising wars started in the ’70s.
SMITH: I’m going to turn the tape over because I see the light flashing. The question I want to ask you to start on the other side is to tell us about some of the more interesting franchise wars you were in.
End of Tape 4, Side A
SMITH: This is Side B of Tape 4 of the oral history interview with George Gardner on August 13, 1993, at the Cable Television Center at University Park, Pennsylvania. George, when we turned the tape over you were speaking about franchise wars, in general, in the early days and I wanted to ask you to tell us something about some of the interesting franchise battles that you might have had in the early days of the industry.
GARDNER: Well, I don’t recall anything too much of interest other than the ones I’ve mentioned to you. The one thing about franchising of cable systems I do want to mention, though, are the systems that went out of business or went through bankruptcy or just couldn’t hack it. I’m familiar with a number of them in the central Pennsylvania area. The system in Plymouth which is along the Susquehanna west of Wilkes-Barre, I remember it went through a bankruptcy sale. The system in Duncannon just north of Harrisburg went through a bankruptcy sale. I was in Lewistown at the time and the system in Newport was in very bad financial straights and they wanted me to take it over. They would practically finance it for me but I just didn’t have the interest in a system that size with the problems it had.
The original systems had been built with mostly war surplus cables and very early vintage technical capability tube equipment. A lot of the equipment wasn’t designed to use as far as a community. It was designed to provide service in the rooms of a hotel in Atlantic City which is where Milt Shapp originally was working. The problems of the systems were such that the customers wanted better service and there was no way to supply it without a large infusion of money. There was just no money available to do it, so I just had to stay away from a lot of those. A lot of them, as I say, just weren’t able to cope with the problems. The initial money had been spent, the technology wasn’t adequate, and they gradually were unable to interest enough subscribers to keep the system running.
I purchased the Tele-Service system in Wilkes-Barre that way. It had gone through a bankruptcy and the technology was in need of upgrading. It didn’t have a large customer base and the UHF stations had come on the air which gave them a lot of competition. The system was providing the signals from Philadelphia and, I think, one from New York City–WPIX. There was an interest in the signals but no one wanted to put the money in to upgrade the plant. I bought it, upgraded it, and sold it to John Walson. The main reason John bought it was because he needed our antenna site as a microwave transmission site. He got the system, more or less, as an additional “benefit.” It had a few subscribers, maybe 700 to 1,000, something like that, but it wasn’t a large system.
The system in Morgantown, West Virginia, I recall getting a call from the fellows that owned that. They were so worried they just wanted to get out … would I come out and work something out with them. Well, I went out and we couldn’t work anything out. I don’t know whatever happened to that. It was a financial problem for them.
The system that I presently own in Carlisle was the same way. It had originally been built with war surplus cable and amplifiers that were orphans. The company that had made them had gone out of business. They didn’t have any money to upgrade it and after a certain number of years it just became a financial drain and they sold it. They sold it to a couple of fellows who thought they could find enough money to upgrade it and make it a system. They discovered they couldn’t do it and finally came to me. I wanted to live in the Carlisle area so I bought it. I didn’t buy it because I wanted to buy a cable system. I bought it because I wanted to live in the Carlisle area which might seem strange but that was the reason. Then I started to look for financing. I moved to Carlisle in 1964 and it was 1967 before I could put the financing together to upgrade the system and make a viable operation out of it.
Even through the ’60s a lot of systems had trouble finding enough income to cope with the constantly changing technology. Every year it seemed there would be a salesman at your door that would say, “Oh, I’ve got the piece of equipment you need to solve your problems.” If you believed him, you spent a lot of money and you changed out your equipment, your cables or whatever else and then you learned that maybe you didn’t have all your problems solved. I’d say for the first ten to fifteen years one of the biggest problems the industry had was the constant upgrading of the plant and the tremendous cost that went into that.
SMITH: Tell us something about your experiences with the early equipment and then the successive generations that were designed to solve some of those early problems.
GARDNER: The early equipment was, as I said, an adaptation of hotel distribution equipment. Bob Tarlton managed to get the Jerrold people to recognize the problems that that equipment had whenever it was cascaded. With the original hotel equipment, you’d take one amplifier and feed antenna signals into it and then you would just distribute it with cables to each of the rooms. Bob’s idea was to take that equipment and not only distribute it to homes in that area, but then to send a signal down the street to another group of homes. This meant you had to cascade the equipment in order to get the signals out there. It didn’t take very many cascades of equipment like that before the signal became seriously deteriorated.
One of the first things Jerrold did was to recognize that, put some fixes into the equipment to essentially keep the signal usable after you had cascaded it. But the tube equipment was very unreliable when it was used that way especially in the harsh environment that it had to operate in. Some weather-protective enclosure with constant vibrations from the pole if it had to be located on the pole and the problems of the power line voltage varying. The heat from the sun and the ice and moisture in the winter time. All of these problems made it necessary to have someone with solutions to the problems. If you didn’t, you had constant complaints from your customers.
We tried to add channels to these systems and the more channels you added the more problems you created. Every equipment manufacturer had an idea of how to solve a problem. They would solve a problem a certain way one year and then the next year everybody would decide that wasn’t a good way to solve it so they would stop that and try something else. Cable was the same way. It would be a version of cable that you would use or you could buy. And then someone would suggest they were making a better cable so you would try that. It wouldn’t take very long until you found out what the problems were with that cable. So then you would go to a different cable. All of this evolution finally started to sort out in the late ’60s and ’70s when most of the problems started to become recognized.
I think the last big fiasco in cable was the dynafoam cable in the early ’70s. After the dynafoam fiasco, most of the cable problems have sort of gone away. Most of the amplifier problems went away in the ’70s. Beginning in the ’80s or maybe slightly before, we had equipment that was very reliable, cables that were very reliable if they were installed correctly. The name of the game now is just how many channels do you want? The equipment costs a little bit more if you want more channels.
SMITH: Specifically, George, what was the dynafoam fiasco?
GARDNER: Well, dynafoam was a type of cable that Times-Wire designed to have a low attenuation. This meant that you didn’t have to put as many amplifiers in the system. The idea was good except that apparently their life testing of it either was not done or not done properly or didn’t indicate the problem because as soon as it got out into the field the problem surfaced almost immediately. I’d say within the first year or two that it was available. As soon as any water got into the inside of the cable through a defective connector or a break in the cable, the attenuation of the cable just increased tremendously and the signal wouldn’t pass. Or you would have some parts of the bandpass spectrum that would pass signals and not others. Like you might get your Channels 2 through 6 to go through but your Channels 7 through 13 would be attenuated so that they wouldn’t go through. And this varied during the day. In the afternoon when the sun was on the cable, you might have no signal at all coming out the other end of the cable. Whereas at night the attenuation would go down enough so you would have a picture. The dynafoam cable problem was essentially one of water ingress into the cable causing the attenuation to increase.
SMITH: Then the problem was one of, as you say, the covering on the cable. The foam itself wasn’t the problem.
GARDNER: It was the foam, yes. It wasn’t the covering on the cable. The foam, as I recall, was a nitrogen foam cable. In other words, they took a solid plastic and introduced nitrogen into it so that it had bubbles of nitrogen in it. That allowed the cable to have low attenuation of the signals that were going through it. But, for whatever reason, the bubbles were not discrete. In other words, they were connected. There was a path through the bubbles that the water could flow through the cable. The dielectric was like a water pipe, whereas what you needed was a cable that had the bubbles of nitrogen that were not broken so that water couldn’t go in one bubble and then go out of that bubble into the next. The next version of cable that they developed was the cable that didn’t allow the water to run through the cable. If you had a break in the cable or a connector that wasn’t exactly tight and allowed water to get into the cable, the water stopped right there and didn’t cause the cable to go bad.
SMITH: In your opinion, what was the most important break through in equipment development in those early days that you might say began to turn the industry so that you could have a sense of reliability of the system that you were building?
GARDNER: Probably by the middle ’70s the amplifier problems were starting to go away. We already had twelve channel amplifiers and we had gotten past the early generations of solid state equipment that were more of a problem than you might suspect. The early solid state equipment was not as good as the tube equipment that was available. Yet everyone wanted the advantages of solid state equipment because there were no tubes to replace.
But the Entron Company, I recall, made tube amplifiers into the ’70s even when a lot of companies had switched completely over to solid state equipment back in the late ’60s. They had a market for their tube equipment because it was reliable. It had the problem that any tube equipment has. There’s a lot of heat generated in the tube and you had to provide ventilation for that heat in the amplifier housing. And you had to replace the tubes when they failed. But that was a better solution in some situations than the solid state equipment that was available. Eventually the development of the solid state equipment overcame the problems and we have, essentially, the equipment we have today. It went from discrete components in the late ’70s to integrated components in the ’80s with wide bandwidth. As I say, beginning around 1980 or shortly thereafter we came into the generation of equipment we have today which is extremely reliable.
The ’70s was sort of a crossover period when some tube equipment was still used. Of course, we went into the ’60s with only tube equipment and gradually people like John Campbell started to make solid state preamplifiers and some solid state extenders. And then the larger companies like Jerrold started to experiment with solid state amplifiers. The Starline One came out in the late ’60s. But they were as much a disaster as they were a success. I don’t think anyone was very proud of the first generation solid state equipment. It took a little liking to even put up with it. I remember a system that we built in the late ’60s where we put Starline One in and we got to the place where we were making eight modifications to the amplifier as it came from the manufacturer before we actually installed it in the system. We put them on the bench. I had a sheet of eight modifications that the technician went through before we actually put them in the system.
SMITH: Did you make any effort to get the manufacturer to make those modifications before they delivered them to you?
GARDNER: I think they were doing everything they could to find out how people were making them work and eventually they did start to refine them. Whether they used our modifications or not they at least refined them because in the field sometimes a modification is pretty crude. It’s just something to make an unworkable situation workable. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the way it should be done.
I can remember the early SLE, I believe it was, Jerrold line extenders. It was a solid state extender. We had about 150 of them we had installed in a system in probably 1965 or ’66. I might even have a record of that here I could refer to for the exact date. It was probably the summer of ’66. That fall when the temperature started to go down, the amplifier stopped working. Of course, whole sections of town would just start to blot out. We discovered that it was a capacitor in the amplifier. When it got below a certain temperature, it didn’t function properly and, therefore, the amplifier didn’t amplify. So we made some quick fixes there to keep them working but eventually had to replace them. These were brand new amplifiers. The quick fix … I can recall that one.
SMITH: Identify the system for the record.
GARDNER: It was the Fayette TV Cable System in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. I was in that system with John Rigas. The extender amplifier, as I recall the number was SLE … LE for line extender and I don’t recall what the S meant. But, there was a capacitor in it that was temperature sensitive. The only capacitor that we could find that would work right was too large to fit in the housing. So we used what was called spaghetti tubing which you put over the wire. It’s an insulating tubing you put over the wire. We would solder the capacitor internally to the connecting points and then let the capacitor hang outside the amplifier housing and this spaghetti wire kept it from shorting out. Not good for signal leakage at all, but no one bothered too much back then about signal leakage.
SMITH: How long did that last?
GARDNER: It lasted until we could find something else to install. Obviously, it was out in the weather and it wasn’t a good idea at all. But it made it work. It was not weatherproof. We just couldn’t operate it with the housing open. I think we had 139 of those quit that one night.
SMITH: We can assume the phones started to ring off the hook?
GARDNER: Back then when the phone started to ring we didn’t even bother trying to answer it because you didn’t know what was wrong in the first place and you had to spend your time out there trying to fix it. It was difficult to get anyone to sit and answer a phone and say, “Yes, we know there’s a problem,” because everybody was yelling at us so loud it was difficult to get someone to stay and answer the phone.
The equipment was not always good enough to be called commercial. Even though it might have been stamped commercial, it wasn’t quite good enough. So we had our problems and the customers would bear with us. If we could maintain a signal of any sort they were happy. They’d rather have a picture that wasn’t right than no picture at all. That’s what we tried to do. The customer standards that we try to adhere to today, there’s no way they would have made any sense back then. A little bit like your automobile tire. Today you expect an automobile tire to hold the air and not go flat on you. But I can remember when I was a boy you carried three or four spares because you knew darn well you were going to have a blow out now and then. Well, that’s the way the cable systems operated.
SMITH: Tell us about your first experience in converting from the old tube equipment to the solid state.
GARDNER: The problem was recognizing when you should get into it and I made a lot of mistakes back then. As the expression goes, “You get a lot of arrows in you back when you’re out there trying to do something before you should.” The early generations of solid state equipment were probably something that shouldn’t have been marketed. The reliability wasn’t there. The standards that you needed them to meet was difficult for them to meet so we made a lot of compromises in how we operated them.
The whole industry went through the learning curve all over again with the early solid state equipment that it had gone through with tubes. Tubes became pretty reliable. We learned how to work with them. We learned how to put more than one tube in the same function so that if one didn’t work right the other one would carry the load. And then we went back, essentially, and reinvented the wheel when we went into solid state and tried to make one transistor do the same thing that we had done with one tube. When it failed or didn’t operate right, why then there was no back up. As they became more reliable, then they started to work better than tubes.
The thing about solid state equipment that I liked especially well was the fact that you didn’t have to be doing a lot of testing all the time. If an amplifier failed, you could plug in a new module and take the old one and get someone to repair it if you didn’t want to repair it yourself. That modularity was a great leap forward that came with solid state. We never had that with the tube equipment. We had to change the whole amplifier out including the power supply and everything else. There was a lot of down time and it was not really adapted to the use that we were putting it to. The solid state equipment was more friendly to the technicians and eventually became more friendly to the customer. It gave a much better picture quality. Then when we started to expand the bandwidth, it was capable of doing that. I doubt that we could ever have expanded the bandwidth to the systems with tubes like we have been able to with solid state equipment.
SMITH: Who do you credit, George, with being the first to: (1) market solid state equipment and (2) market reliable solid state equipment?
GARDNER: Well, that’s a tough one. I can recall a lot of different solid state equipment that we attempted to use. The names of them escape my mind. They were sort of transient. They would build the equipment, we would buy it, and then they’d be out of business because it didn’t work. Jerrold finally got into solid state equipment with their Starline One and probably marketed as much or more of the equipment than anybody else. The Kaiser group got into solid state equipment probably around 1970 or so. Then was jointly owned with Cox, as I recall, for awhile. Then the Texscan group moved from Indiana down to Phoenix and they were in solid state. Most of the manufacturers, I think, stayed away from it as long as they could so that development could occur and they wouldn’t lose a lot of money. Early solid state equipment was not that good.
John Campbell, as I say, was pretty ingenious at making preamplifiers and line extenders. And, in fact, he designed the TOCOM converter which Jerrold purchased and sells even today. I don’t believe John is active in the business anymore. I see him now and then but I don’t believe he’s active. He was one of the early pioneers in solid state amplifiers.
SMITH: John was located where?
GARDNER: He was in Texas … the Dallas, Texas, area if I recall.
SMITH: I believe Irving, as a matter of fact.
GARDNER: Irving, right outside of Dallas.
SMITH: Right by the Cowboys’ stadium.
GARDNER: In fact, I sold a lot of his equipment, particularly his preamplifiers. He had a good preamplifier.
SMITH: While you’re on the subject of John, who I also knew very well, did you have any experience with the security system that he developed?
GARDNER: No, I had sold the TV cable supply company to Wally Brong back in the early ’70s and I believe John developed the security equipment after that. Or if it was before that, I didn’t handle it. We weren’t really in the security business. We were mostly selling equipment to the cable systems. If I recall, there wasn’t much interest in security by any of the cable operators that I worked with. These were all classical systems. The modern metropolitan area system didn’t exist back then.
SMITH: Would I be correct in stating that the security systems to provide home security via cable systems really has not caught on in the industry? Is that a correct statement?
GARDNER: Well, I don’t hear much about it. I know that Selkirk has it available in Fort Lauderdale because I have a home there and I’m aware that they have it available. I have some neighbors that use medical alert and that type of thing, but I don’t hear much about it. I have no idea if it’s a viable business or not.
SMITH: I was going to ask you if you had any thoughts as to why it hadn’t caught on, but apparently you’ve answered that question.
GARDNER: I have a feeling that it’s a different type of business. We have an entertainment-type business and security is certainly far from entertainment. I think we are oriented toward entertainment. We think that way. Maybe that’s not correct but that’s the way we think. Until we start to look at the uses that we can make our plants available to do, we aren’t going to be interested in marketing things like that.
I haven’t gone into security because I can look around in the yellow pages and see lots of security firms in the area. When I talk about the prices that they get, I’m amazed that they can get the prices that they do. But, it’s a different business and I’m not in that business. I’d have to make a definite effort to go into that business if I wanted to be in that business. I think, yes, we could supply the service that is needed but up to now I’ve had enough to do just to take care of trying to stay on top of the entertainment business that I am trying to be in. It’s very challenging.
SMITH: Did you ever consider trying to provide a power meter reading service on your systems?
GARDNER: No. I think they may be doing something like that in York or perhaps they’re reading water meters in York not power meters. I think Glen Winter told me that it was something that … the city paid them their cost but they didn’t make any money on it. So why should I spend any time on something I’m not going to make any money on. The incentive probably is not there for that type of thing. Yes, cable systems can do a lot of different things. Maybe we should be doing some of these other things, but it has to return some financial reward before you’re going to get too much interest in it. If it’s required by a city and a franchise, okay, we can do that. If there is no one else that is going to supply that in an area then I’d look into it. But when I look in the yellow pages and I see a lot of different people that are supplying a security service, then you get into a situation … do you really want to go into a new business? First of all you have to hire and train people to go into that because your ordinary technicians and people that are selling entertainment don’t know anything about it. It’s a separate business and you have to look at it that way. It may well be a profitable business, but I just haven’t looked at that yet. I’ve had enough to do to stay in the entertainment business … enough to do.
SMITH: Today you operate in Carlisle. How large a system is that?
GARDNER: We have 16,000 subscribers on that system.
SMITH: What other systems are you operating these days?
GARDNER: We operate in the Williamsport area and have roughly 10,000 subscribers there in two main systems … Hughesville and Muncy, east of Williamsport; and Avis, Jersey Shore and Renovo on the west side of Williamsport. Dimension Cable operates the main system in the city of Williamsport. We operate in Franklin County which is southwest of Carlisle. Our Waynesboro system there has around 7,000 subscribers. We have a system west of Chambersburg in Franklin County that might have 1,500 subscribers. We operate in Berkeley County, West Virginia, which is in the eastern panhandle. The county seat is Martinsburg. Our subscribers there number about 3,500. Those are the main systems we operate here.
SMITH: What roughly is your total subscriber count?
GARDNER: Probably about 38,000 in the Raystay group. We own another group of operating companies that has about another 13,000 subscribers. A system in Columbia, Mississippi, that has 3,400 and some systems around Payson, Arizona, which is about 100 miles north of Phoenix. They have about 9,000 subscribers.
SMITH: Where does the name Raystay derive from?
GARDNER: Originally, I filed an application at the FCC in the late ’60s for a standard broadcasting station on 1130kHz in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. And, in an effort to come up with a name, I just used the word radio station–Raystay.
SMITH: It’s as simple as that.
GARDNER: It’s as simple as that.
SMITH: Well, you’ve opened the subject that I was getting ready to ask you about. I noticed on the business history that you gave me about your background that you’ve been active in a number of radio station operations. Would you describe your activities in radio?
GARDNER: Yes, as I say I got a construction permit for the AM station in Waynesboro and operated it for a number of years. I purchased a station in Toledo and operated it. It was an AM station. I got a construction permit for an FM station in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and built that and put it on the air and operated it for a number of years. I’ve been active in those three operations in radio.
AM radio started to fade in the middle ’70s and it’s not something I would recommend anyone get into now. FM pushed AM out, as you are well aware. FM has become a little bit of a problem even. I think the Commission has granted too many licenses in the FM area. I wouldn’t even recommend anyone try to get into FM now because it’s pretty cut throat. I recognized that AM was fading and that’s why I got out of it. I tried to hold onto the FM in Mechanicsburg as long as I could. But I had some local people that wanted it more than I did and they kept dangling offers in front of me and finally I caved in on that. I think it was probably good that I got out of it because then I could concentrate my efforts back in cable and I’m more content there, frankly.
SMITH: Are you completely out of the radio business now?
SMITH: I see that you got yourself involved in building an airport, or am I characterizing it correctly?
GARDNER: Well, that was one of those things that you wish somebody else would take the lead on but you happened to be standing there and what can you do? We needed an airport in Carlisle. We had a grass strip. The fellow that was operating it just wasn’t able to stay in business. He needed it paved. He was not a reliable enough person that anyone would go in business with him. So I offered to buy him out if I could put a group of people together to do that and he agreed to sell. I put the group together and part of the agreement was that we would fund not only paving the runway but take wires down at the end of the runway that were a hazard for aircraft operation. Also to build some hangers so that we could keep our airplanes inside. Everyone agreed to it. Several of the major companies in Carlisle agreed to do that. So we put it together … bought it, paved the runway, took the wires down, built the hangers and it’s still operating believe it or not. We’ve increased the number of hangers over the years and lengthened the runway. It’s a good all-weather airport. The state considers it a reliever airport. It takes some of the pressure off the Harrisburg airport. Actually it’s the only paved runway in Cumberland County.
SMITH: Was that an ownership situation for you or were you just a civic leader in helping put it together?
GARDNER: That was one where I had to be in an ownership position whether I liked it or not because I couldn’t get anyone else interested unless I was going to put money in it also. It has been a fairly good investment, although we get no return, because the real estate keeps appreciating. Eventually the real estate will probably be worth so much that we can’t continue to operate as an airport.
SMITH: Are you a pilot yourself?
GARDNER: Oh, yes, I’ve been a pilot for twenty or thirty years. I originally used an airplane in business and that was my main reason for being involved in the airport. Then when I no longer needed it in business, I did a little bit of charter work. Then the Depression of 1974-75 came along and all the charter work went away and I sold those airplanes. I have a little airplane that I fly myself now … purely recreational.
SMITH: What kind is it?
GARDNER: It’s a Cessna 210, a single engine. It’s got a six cylinder engine … tucks up its wheels and goes as fast as I want it to go. It carries four people including the pilot. My wife and I enjoy it. Every now and then my grandchildren will go with me. We have a lot of fun with it. It’s getting pretty expensive to operate an airplane anymore. The cost of aircraft fuel is probably $1.75 a gallon. The tax on that is going up more. The cost of operating the airport keeps escalating. It is a difficult situation, but I still enjoy it. As long as I keep my license, which I have to activate every two years, I’ll keep on flying.
End of Tape 4, Side B
SMITH: This is Tape 5, Side A of the oral history interview with George Gardner. It’s taking place on August 13, 1993, in the office of The National Cable Television Center at University Park. George, while we were changing the tape you inquired as to whether we had talked about the work you did with Walt Brown. I don’t think we have and wonder would you like to elaborate on that work?
GARDNER: Yes. Walt Brown had formed a group called HRB. The other people, I remember vaguely, Haller and Raymond and they were connected with the college. Walt had developed some CATV equipment and he had great hopes that it would catch on in the industry. I was given the job of seeing if this equipment would work in the field. He would line up places where the equipment could be tried. I can remember we took his amplifiers into the field. He made modifications to existing amplifiers. Some of the amplifiers that he modified were from a single channel or three single channels of an amplifier into a five channel broadband amplifier. I think he probably did a lot of the early experimentation on broadband amplifiers even though I doubt that he has ever been given credit for it. We installed these broadband amplifiers in place of the single channel amplifiers and were able to make systems carry five channels instead of three.
SMITH: This would be when?
GARDNER: This was in the early ’50s. If I recall, Walt died in a swimming accident down at the Jersey shore probably around 1954 or 1955. He had just completed the distant early warning systems in Alaska. He came back and took a vacation with his family. He went swimming and the undertow caught him and he drowned. He had a lot of different ideas as to how to make cable amplifiers more reliable. One of them being the distributed tube amplifier concept. He would take the function of a tube in an amplifier and assign that function to more than one tube so that if one tube failed the other would still continue to operate.
SMITH: Is that what the term “distributed” means?
GARDNER: Yes, he called it the distributed amplifier. I presume that it meant that he distributed the work over more than one tube. He would have groups of tubes. The amplifier would operate … you could pull a tube out and it would still continue to operate. In the next group, you could pull another tube out and it would still continue to operate. In fact, I think there were three or four banks of amplifiers there and you could pull a tube out of each one of them or even a couple of tubes out of each one of them and it would still function. Not quite as well as with all the tubes in place but it was a step towards reliability that was needed by the industry because in most of the amplifiers, if one tube failed then the whole amplifier failed to amplify. Or if it was single channel equipment, then if one tube failed that channel went off.
Walt was a very interesting person. He had a number of different things going here at the college. He seemed to have the ability in a lot of different disciplines to be on the leading edge of problem solving. I can recall, he had a computer that had so many tubes that they couldn’t make it work because there was always a tube failing in it. In addition to that he had trouble getting enough air conditioning to keep the room cool enough that anybody could stay in the room. He was in there doing a lot of things that other people were interested in.
I recall, he had a bone density research laboratory operating here on the campus where he was determining, through some sort of method, what the density of the calcium was in your bones. That’s apparently a measure of your health of some sort. I certainly am not familiar with it but he told me a lot about it at the time.
There were other disciplines that he was involved in. Walter Brown was honored by the Pennsylvania Association here a few years ago. Jim Palmer picked up the award for him. Walter Brown was an early pioneer in the cable industry even though he was only in the industry a few years.
SMITH: The name is not a familiar name to me. I know who you’re talking about. The HRB company is a prominent electronics firm right to this day here in State College. I have heard the name, Brown, but I didn’t know that he was active in the early history of cable equipment.
GARDNER: Walter Brown was the originator of the local cable system. If I recall back then it was called Centre Video. The manufacturing arm was … I thought I had the name there but I’ve forgotten what it was before it was C-COR. He founded what was originally C-COR … he and the other people.
SMITH: You mentioned a moment ago, Jim Palmer picking up an award for him. Could you, for the record, tell us what the relationship was between Jim Palmer and Brown?
GARDNER: Jim originally came to work for the company. Was it called Community Engineering Company?
SMITH: I think it was.
GARDNER: Jim, I believe, had been with General Electric. He came in and was working for the company, probably running it for Walter Brown. Then when Walter died, Jim managed to acquire the stock in the company or enough of it so he controlled the company. Of course, he did wonders with the company. Made a very good name and high quality products.
SMITH: On the record I’ll identify Jim as the donor of the James and Barbara Palmer Chair in Telecommunications in the School of Communications here at Penn State. He and Barbara were also donors of a substantial sum of money to establish the Palmer Museum of Art on the campus.
GARDNER: I understand that’s about ready to open.
SMITH: Yes. The modernized building, I think, is going to be opening late this month or early next month.
GARDNER: I also recall another name. The construction work that Walt had to do … he was involved in building systems and I seem to recall a fellow named Jack Baldwin did the line construction for them. I don’t recall exactly how much plant they really built but I know he did build cable plant for them.
SMITH: Well, George, we’ve taken you from your early history in the cable industry which goes way back to the beginning. Now I would like to complete our interview by asking when you are going to convert Carlisle and your other systems to 500 channel cable?
GARDNER: I was afraid I’d be asked that question some day. Well, Strat, there are a lot of different influences trying to change the cable industry. One of the problems that I have is in recognizing when we should do something and when we shouldn’t. Right now we are a small enough player that I’ve decided that when someone else does it and proves it and it seems to make sense on our part we might get interested in it. My days of being out there in front and getting the arrows in my back … I hope I’ve learned, and I’m going to stop doing that.
SMITH: Well, I think you are entitled to avoid that by now, George, but I will ask you with a little more seriousness what your reactions are to the era that everybody is talking about now with the marriage of computer technology, with cable and telephony and the prediction of 500 channel systems and video dial tone and so on. Are you ready to accept this development in the industry? What are your thoughts on it?
GARDNER: Well really, Strat, everyone is trying to establish territorial limits it seems to me. There’s a lot of bluster. There’s a lot of people that are just saying if we don’t appear active in it maybe our stock price will go down. The FCC, in particular, is floating this idea of HDTV when they don’t even know why they would want to do it. The broadcasters are saying there’s no way we can afford it. Talk to them, they have no idea how anyone could afford a thing like that let alone how it’s going to come about. It appears even the cable industry, maybe, is laying the foundation for HDTV which will later be adopted by the FCC.
As far as our involvement in it, we have a clientele that’s interested in something that right now they can’t get any other way. There may be other methods of delivery of that product that will be available soon and we have to face that competition and we are certainly trying to be aware of that and face it. But how we encompass all of these other disciplines into our entertainment delivery system is still a mystery to me. I think the metropolitan area systems are going to go head to head with other industries such as the computer industry and the telephone industry and something will come out of it. Whether that is going to affect us in the classical system immediately or ever is something that I really don’t know.
I believe there is going to be a marriage of some of the various things so that the customer will get something they’re interested in. But at the same time I look at the VCR and the classic example there is that nobody knows how to program it. Nobody even knows how to set the time on it so it doesn’t flash 12:00 all the time. I think a lot of the problem that we have is in realizing that the end user maybe isn’t interested in a lot of these things. It’s a difficult question to answer. We’re going to be as pro active as we need to be on this. I would rather be reactive where I can be. If people want to rent videos and I can’t find a way to get them to buy it from me instead of renting the video, I can accept that. If I can’t match the technology and match the price and match the window that is available out there … well okay. I’ll do what I can, but there are other forces that constrain me from showing the movie whenever the customer wants to see it so he may have to go down to the video store.
At the same time why should I spend a lot of money putting fiber all over the place and putting extra bandwidth in the system whenever the customer is confused with the number of channels I have on right now. If I am going to go to video on demand, I’ll do it after I see that video on demand is workable and pays its way in some other area and that I should do it. Now if I have a competitor that comes in and starts to offer it, I may be forced to do it. But I’m not at all sure that some of the bells and whistles that the cable industry is supposed to be doing out there right now or will be doing next year or the year after are ones that have the necessary financial ability to support themselves. I’ve got to be shown a little bit on that. If the broadcasters are given the ability to compress an HDTV signal and can broadcast ten different programs, I’ve got the problem of which ones I want to put on the cable system and how do I do it let alone the other things that I am supposed to be doing right now.
I try to keep abreast of what other people are doing, but frankly there are a lot of things out there I don’t understand how to make work right now. Not just technically, but financially. That’s a real dilemma especially with the Cable Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 and some of the horrible things that that is trying to do or may do to the industry.
SMITH: George, is there anything else you would like to say about the industry, your own career in it, for posterity?
GARDNER: I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t think I could have found anything else that I would have liked to have done more. The reason I stayed in the industry is because I wanted to. It’s been good to me, it’s been challenging. But above everything else, every day when I went to work I enjoyed it. I wanted to go to work. I was very fortunate, very lucky, to happen to find something like that that I was interested in. I’d do it all over again.
I especially appreciate you letting me put it all down for the record here, too. You’ve helped me remember a few things that I probably wouldn’t have remembered any other way except to be challenged here to put it down.
SMITH: Well, that’s the great thing about the work that I have been doing here at the Cable Center, George. You can hardly call it work when you are sitting down with old friends from many, many years back in the industry and simply reminiscing about things that happened and about people you know in common. It’s a good job to have.
GARDNER: I’m sure you enjoy it. I can tell that you do.
SMITH: Well, I do, very much.
GARDNER: Well, I’ve enjoyed the interview.