The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1986, Volume 32, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

When the President Spoke at Balboa Stadium

by Gerald A. Shepherd
Instructor, U.S. History, Helix High School, La Mesa

Images from this article

ALTHOUGH a special kind of electricity always sparks through the air when the President visits a city, the metaphor took on new meaning in September of 1919 when President Woodrow Wilson came to San Diego to speak in favor of his proposed League of Nations at the new municipal stadium. In addition to the normal public anticipation and excitement, for the first time in history the President used an electric amplifying device to make his voice heard to the people. Not since Benjamin Harrison had visited here in 1891 did San Diegans have the opportunity to see or hear a President, and they made the most of it by providing what Wilson's advisors called the warmest welcome he had ever received anywhere.

San Diego had changed greatly during the terrible war that had just concluded in Europe, and despite its relatively small size and geographical isolation on the Pacific coast, had made an important contribution to the war effort. The city was now described as "the greatest military rendezvous ever created west of Chicago, all branches of the army and navy being represented."1 The war had seen the birth of Camp Kearny, the largest army instruction facility in the Southwest where some 50,000 men had been trained;2 of the Rockwell Field (later to become North Island) naval aviation school with hundreds of airplanes and a submarine base;3 and the expansion of Fort Rosecrans on Point Loma. San Diego would never be the same again, and had now become the military city that it would always remain.4

President Wilson, the great but self-righteous man who had led the U.S. to victory in the war, came to San Diego to plead for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles with its provision for a League of Nations after a triumphant tour abroad where many had seen in him a divine inspiration. Wilson did nothing to dispel such beliefs, and as a Presbyterian minister's son had always sensed the strong hand of destiny on his shoulder. "If I didn't feel that I was the personal instrument of God," he said, "I wouldn't carry on."5

Wilson was convinced that Europe was still controlled by the same reactionary forces that had been dominant in the U.S. at the turn of the century, and he was determined to play his role in history by advocating a progressive world organization where petty jealousies and aggressive nationalism would be banished forever. "I can predict with absolute certainty," he had said earlier in Omaha, Nebraska, "that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it."6

Such was the man San Diegans heard when the President, now beleaguered by political opponents in Congress which had gone Republican in 1918, continued his historic tour on the west coast. Perhaps he was even un-sure of his reception here, for although California had voted Democratic in 1916, San Diego county had supported his opponent Charles Evans Hughes.7 Despite Wilson's weariness and frail physical health, however, his special train of a half-dozen cars carrying some fifty people in the presidential party arrived in San Diego on September 19, 1919. The train was accompanied by a squadron of seaplanes flying overhead as it entered the city limits, and his car was escorted by cavalry as it took him from the Santa Fe station on Broadway to the U.S. Grant Hotel to rest.8

A reception committee had been formed for the President consisting of local dignitaries Mayor Louis J. Wilde and Congressman William Kettner; G.A. Davidson, chairman of the Wilson General Committee who later remarked that "September 19 was the greatest day in San Diego history"; Lyman J. Gage, former Secretary of the Treasury who proclaimed this to be the "reddest red-letter day we have ever had in this city;" and Jack Thompson, secretary of the Wilson committee who had been working day and night to ensure that the day's events would be a complete success. Also included were military representative Major General Joseph C. Kuhn, and Gordon Gray, the President's cousin.9

Although Wilson's speech began at five o'clock in City Stadium, when the gates swung open at nine in the morning hundreds of people who had been waiting for hours streamed in. The massive Romanesque structure, which had been built on ten acres of land in the southwest corner of Balboa Park near San Diego High School for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, had permanent seats for 23,500 people. It was billed as the first true stadium on the Pacific coast and as the largest municipal structure of its kind in the world.10 Bleachers had been erected on the stadium floor for Wilson's visit and there was ample standing room to add to its overall capacity.

Because of his ill health a large glass structure had been built to protect the President at the south end of the stadium, and it was from this locale that Wilson delivered his speech to the crowd. He arrived at the stadium after listening to a short concert at the Organ Pavilion while inspecting the former Panama-California Exposition grounds. Although his car had been briefly stopped by a traffic jam on the way, he seemed to be in good spirits and both he and his wife Edith sported smiles. As the presidential car toured the oval, the first family was greeted by San Diego High School girls in white middies and skirts and boys in dark suits forming a huge "Welcome" in the stands at the north end of the stadium.11

There were some 50,000 persons in attendance, the first time the stadium had ever been full and probably the largest group ever assembled to hear a President (the population of San Diego at this time was only about 73,000). People had come from all over Southern California to listen to the man who felt God had ordained him to be their President. The voice amplification system that Wilson used was called the "Magnavox" ("Great Voice") moving coil device, and one of the inventors was in the glass enclosure with the President to make sure that it functioned properly.

Work on the apparatus had begun in 1911 in a small laboratory in Napa, California, by Edwin S. Pridham and Peter L. Jensen, in an attempt to make a more sensitive telephone. Soon Pridham, a Stanford physics graduate and later Vice President and co-founder of the Magnavox Company, came up with the "moving coil telephone," which he patented in 1915. This invention, the forerunner of all modern loudspeakers, was later known as the "Dynamic Loud Speaker." The person receiving the message used tubes fitted with ear pieces instead of the ordinary head set. When Pridham hit upon the idea of placing a large phonograph horn on the sound box, a message he received from San Francisco blared out that could be heard for two or three blocks.12 In mating the Edison horn to the telephone, Pridham had come very close to the modern public address systems of today.

The inventors were so pleased that they placed a phonograph next to the device on the roof of their lab and gave a concert for the citizens of Napa, and another was given at San Francisco City Hall on Christmas Eve, 1915, with Mayor James Rolf presiding. The Navy became interested in the invention for message transmission from aircraft when Lt. Herbert Metcalf picked up signals from a ground wireless and amplified them from a speaker in his plane while flying over Washington, D.C. Vice President Marshall also gave a speech over the Magnavox- in the capital, which reportedly could be heard in Alexandria, Virginia, some eight miles away, and former President Taft and other notables had tested it at Grant Park in Chicago. The Magnavox now became front page news all over the country.13

Pridham himself had come to San Diego to supervise the installation of the system by the Heilbron Electric Company and participated in the preliminary testing shortly before Wilson's arrival. Though many were skeptical of the system's efficacy, and the approval of the Secret Service was necessary, the tests proved successful. This first large-scale use of a public address system anywhere in the world would enable the President's voice to carry to untold thousands of people, instead of the two thousand or so who would normally be expected to be able to hear him. Surprisingly, it was at first reported that Wilson, like many other public speakers who were convinced that their voice could reach any size of audience, was reluctant to use sound amplification. The success of the tests and the counsel of Wilson's ad-visors who were concerned about saving his strength, however, prevailed over the President's ego.14

At the last moment the President consented to the removal of the front of the glass enclosure that formed the speaker's pavilion so that the crowd could get an even better view of him as he delivered his speech "to carry the League of Nations to the people over the heads of Congress." As it was thought undignified to hand the President a microphone to begin his speech as had been done with previous users of the device, a new type of receiver was used which was attached to a large horn suspended just over the President's head. A circle was drawn on the floor within which the President was asked to stand so as to direct his voice to the microphone.15 The other Magnavox loudspeakers were placed on the roof of the glass enclosure and artfully camouflaged with flags and bunting, but carefully directed so their full effect might reach out to all the crowd.

Pridham remained inside the glass structure while the President spoke and attempted to adjust the apparatus so that Wilson's voice would be carried to all in the stadium. He described in his autobiography a problem that escaped public notice to press coverage:

When we supplied the apparatus for President Wilson's address in the San Diego stadium we were using our latest model power amplifier, a three-stage affair with two five hundred volt tubes in parallel in each stage. Everything was going fine for this test until just before President Wilson started to speak. I had told him of the circle marked on the floor and to direct his speech forward so that it would best affect the microphone. I left the glass enclosure to close the switch on the control box. I no sooner had done this than I saw smoke coming out of the amplifier box. What a fix to be in! Seventy-five thousand (sic) people in the stadium, the President inside the glass enclosure-you couldn't have heard him three feet away without the Magnavox. I looked closely at the tubes and saw one was red hot. I yanked it out without disturbing the circuit. (There were two tubes in parallel in each stage.) Everything was okay.16

Wilson, attired in a top hat and dark suit but looking pale and drawn, was introduced by Mayor Wilde and rose to deliver a particularly impassioned speech that lasted almost an hour. He was frequently interrupted by applause from the largest and most enthusiastic crowd he was to experience on the tour. "The war we have just been through," he told them prophetically, "though it was shot through with terror, is not to be compared with the war we would have to face next time." The audience, now able to hear the President speak from a distance, shouted their approval of the League.17 Warming to the throng and holding aloft a copy of the league covenant, Wilson added that "the heart of humanity beats in this document. It would be a death war-rant to the children should league participation be rejected."

The Magnavox system worked so effectively that though not a word could be heard with the instrument off, when the circuit was closed the President's voice could be heard for a mile beyond the stadium. Telephones were installed around the stadium to advise Pridham on the distance the system carried so as to not "drown out" a particular section with sound. There were problems with tonal quality, however, and according to a few newspaper reports midway through the speech some people in the audience yelled "turn the damned thing off" (one report implausibly claimed that the usually reserved Wilson himself had made this remark).18 The sound projection, though loud, had taken a somewhat hollow and indistinct tone, particularly to those in the far north end of the stadium, and many people from that area who could not hear clearly left to gather on the field as close to the glass enclosure as possible.

Pridham explained later that the problem had developed because his testing was done in the open air of the stadium before it was known a glass enclosure would be used, and this structure, large enough to accommodate fifty people, proved to be the cause of the hollow sound of Wilson's voice:

The echoing of the voice vibrations from the glass sides had produced this effect. It was a long time before a solution was found for this trouble and that solution was-never to have any surfaces near the microphone that would permit echoes. Today every studio is so designed so as to minimize echo but not to completely eliminate it.19

Whatever the technical problems had been, officially President Wilson praised the new Magnavox system and was sufficiently impressed with it to personally thank Pridham during a reception in his honor at the U.S. Grant Hotel.

For one brief day, like a Southern California Camelot, San Diego had shone with a presidential visit, and newspapers across the country declared unequivocally that San Diego was the high point of Wilson's trip. The experience so elated the President that he spoke of carrying his campaign all the way back to Massachusetts and "lighting a fire under Senator Lodge."20 The joy lasted only a short while, however, and the tragic figure who had once remarked to his wife that "I don't care if I die the minute the League is ratified" must have sensed that he was reaching his physical limits. Admiral Grayson, the President's physician, halted the presidential train on the way to Los Angeles that evening so that Wilson might get a sound sleep at a nearby inn, and also advised the President that there must be no more rear platform speeches and handshaking.21

Before the end of the month Wilson collapsed from fatigue while continuing his tour in Pueblo, Colorado, and was forced to return to Washington where he suffered a stroke and remained an invalid for the remainder of his term. His doctors left little doubt that the strain of speaking to so many people so often, and his personal involvement with the League, led to his paralysis. Although the stadium, later renamed Balboa Stadium, was to see an even greater crowd for Charles Lindbergh's visit here in 1927 after his successful transatlantic flight, San Diegans would never forget Woodrow Wilson on a day when "popular excitement reached its highest pitch"22 and history had been made when a President's voice was heard through a loudspeaker for the first time.


1. Cabrillo Commercial Club, pamphlet published by Richard Wolfe, 1921, p. 21, San Diego History Center Research Archives.

2. Carl Heilbron, ed., History of San Diego County (San Diego: San Diego Press Club, 1936), p. 434.

3. Clarence Alan McGrew, City of San Diego and San Diego County, Vol. 1 (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1922), p. 223.

4. Richard F. Pourade, Gold in the Sun (San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Company, 1965), p. 231.

5. Robert Goldston, The Road Between the Wars (New York: Fawcett Crest Books, 1978), p. 55.

6. John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson's War (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962), p. 487.

7. Arthur Ribbel, "A Beleaguered President," San Diego Union, February 1, 1918.

8. "Flags Wave as City's Famous Guest Arrives," San Diego Sun, September 19, 1919, p. 8.

9. Ibid.

10. F. Rose, "A Brief History of the Stadium," San Diego City and County Employee, July, 1947.

11. Ribbel, "A Beleagured President".

12. Telephone interview with Mr. Billy Malone, chief biographer of Magnavox Company, Fort Wayne, Indiana, September 18, 1984.

13. Edwin Stewart Pridham, "Biography and Resume," unpublished manuscript, Magnavox Government and Industrial Electronic Company, 1947, pp. 7-10.

14. Malone, telephone interview, October 19, 1984.

15. Pridham, "Biography," p. 11.

16. Ibid., p. 12.

17. Dos Passos, Wilson's War p. 490.

18. "Presidential Visits Vary," San Diego Union, April 3, 1975.

19. Pridham, "Biography," p. 11.

20. Dos Passos, Wilson's War p. 490.

21. Gene Smith, When the Cheering Stopped (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1964), p. 76.

22. Arthur Walworth, Woodrow Wilson (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978), p. 367.

The author wishes to thank Mr. Billy Malone of the Magnavox Company for his special help in the preparation of this article, and to salute his mother Thelma Allison Shepherd, who was present in the crowd that day as a nine-year-old schoolgirl but remembers only "Mr., Wilson's tall stovepipe hat."

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are from the San Diego History Center's Title Insurance and Trust Collection.