Tuesday, September 25, 2007

From the studios of KOP in Detroit, it's C.M. Branch

As some of you know, Clarence Milo (Miles) Branch (left, in an undated early photo) was already 31 years old by the time he arrived in Oklahoma City and met Blanche Vermillion. So I've often been curious about what he did during his early adulthood. One thing that Blanche always told me was that he was a police dispatcher in Detroit, something that never sounded particularly remarkable to me. But in recent years I've read up and discovered that if he worked with radio in Detroit before 1928, he was a kind of pioneer, as the Detroit police were the first to use radio to communicate with police cars (which were themselves a Detroit police innovation).

How did Miles get there? My time line for his early life is a little spotty. His sister Sarah told me that he left home when he was 16 after a dispute with his father, who denied him the use of the family buggy to go on a date. Just what he did for the next five years is uncertain, but we know that he was in the Navy in 1918-19, when he was 21. He joined just as World War I was ending, and Blanche always said that he was on a ship headed for Europe that turned around when the armistice was signed.

While he was in the Navy, Miles attended the Aircraft Radio School on the campus of Harvard University. World War I, of course, was the beginning of aviation in warfare, and putting radios aboard planes would be the next big advance. An online history of naval aviation says that the curriculum for aircraft radio electricians included "code work, semaphore and blinker study, gunnery, and laboratory work."

It's conceivable that Miles might have learned something about radio or electricity before the navy, but my guess is that his naval experience led him to his career as an electrician.

The next I know of Miles is in the 1920 census, when he was working in a rubber factory in Akron, Ohio. It must have been after that he went to Detroit.

He was not alone. Many people, including some of his siblings and cousins, left the coal mines of central Pennsylvania for industrial jobs in places like Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Ohio, and especially Detroit. With the auto industry exploding in the 1920s, I imagine Detroit to have been something like Silicon Valley has been in the last few years--a place brimming with money, energy, and the excitement of new technology.

While I have not found any written sources that mention Miles's involvement with the Detroit police, their early experience with radio is well documented. This article by Kenneth Dobson from the Detroit News describes how the city's police department was an early adopter of technology.

In 1909, for example, the Detroit police acquired their first patrol car, a Packard that the commissioner bought himself, as the city fathers were reluctant to fund such a radical idea. The idea caught on, especially as criminals increasingly had access to cars of their own. Police officers would wait at heated telephone booths around the city for calls from a dispatcher at police headquarters, then jump in their cars to pursue as many as five or six assignments at a time.

The system was far from perfect, needless to say, and radio provided some solutions. Writes Dobson:
In 1921, Detroit Police Commissioner William P. Rutledge began experimenting with patrol vehicles equipped with radios. Rutledge was "convinced that the automobile had given the criminal an advantage in speed that could not be overcome by police cars controlled by telephone. Gangsters could make their getaway while the booth patrol was still awaiting a telephone call.

Rutledge had a radio transmitter installed at police headquarters and in 1922 the Federal Radio Commission, the forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission, issued Detroit the first provisional commercial radio license, KOP.

But there were obstacles to be overcome before the radios could be made mobile. The vacuum tubes, which comprised the internal workings of the radio receiver, were fragile and required extensive cushioning. The electrical systems of the automobiles were not powerful enough to operate the radios, so six-volt batteries had to be mounted on the running boards. The battery was only good for four hours before it had to be replaced.

Other obstacles were less technical but just as formidable. Several times the Federal Radio Commission refused to renew the department's radio license because it failed to live up to requirements. One of these insisted that KOP broadcast "entertainment during regular hours, with police calls interspersed as required."

After one such refusal to renew , Commissioner Rutledge wryly asked: "Do we have to play a violin solo before we dispatch the police to catch a criminal?"
But the kinks got worked out, and by 1924 the Detroit News was calling for more radio-dispatched cars:
"The motor car has been a big asset to criminals, because it permitted a quick getaway. But the radio is swifter than any motor vehicle ever invented. By its use a well equipped police department can bar every city exit as soon as a description of the suspects can be obtained.... The police department now has three radio equipped flyers. It should have more. The motorized bandits would soon learn that Detroit had become a trap for them and they would move on to some town with less modern ideas."

A complete radio-dispatched patrol program was rolled out in April 1928. It was not until 1933, though, that another department, in Bayonne, New Jersey, installed the first two-way radio communication between dispatchers and patrol cars.

So where did Miles Branch (he probably called himself Clarence at the time, actually) figure into all this? I don't know. I imagine that he found his way to Detroit like so many others seeking work in the economic boom there and discovered a use for his background in radio. Perhaps there are records somewhere in Detroit that could confirm his employment with the department, but I haven't had time to go down that road yet. Whatever his involvement, it must have ended before or soon after the full-scale radio car program began in April 1928. By November of that year, he was in Oklahoma City and had married Blanche.

Below: Police radio operator B.D. Fitzgerald at the controls of the Detroit police radio dispatch equipment in 1925. Did Miles Branch sit at the same desk?

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