If you ever had a question about the early days of cable engineering, Archer Taylor was the guy to know. I have always thought of him as the prototypical cable engineer who made a very generous gesture to The Cable Center by writing two books for us about the early days of the CATV industry. I received a phone call from his family to let me know that he had passed away a few weeks ago. I thought I would give you a slice of his early career as an example of how the first generation of cable pioneers got into the industry.
Archer was born on Valentine’s Day in 1916 in Longmont, CO, which is about 30 miles north of Denver. His father moved the family to Massachusetts when he was 10, and after high school, he decided to go to Antioch College in southwestern Ohio where he completed his degree in physics. His first job was with the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Washington, DC, where he was a member of an Arctic Expedition that studied the effects of radio waves on the ionosphere. He belonged to the Society of Friends (Quakers), which caused him some conflict at NBS during the war and led to his resignation. He worked as a radio operator and in 1944 took a job as a radio consulting engineer in New Jersey.
In 1947, with his wife and two children, he settled in Missoula, MT, to work as a freelance broadcast radio and television consulting engineer. One of his first clients was a young student in Bozeman by the name of G. Norman Penwell (who later became the first NCTA staff director of engineering) who planned to build a radio station in Bozeman. In early 1953, Penwell called to ask if he had ever heard of CATV. Archer said that he read about it in an electronics magazine that highlighted a system built in Pennsylvania by Martin Malarkey. The two decided to investigate the idea further and hopped on a flight to Washington and Oregon to find a television signal that would suit their needs.
They thought that KXLY-TV located on top of 6000 foot Mt. Spokane outside of Spokane, WA, would work even though it was 160 miles away. They formed a small group of technically minded people around them and built a model CATV system just to see if it would work. They searched for the best reception around Missoula and ended up on Waterworks Hill where they set up a small Yagi antenna, a generator, and a television inside a small tent to protect it from the elements. Once word got out, they found a string of headlights heading up the hill in the evening where people just wanted to see what television looked like. Now, all they needed was some pole attachments to get the signal down the hill and into homes.
They discovered that things are never that simple. They contacted the Montana Power Company and Mountain States Telephone and found that the power company would agree to whatever the phone company wanted since they had a joint use agreement. They had to agree to a fee of $2.50 per pole even though the usual charge was $1.50 in similar communities. But that was not all. They also had to agree to a $25,000 bond to guarantee the phone company that their cable would come off the pole when (not if) they failed. Ultimately, local competition forced them to relocate to Kalispell where they set up a successful system with a number of local investors and family members. They charged $135 for installation and $3.75 per month. In 1968, they sold the system to H&B American.
Not long after, Archer teamed up with Martin Malarkey to form Malarkey-Taylor and Associates, a prestigious cable-consulting firm located in Washington D.C. He continued to have an outstanding career in cable and served on the NCTA board as vice-chairman under Fred Stevenson and co-chairman of the NCTA Engineering Standards Committee. His family did not hold a service at his death, simply saying that he outlived his peers and that he wanted to go quietly. Archer Taylor passed gently into history.
Larry Satkowiak is President and CEO of The Cable Center in Denver, CO.