Got family folklore? Read about mine, in this edited version of a story about my grandfather M. C. Rypinski, first published in longer form in 2002 by my mother, Frances. He died too soon, before I could know him. Also, of interest to early radio geeks.
Based upon an Interview with Robert Rypinski by his sister, Frances Laurence
“Will anyone hearing this broadcast communicate with us, as we are anxious to know how far the broadcast is reaching and how it is being received.”
This message hit the airwaves in a maiden broadcast over America’s first radio station KDKA, on November 2, 1920, between the updates of the Harding-Cox election returns.
Underwritten by the Westinghouse Electric Company, it was the world’s first commercial radio hookup. A surprising number of ships and ham operators reported receiving this transmission, and the idea of being able to send a voice on wires caused a nationwide sensation.
KDKA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1970 and is still going strong in 2002. A commemorative booklet the station published gave credit for radio’s birth to “H. P. Davis, top executive of Westinghouse Electric, and Dr. Frank Conrad, resident Assistant Chief Engineer”. But my father, Maurice Charles Rypinski, also a Westinghouse engineer, deserves a share of the credit for his part in the process.
* * *
My brother Robert—ten years my senior—vividly recalled our father’s family history, as told to him by our grandmother Leah. As a child, she’d left South Carolina at the outbreak of the Civil War. Leah’s foresighted father, Gabriel Schwarz, had freed his slaves, then sold his prosperous saddle & harness factory and a working cotton plantation in South Carolina, and headed North.
The plantation had been a lavish wedding gift, a reward for devoted service, from his first and only employer, British Lord Montefiore. At sixteen, Gabriel had run away from his Polish homeland to escape six years of enforced conscription in the army. He’d fortuitously found his way to London and Montefiore, who began to employ him as an errand boy and sometime secretary. Gabriel remained in Montefiore’s service for fifteen years, being promoted to posts of ever greater trust until at last he became Montefiore’s archivist, in charge of his valuable and extensive library.
In Paris, to bid on a special book collection at auction, Gabriel met a young Frenchwoman on the Rue de Bac in front of the millinery shop where she created beautiful hats for society ladies. Instantly smitten, he kept going back to see Mlle. Henriette, and spent every spare moment of his stay with her. Before he left for England, they’d fallen in love; he’d proposed, and she’d accepted.
Back in London, Gabriel asked Montefiore for permission to leave his service in order to marry, thinking to return to Paris and settle there in some work or another. Instead, Montefiore proffered this stunning gift: Gabriel might choose between Montefiore’s ranch in Australia and a cotton plantation in America. Grateful beyond measure, Gabriel chose the latter located in Columbia, South Carolina. “Good,” Montefiore said, clapping him on the back. “You are now the proud owner of a fine cotton plantation, complete with a good house and a hundred Negroes to work your fields and tend your home. Your Henriette will not ever have to sew again, except for her own pleasure.”
In her eighties, Gabriel’s daughter Leah told her grandson Robert how her father came home one day with his pockets and a satchel bulging with fifty dollar gold coins, in 1861 only the size of today’s dime.
The war was already underway the day they set off for the North. It was not only illegal to take monies out of the South, but there was a border blockade under twenty-four hour patrol known as the Mason-Dixon Line. The family traveled in two decrepit-looking buckboard wagons, each pulled by an old nag and piled with small furniture and luggage. At the border their wagons, full of kids and carryalls, were given only a cursory inspection and the family was waved on their way north. The soldier guards didn’t want to dig deep into their trunks because dirty diapers were piled on top of each one. If they had, they would have found and confiscated the silver and other family treasures, needed to finance the costly war against the North.
Nor could they imagine the family nest egg being smuggled by the females in the family, large and small. They each wore quilted petticoats one over another beneath a voluminous skirt. Those daisy-patterned petticoats concealed a small stack of dime-sized fifty dollar gold pieces, sewn under each bright yellow cotton center, which amounted to a small fortune.
Leah, the seven year old who crossed to the North that day, grew up to marry a German-Polish emigre named Heyman Rypinski. Heyman and Leah moved West and soon settled in a modest white frame house in the small town of Giddings, Texas, where Heyman opened a general store. Maurice Charles was their first child, the oldest of thirteen, ten of whom survived.
The family was not destined to be well-to-do. Papa Heyman, a compassionate man, often let his customers “charge” when they were short of money, and later forgot to collect, short-changing his family to Leah’s growing fury. (There is a family tale, perhaps apocryphal, that Leah went into labor with her last child when, in anger, she was heaving cushions at her husband.)
Maurice, called M.C., commenced working in the family store and soda fountain at the age of eight, because he was a serious lad and very responsible. In his early teens he also served as manager of the Nickelodeon they opened next door, when that new form of entertainment took the country by storm.
He held those jobs until fifteen, when he left home to enroll at Rose Polytechnic Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana, one of the first educational institutions in the country to offer a course in Electrical Engineering. Rypinski graduated at nineteen with a degree in the brand new science.
He had done so well that when he graduated, his professors armed him with letters of recommendation: one to Thomas Edison, one to Nicolas Tesla, and the third to a top executive of the Edison General Electric Company (later called simply “GE”). When he called on the first of these three gentlemen, Edison regretfully had no openings. Tesla also had no openings but advised, “Go into Electro-Chemistry, my boy. That is where the future lies. And stop parting your hair in the middle!”
Taking Tesla’s advice about the hair, Rypinski was hired by GE and was put to work designing meters. “Some of the meters he designed are still in use today,” said Robert Rypinski, his Electrical Engineer son. “Our father had a very broad design sense.” Although many of his 61 patents dealt with meters, “One was a design for a silent practice piano,” he noted with a smile. “But most of his later patents were for loud speaker design.”
After five years with GE, Rypinski moved on to New York’s Empire Electrical Institute as factory Superintendent, for the then munificent salary of $20.00 a week. “His boarding house room, meals, and laundry cost him $2.00 weekly,” Robert said. “The remainder he sent home to Texas to help support his struggling family, growing larger each year.”
At 27, his outstanding patents in hand, Rypinski went into business for himself, and founded The Simplex Company. “Luckily for Dad,” Robert added, “The Simplex Company was bought in 1906 by Westinghouse when it was just about on the rocks.” But during the company’s two-year existence, Rypinski married a pretty twenty-one-year-old named Cecelia Klein. Their firstborn son tragically died of “crib death”, but their second, born in 1908, was a healthy boy they named Robert.
Working again for Westinghouse, Rypinski resumed the designing of the much needed meters. “Electrification programs were proliferating throughout the country by this time,” Robert said, “and our father was beginning to make a reputation for himself, both with his advanced designs and the honest way he did business.”
The “panic” of 1907, when Heyman lost everything, also changed Rypinski’s life. He took on his parents’ support and resettled them near him in New York. But with another child on the way, he was forced to leave the field of invention he loved so much and move back to Pittsburgh, the home plant of the Westinghouse Company, and switch to sales where he could make more money.
“It was his involvement with the company’s sales to the U.S. Navy that first introduced him to “wireless”, as radio was then called.” And it was at Westinghouse that he and Frank Conrad, creator of the concept of “voice wireless”, formed a fast friendship. “Originally trained as a watchmaker, Conrad was a ‘natural’, an unschooled genius.” Westinghouse first used his voice wireless for inter-plant communication, but adapted it at the US Navy’s request for their use between ships, and ships to shore.
Frank Conrad had made himself an amateur radio set-up in his garage. “Dad saw the potential broadcasting could have in selling the radios Westinghouse was gearing up to manufacture. But of course, radios are useless without programs.”
Together, Rypinski and Conrad cooked up the idea of a “closed circuit dry run” to be made from Conrad’s garage to Rypinski’s home, which was about the same distance in miles as from Conrad’s garage to the plant. When the day arrived, a team of engineers descended on the house, wearing earphones, and stringing antenna wires from their roof to the light pole in the street.
Robert gestured toward the two antique boxes sitting on his study floor, identifying the lidded box as a single tube 1921X Regenerative Receiver for earphones, and the open box as a 1923 Detector Amplifier, which operated with a loud speaker, both very early versions of today’s radio receivers. “You plugged earphones into these receivers then laid them in a ceramic bowl on a table. I remember listening through the earphones as the bowl amplified sound in the manner of a loud speaker. Most radios in those days were made by amateurs for amateurs. Only a few outfits like Deforest were actually manufacturing primitive radio equipment.”
The dry run was a success. At the next board meeting, with Vice President Davis as their sponsor, they repeated the exercise with the board members listening in on earphones as Conrad, the world’s first disk jockey, talked and played records for them from his garage. Our father was in the boardroom, pitching the board members on the virtues of Radio, calling it the wave of the future and a new great medium for public entertainment. He was so convincing that he was given the job of organizing a test station there at the plant.
He had a transmitter tent set up on the plant roof and applied for a license for the new enterprise. The license was received on Oct. 29th, 1920. With the first transmission on Nov. 2nd, radio broadcasting became a fact of life.
Robert explained that our father M.C. held many responsible posts in his life, yet declined those that might lead to public recognition. “He refused to head up the newly formed Federal Communications Commission when that post was offered to him, and turned down an important executive job with David Sarnoff at the founding of the Radio Corporation of America, to name but two occasions.”
Maurice Charles Rypinski retired in 1928 at fifty-two years of age, planning to indulge his lifelong passion for photography. But Westinghouse asked him back, and he returned, this time as the company’s Vice President of Sales. After serving for four more years, he quit the business world for good in 1932.
In Yates’ & Pacent’s The Complete Radio Book, published by The Century Company in 1922, a section on Rypinski’s radio career reads in part:
M. C. Rypinski is the man who fathered the first real broadcasting program of the Westinghouse Electrical & Manufacturing Company. It was he who saw the vast possibilities of the scheme while working in collaboration with Frank Conrad, another Westinghouse engineer.
POSTSCRIPT: Discovering that my great-great-grandfather Gabriel Schwarz, a Polish Jew, was a slave owner was both a sobering revelation and an irony not lost on me. How much of his tale is fact vs fancy, I may never know (unless I engage Ancestry.com). For now, the story remains part of my family legacy.