A couple of months ago, I introduced Ed Parsons, Jim Davidson, and John Walson as the three people The Cable Center credits for “founding” cable television. In the last installment, I gave you the background on Ed Parsons; today, I would like to introduce you to James Y. Davidson. In his wonderful book Blue Skies, Patrick Parsons calls these early efforts “proto-systems” and we agree with this assessment. Proving that a person can receive a television signal at a great distance from its origin was an important evolutionary step of what would eventually become the cable business. Although Davidson is in a unique position for having the first documented capture of a distant signal, an actual business would come later.
Davidson was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1922 and by the time he was nine years old he had lost both of his parents. He and his two younger sisters lived with their grandmother until she passed away just three years later. Life was tough during the Great Depression and young Jimmy dropped out of school at thirteen, ran away from home, and worked numerous odd jobs to get by. He developed a love of electronics by fixing radios and working in movie theaters until World War II. During the war, he was initially in charge of a civilian unit that maintained and fixed aircraft radios, but his patriotism compelled him to eventually join the Navy. He worked in communications and acquired an exceptional understanding of electronic communications, which would launch his career.
After the war, Davidson returned to Tuckerman, Arkansas where he owned an appliance store. In November 1947, he heard that WMC radio in Memphis, Tennessee received a license for a television station, which would be the first in the South. Davidson had developed a passion for flying at that time and decided he would fly up to Memphis to talk to the station engineer. He knew that Tuckerman was about 100 miles away and out of signal range, but nevertheless, he started to experiment. He and his only employee, Louis French, placed a 100-foot antenna on top of a two-story building next to his appliance store to see if they could receive a signal. In the fall of 1948, WMCT –TV began test transmissions and Davidson was able to receive test patterns in the store to the surprise of many people who thought it would be impossible.
On November 13, 1948, WMCT-TV telecast a live football game between the University of Tennessee and the University of Mississippi. Davidson ran his cable to Tuckerman’s American Legion so he could demonstrate a working television, much to the amazement of his neighbors. The event was so big that the Tuckerman Record, the local newspaper, carried a story on the event. Davidson clipped the article from the paper and a copy is now part of The Cable Center’s collection as the first documented evidence of the importation of a distant signal through a cable. He did not know at the time that others were working on the same problem.
In the early 1950s, Davidson decided that Tuckerman was too small to expand his business idea into what we would call a cable system, so he looked around for a better location. He selected nearby Batesville and charged customers $150 for installation and $3 per month for a one-channel service. He grew from there and even manufactured equipment under the name of Davco. In his oral history, Davidson said he did not know who was the first and would not want to take anything away from either Parsons or Walson. He said that he was simply among the first to put the pieces together and that was good enough for him. Davidson sold his assets to his son and was out of the business completely by 1970. He passed away on October 21, 2012. The cable business has always been the combined effort of many individual contributions, but Jim Davidson stands out as one of the founders of an industry that changed the world.
(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. His recently published book, The Cable Industry – A short history through three generations tells the story of this dynamic industry from the early CATV systems to the current multi-platform services and programming we know as the modern cable industry.)