What Happened to the Famous KDKA Shortwave Station at Saxonburg?

KDKA’s logo from the 1920s. Image: The Pennsylvania State University

During its 20 years of operation in the Pittsburgh area, the Westinghouse KDKA stations utilized a dozen or more main and subsidiary shortwave transmitters, ranging in power from less than one kW right up to 50 kW. During this same time period, they were on the air with just as many shortwave callsigns, including for example KDKA, 2WE, 8XAU, 8XAV, 8XK, 8XKA, 8XP and WPIT. Some of these additional callsigns were for different operations from an already listed transmitter, such as for example early experimental TV transmissions.

KDKA Transmitter Building in Saxonburg. Photo: KDKA website

Interestingly, in that era just before the beginning of World War 2, the FCC mandated that every shortwave transmitter in the United States should be licensed with a separate callsign. If Westinghouse did conform to that policy, then there is no known list showing a separate callsign for each shortwave transmitter, not even their main shortwave units.

KDKA Westinghouse 50HG transmitter
Photo: Scott Fybush Tower Site of the Week website

Those main Westinghouse shortwave transmitters in chronological order were the 1 kW and 10 kW 8XS at East Pittsburgh; the 20 kW 8XS and 8XK at Forest Hills; and the four shortwave transmitters at 40 kW each licensed as W8XK and WPIT at Saxonburg. In 1938 and 1939, a 50 kW shortwave transmitter was planned for installation at the new Allison Park station, and a diamond shaped rhombic antenna was installed, though ultimately their shortwave facility was never transferred from Saxonburg to Allison Park. Instead WPIT was transferred from Pittsburgh into a new location in the Boston coastal area.

In November 1939, the 50 kW mediumwave KDKA was transferred from Saxonburg into a new building at Allison Park, wherein their current mediumwave transmitters are still installed to this day. Due to wartime unavailabilities, Westinghouse harvested the best items of shortwave equipment available among the four shortwave transmitters at Saxonburg into a 50 kW (35 kW) shortwave transmitter for use in Boston. Soon afterwards, it is stated, their shortwave WPIT was transferred to Hull on the Nantasket Peninsula opposite Boston city.

Present day KDKA tower at Allison Park.
Photo: Scott Fybush Tower Site of the Week website

And that of course, left the transmitter station at Saxonburg empty. Well, no, it is not quite as simple as all that. Remember, there was a disastrous war in full operation over there in Europe on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and those distant events impacted local events much closer to home in the United States. Due to wartime restrictions, Westinghouse did not openly reveal at the time everything they were performing. However, some of the usable left over shortwave radio equipment still remained in the transmitter building at Saxonburg.

In November 1941 (just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), Westinghouse Company Chairman Mr. A. W. Robertson made a public announcement regarding Westinghouse current activities and future plans. He prefaced his information with the statement that military secrecy forbade him from revealing specific details.

However he indicated that Westinghouse would renew its experimentation in the transmission of radio signals and that they would plan to utilize radio equipment for new purposes, including the future usage of radio after the end of the war. Currently, he stated, Westinghouse would concentrate on the development and improvement of commercial radio broadcasting equipment, shortwave equipment, and military equipment.

Then in 1942, mediumwave KDKA broadcast a special documentary program in which they openly declared that radio experimentation and development was underway at the Westinghouse Research Laboratories, and in particular, at the Mellon Institute (which of course was at Saxonburg). Subsequent information reveals that the Westinghouse shortwave facility at Saxonburg still contained the remainders of three shortwave transmitters at 40 kW each, together with the associated antenna systems, all of which were in use during the war for various forms of experimentation, both for the government and for the company. Among these experiments were experimental transmissions from various forms of shortwave antenna systems, also radar experiments, and radio/TV broadcasting from airplanes.

After the end of the war, the Saxonburg property was taken over by the Westinghouse fostered Mellon Institute for Nuclear Research Center. The radio transmitter building at 375 Saxonburg Boulevard was incorporated into the structure of a larger new building, and one of the antenna tower piers still remains in place on that site; a tantalizing reminder of the once grandeur of KDKA mediumwave and shortwave at Saxonburg back between the two world wars.

Cyclotron coils heading toward Saxonburg
Photo: archive.org

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of August 29, 2021

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