In 1947, John Walson walked into the Army surplus store in Mahanoy, Pa., to buy heavy duty twin-lead wire, which he strung from trees on a nearby mountain to his appliance warehouse. From there, the line extended to several homes, thereby spawning what is generally accepted as the first CATV system in the U.S.
In fact, Congress and the National Cable Television Association officially recognized Walson in 1979 as the founder of the cable television industry. For Walson — who passed on an early aspiration to join the medical profession in favor of electronics — it wasn’t about cable, but selling TV sets, at least in the beginning.
“John would drive people up the mountain to show them the reception they could get on these new TV sets, which he was selling in his [General Electric]-franchised appliance store,” says Jack Capparell, general manager of Service Electric Cable TV Inc. and close associate of Walson for more than 40 years. Once Walson strung wire from the mountain to his store, “people would line up outside the store’s front window and watch the pictures in amazement. They were astounded.”
According to Capparell, Walson was so focused on getting pictures from the mountain to the store and selling more TVs, he didn’t quite realize the implications of what he was doing. “By 1950, he realized this could be a good business, but it wasn’t until much later that he realized just what he had done,” Capparell says.
Walson, who passed away in March 1993, had not only helped create an entire industry, but found time to pioneer the first five-channel system using adjacent channels. He was also the first to import distant signals using microwave technology. He helped pioneer the use of coaxial cable, and he was issued the first pole-attachment license in cable history.
“The system was in coal country, so several homes were company owned. On the side, John would do the wiring on the sides of the homes so people could get TV. He was always trying different things,” Capparell says.
One of those things helped Home Box Office gain an initial foothold. Walson’s system was HBO’s first affiliate, bringing the premium services’ earliest boxing match to Allentown, Pa.
Later, the system would carry the debut of C-SPAN’s coverage of congressional hearings.
Along the way, Walson also served as a director of the National Cable Television Association, the Pennsylvania Cable Television Association, and numerous civic organizations.
Clearly, Walson’s accomplishments fall into the “labor of love” category. “He always felt he was providing a good service to the public,” says Rosalie Walter, Walson’s daughter and one of his first employees in the family business, which started in their home using the front room as an appliance store.
“The idea of cable TV had to be developed by someone, and it just turned out to be my father,” she adds. “No one knew what cable was then, and he really never cared who was first to discover cable. He was just very practical, loved electronics and went out of his way to help people.”