Ray Hollifield: Akron’s Radio Sleuth
By Kieran Robertson
“Suppose Mr. Jones, after a hard day in the office … curls contentedly in his favorite chair to… hear via radio the baseball scores. Half the scores have been given, inidicating a tight race in his favored league when fire bells, ambulance sirens, and Morse Code, all inspired by the imps of interference, screech from the speaker.” -Akron Times Press, 1930s
During the 1930s, radio was king, uniting the nation with exciting stories, characters, news broadcasts, and music. However, an exciting evening by the radio could easily be interupted by interference, static, and poor reception.
Most of us know the frustration of a broken television signal or disconnecting Wi-Fi. When this happens, we typically call our service providers and they might send someone to our homes to investigate the problem. As it turns out, during the 1930s, radio-owning Ohioans did much the same thing we do now- they contacted their service provider and someone was sent to investigate.
In Akron, Ohio, that investigator was a man named Ray Hollifield. Hollifield worked for the Ohio Edison Company during the 1930s and he was considered one of the masters of his craft.
“The life of Akron’s radio interference sleuth may lack some of the thrills which punctuated the existence of Sherlock Holmes, but it misses none of the sheer thrill of the chase. Pipe-smoking Sherlock glued his glass to the trail of theives and crooks; the local sleuth fastens mechancial ears to far more elusive and deceptive game. His quarry trickles into your radio antenna, or kicks about in the tubes, or plays hop-scotch on the coils…” -Akron Times Press, 1930s
When a complaint came in, Hollifield would arrive in his truck, equipped with all of the materials he needed to do his work.
Included in Hollifield’s truck were:
- A General Electric noise meter to help find interference (based on a design by Tobe Deutschman)
- Special shock absorbers to protect the equipment in the car
- An R.C.A. radio
- An exterior speaker that was weather-proofed.
- A 12 pound sledge hammer
Often the issue was an error with the customer’s equipment, so Hollifield might recommend a reputable radio shop. However, if there was an error in the Ohio Edison equipment, Hollifield could act. Hollifield would drive around the block in this truck, using his noise meter to pinpoint the exact location of the problem. After finding the pole that was creating static, he would begin by hitting it with his 12 pound hammer. Hollifield could test his success using the radio in his car. If the static continued, he would climb the pole and make the necessary fixes.
“He carries no badge or gun. An auto laden with intricate interference-chasing mechanisms is his glass, bloodhounds, and weapons. – Akron Times Press, 1930s
Hollfield once appeared on a radio program in which he detailed how everyday families could identify and fight radio interference. In this interview, Hollifield pointed out that the culprits in many interference cases were electric appliances found in American homes during the 1930s (these appliances predated radio and were not built with interference in mind). For example, an electric hand iron could cause a “frying hiss if the heating element is defective, and a coarse snapping and crackling sound if the cord plug or contact pins of the iron is burned or loose.”
Hollifield could listen to a faulty radio signal and know exactly what was causing the problem. In fact, in 1934 he won an interference finding contest in Cincinnati. Documents from Hollifield’s career, such as the photo page below, can be found at the Ohio History Connection Archives & Library.
Ray Hollifield clearly had a passion for his job. As he once told the Akron Times Press:
“There’s always something new popping up…and some of the problems I get are dandies. I don’t think it would a bit more fun tracking down crooks. Interference impulses, even without human intelligence, sometimes hole out and hide like a ground hog, or better.”
Thanks to Ray Hollifield, Akronites never missed a moment of the Golden Age of Radio.