John Walson and Service Electric
John Walson is one of the three pioneers credited with the founding of the cable industry. Davidson, Parsons and Walson all independently experimented with the technology to create a cable system in 1948, but it was Walson who is generally credited with creating the earliest sustainable business. Service Electric, the company founded by Walson, is currently the fourteenth largest cable company in the U.S. with 290,000 subscribers and it continues as a strong family business. Walson was another self-made man who had an innovative idea and the vision to eventually turn it into the cable industry we know today.
John Walson was born in 1915 in Forest City, Pennsylvania, a coal mining community in the Northeast corner of the state. His father was a Russian immigrant who would come home each night covered in coal dust. His mother came from the Ukraine and did her best to keep food on the table during the Great Depression. Young “Johnny” became interested in electronics at an early age and tinkered with radios at age nine, stringing wire around his house in experiments that would keep him busy late into the night. When he graduated from Mahanoy Township High School his father gave him $60 to invest in his future—family folklore says he turned that $60 into millions.
Young Walson used the money to catch a train to Chicago where he enrolled in a two-year trade school named Coyne Electrical School. He worked his way through school, and after he graduated he returned home to work for Pennsylvania Power and Light as a lineman, installer and appliance repairman. In 1945, he married Margaret Kowatch and together they opened an appliance store and repair shop they named Service Electric Company. In 1947, the shop started to carry television sets, but sales were meager because reception was difficult. Mahanoy City was about 75 miles from Philadelphia and the mountainous country surrounding the city would block television signals.
In order to sell a television set, Walson would put a few models in back of his pickup truck and take a customer to a nearby hill where he erected an antenna to capture the distant signal. He thought about running a wire to his warehouse to save time, but discovered the signal became so weak as to make it impracticable. After some thought, he took apart a pair of “rabbit ears,” which is essentially an antenna with a small amplifier in the base to boost the signal. He attached his antenna leads to the small amplifier and put it in a box that he nailed to a nearby tree. It worked well, and he was eventually able to connect to three channels in Philadelphia. Later, because of competition, he added two New York stations by working out the problem of separating channels while minimizing significant interference.
Walson used 300 ohm twin-lead wire to connect his early systems, which proved unreliable when it rained or during stormy weather. He later switched to coaxial cable, which improved reception, and made other improvements that would make his customers happy. Walson charged $100 for a hookup and $2 per month, which established the cable model used as a basis for most systems today. John Walson ran the business until his death in 1993, when his son John Walson Jr. continued in the family tradition. Margaret Walson passed away in 2014 and is among the many women who are almost uncredited for supporting their husbands in the office while raising a family and creating this new business called “cable.”
Walson said his documentation from June 1948 was destroyed in a fire, which has led to the controversy of “who was the first?” One fact is certain: John Walson started a business that has survived the test of time. Its family leadership through three generations has been exemplary, and the company has always been a leader in technology and customer care. John Walson is the only one of the three “founders” of cable television inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame (2005). His pioneering efforts will remain a vital part of our industry’s history.
(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.)