I was born in Zanesville, Ohio, county seat of Muskingum County, in 1947. It was the dawn of the television age. Back then, it had not yet been determined that small cities would be able to have their own local stations.
The town of my birth was 100 miles distant from both Cleveland and Cincinnati, then Ohio's largest cities. As such, it was beyond the range of any metropolitan television broadcaster. How could the citizens of Zanesville ever see TV?
Westinghouse Broadcasting knew one way. Their pioneering radio station, KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh, had dominated the region for more than a quarter of a century. Now Westinghouse had high hopes for KDKA-TV.
On August 9, 1945, a B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. On that same day in New York City, a press conference was held to announce the plans for Stratovision. A single airplane, circling over eastern Pennsylvania, could broadcast four television channels that would cover the states of Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Even with a backup plane flying nearby, this would be far cheaper than building dozens of high-powered stations on the ground and connecting them with coaxial cable.
Across the nation, just 14 strategically placed airplanes could bring TV to 78% of the population, including many rural homes that otherwise would have to wait many years for ground-based transmission to reach them. (I've added a map here.)
When the war ended, Westinghouse obtained a B-29 and installed the necessary equipment. There was an eight-foot mast atop the tail to receive programs, which were then rebroadcast on Channel 6 from a 28-foot antenna that dropped down from the bomb bay. In 1948, flying at 25,000 feet over Pittsburgh, the plane received and retransmitted a wrestling match from WMAL-TV in Washington. The signal was picked up from New England to Michigan to southern Virginia.
It was time for another New York press conference, after which reporters were flown to bucolic Ohio for a demonstration of TV reception. Originally the demonstration was supposed to be held in Chillicothe, but there were only ten telephone circuits there. The reporters were taken to Zanesville instead. TV sets were installed at the Zanesville Country Club to receive the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, relayed from Baltimore's WMAR-TV from 9 to 10 pm on June 23, 1948. I was 16 months old.
This first public test of Stratovision was a success, especially in Zanesville, "which had a virtual Stratovision holiday" according to Broadcasting magazine. "Stratovision is a reality with future unlimited," boasted the Glenn L. Martin Company, which had an agreement to supply as many as 60 Martin 202 airliners for the project. Seven weeks later, Westinghouse filed for permission to modify its construction permit for KDKA-TV in order to use Stratovision as the transmitter.
"The system is feasible," Westinghouse noted, "and it is the only way ... that many millions of people will ever receive television service."
But the following month, September 1948, the FCC declared a freeze on new television permits in order to examine signal interference between the 37 stations then on the air. Although testing continued, Stratovision was stalled. An additional 71 stations began broadcasting with permits that had already been approved before the freeze, including WDTV in Pittsburgh in January 1949.
Meanwhile AT&T was connecting cities with coaxial cable, which made it possible to telecast to a wide region using networks of individual ground stations. The individual stations liked this idea. It made national programming available for them to use. They didn't like Stratovision. They feared it would become a monopoly that would shut them out.
Westinghouse gave up on the idea in 1950. Shut out themselves from telecasting in Pittsburgh, in 1955 they had to spend a record $10 million to purchase WDTV and rename it KDKA-TV.
What if Stratovision had succeeded? Television studios would have been located only in major cities. Smaller cities might never have gotten their own local stations and TV news teams. Cable TV might never have developed, with its small-scale local productions. The concept of "localism" in television would have never been realized.
And eventually Stratovision would have been supplanted by a new and improved version, using not regional airplanes but global satellites.
But as it turned out, Stratovision was not adopted. After the freeze was lifted, in 1953 television stations began broadcasting in smaller cities like Altoona and Wheeling and Youngstown and even Zanesville.