A pioneer of American television, who happened to live in Arkansas, died last week at his home in Cabot at age 90. If you watch TV on cable, you owe James Yates “Jimmy” Davidson a debt of gratitude because he was one of the first to envision the concept.
No one really knows who was first, but Patrick R. Parsons, who wrote “Blue Skies: A History of Cable Television” (2008), credits Davidson with being one of three men to put the idea into practice in 1948.
“Jim Davidson in Tuckerman, Ark., already had an antenna up and lines strung when WMCT in Memphis, Tenn., officially went on the air, just because he wanted television,” Parsons wrote. “Davidson and many like him knew that television was coming, and when it did, they would be ready.”
He and other pioneers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Missouri, Oregon and Washington successfully established the first community antenna television systems, also called CATV and later just cable TV.
Television was in its infancy when Davidson was discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1946, and he returned to Tuckerman, where before joining the Signal Corps and then enlisting he had managed a movie theater and operated a radio, sign and photography shop.
He reopened his shop and also did some work for The Associated Press. According to a 1999 interview Davidson did with The Cable Center, he learned in late 1947 that WMC radio in Memphis had applied for a permit to establish a TV station. At the time, he said, he had heard of television but had never seen it.
The permit was quickly approved, and Davidson began flying back and forth to Memphis in a small plane he had acquired, learning as much about it as possible. He was already selling radio sets in his store and wanted to be able to sell TVs.
There was a big problem to overcome, though, for rural communities since the TV stations were being established in cities. The signal didn’t travel far, and Tuckerman was about 90 miles from Memphis.
My first job was in this developing industry because my stepfather owned a radio and TV sales and repair shop in the 1950s, and he put me to work at about age 10 in exchange for spending money. My main tasks were answering the phone and testing the vacuum tubes used in radios and TVs, but occasionally I helped put up antennas on rooftops.
The first TV sets used “rabbit ears” to take in signals, but even in Hot Springs those weren’t good enough to capture quality signals from Little Rock and Pine Bluff transmitters. So there was a strong early market for tall rooftop poles, topped with antennas which had to be pointed directionally.
But they had their limits, too, and Davidson and others had a better idea. In mid-1948 he and a helper constructed a 100-foot tower on top of his 2-story building at Tuckerman. He hooked up his first subscriber, Carl Toler, in September or October — in time to get test patterns from WMC-TV. Toler, whose house was about 350 feet away, according to the 1999 interview, paid $150 for the installation and $3 a month.
Davidson also connected the American Legion building and his own store, and on Saturday, Nov. 13, all three places had standing-room-only audiences for the broadcast of a football game between Tennessee and Ole Miss —perhaps the first public viewing for CATV.
Davidson continued developing his Tuckerman system, as well as related equipment needed to run it, until 1953, when he moved to nearby Batesville and established a CATV system there.
“I wanted to get into a larger town, and try to get some good cash flow going,” he explained in the 1999 interview.
There he established DavCo Electronics Corp. and began manufacturing cable devices such as transformers and splitters. He obtained a franchise agreement from the City Council, perhaps the first for any cable company, because he felt the need for one to use public rights-of-way. He also had to work out agreements with utility companies to string cable on their poles.
From there the business really took off. Davidson estimated that he built more than 30 cable systems in five states and eventually separated the supply and construction company from the cable systems. His other Arkansas systems included those at Newport, Tuckerman, Cave City and Pocahontas.
DavCo sold equipment and cable all over the United States. Davidson also proved that a system could have more than three channels, which others had considered impossible. And he got involved in fighting federal overregulation of the fledgling industry.
Davidson was mostly retired from the cable business when I first met him. About that time the cable systems were sold, and DavCo was shut down. But later his grandson, Cord Davidson, worked for me at our photography-video business when we produced a local public affairs program for the Batesville system, by then owned by TCA Cable Co.
Arkansas’ cable pioneer stayed active the rest of his life, writing several books, traveling, designing and manufacturing jewelry, and building a yacht and his final home, which is mostly underground and doubles as a library and museum.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.