On a breezy hilltop near Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River stands a monument dedicated to Leroy “Ed” Parsons. He was one of the people credited with the invention of cable television in the United States. A number of dignitaries attended the dedication ceremony in 1968, including NCTA President Frederick Ford, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of cable television. Today, we recognize three individuals as the “inventors” of cable television and all three had a legitimate claim to the title. Ed Parsons has an amazing story and I am happy to provide some background on his life from his oral history.
Ed Parsons owned a radio station in Astoria during World War II and spent his spare time tinkering with electronics and flying planes in the Pacific Northwest. In 1946 or 1947, Ed and his wife, Grace, flew to the broadcaster’s convention where they would see television for the first time. Grace insisted they purchase a television not long after that, even though Ed told her it was a waste of money since there were no television stations nearby. She thought that an engineer with his mindset could figure it out, but at the time, the closest television station was located in Chicago. His prospects changed when KRSC (now KING, Channel 5) received a television broadcast license in the spring of 1948 to operate from Seattle, Washington.
Although Ed knew that Seattle was at least 150 miles away and beyond the range of his television’s reception, he also knew that television signals worked in unusual ways. His experimentation led him to find a weak signal while flying around the John Jacob Astor Hotel in downtown Astoria, which was right across the street from his home. He built an amplifier that would boost the station’s signal and Grace was able to enjoy television in her home for the first time in 1948. Ed speculated that he was the only person in the area that could see television, but when word got out, it caused people he did not even know to ring his doorbell just to see the newest marvel.
As the crowds gathered at his home in growing numbers, he approached the manager of the hotel and said he could drop a cable down an elevator shaft so that the hotel could receive television in the lobby. The owner agreed until the traffic became so heavy in the lobby that he could not operate his business. Ed then approached a local music store owner named Cliff Poole and asked him if he would consider installing a television in the store to attract customers. Poole agreed and installed a television set in his store, while Ed provided a speaker outside. This worked well until the local police told Ed the crowds were causing a public nuisance and suggested he approach bar owners who were always looking for more traffic.
When the word got out that Ed could install cable to individual homes, the orders started to pour in. Ed charged an installation fee based on his expenses, typically $125, but it did not occur to him to charge a monthly fee for the service. Other communities approached him, so he helped them out as well. Tired and burnt out, Ed and his wife left Astoria and moved to Alaska in 1953, where he became a bush pilot. He would later advance the science of flying in extreme cold temperatures. Ed said he never really made any money in cable television because it did not occur to him that he could turn it into a steady income.
The other two people we recognize are Jimmy Davidson and John Walson, which I will highlight in future stories. Jimmy Davidson of Arkansas worked during the same period as Ed Parsons, but there is no evidence they knew of each other’s work in 1948. Davidson had claim to the first documented cable television system with a front-page article in the Tuckerman Record from November 13, 1948. John Walson would build Service Electric Company, which is still a family-run business in Pennsylvania. In his oral history, Ed said he knew John Walson of Pennsylvania quite well, but that they did not meet until the late 1950s. As to being the first, Ed Parsons said in his oral history, “I don’t make any claim to being first because the technology was there for anybody to get it. I did it simply because of a demanding wife.” The cable television monument commemorating his achievement is located near the Astoria Column, which also has an interesting link to CATV in Astoria, Oregon. Ed Parsons passed away in May 1989.
(Larry Satkowiak is president and CEO of The Cable Center, the nonprofit educational arm of the cable industry. The Center preserves cable’s enduring contributions to society, strengthens relationships between cable and academia and unites the industry around the advancement of exceptional customer service. www.cablecenter.org)