People of Our Past | Cable TV pioneer began with Waterville link

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in The Wenatchee World in June of 1994.

WATERVILLE — If you lived in Waterville in the early 1950s, you had the distinction of being in the first community in the state (and one of the first three in the whole United States) to get television by cable — thanks to Charles Clements.

Clements, now 77, was an electrical engineer who eventually became a consultant for many organizations in the country involved with cable television, including Time-Life, CBS and major newspapers. He came to be considered a legendary figure by the industry. He was even called overseas to advise a client who planned to introduce systems in Argentina, Brazil and Australia.

After graduating from Cashmere High School, Clements earned an electrical engineering degree at the University of Houston. He came to Waterville in 1946 after service in the Navy where he took courses in radar engineering.

In Waterville, Clements first tried the appliance business, catering mostly to people hooking up to the new Rural Electrification Administration lines in area. He sold out three years later, then worked in a tavern for four years.

Clements faced a major problem in building the local system in 1951. He could not buy the equipment he needed. So he had to construct his own amplifier. He was able to do so after friend Milt Sapp, who later became governor of Pennsylvania, offered him plans. The apparatus was put into service on Badger Mountain.

He faced another problem, too. He could not get coaxial cable so he used an open two-wire arrangement until he could get surplus coaxial wire from England.

He erected the cable system in Waterville that could pick up Seattle TV station KRSC, the only one north of San Francisco. Later it became KING-TV. Clements picked up its signal as it bounced off Mount Rainier.

The system served about 300 customers who were charged $4 a month plus a federal tax. Later Clements was able to pick up three Spokane stations when they came on the air. The Seattle TV programs came on at 5 p.m., the Spokane ones at 6 p.m.

When Clements went into consulting, he soon got plenty of business. He first served small Western Washington stations and soon, in 1957, was elected to the board of directors of the National Cable Television Association.

An early Clements client was the McClatchy newspaper chain based in California. Larger papers, such as the Los Angeles Times-Mirror, used him, too.

“A lot of publishers foresaw TV as a supplement, but they also were worried about competitors showing news pages on the air,” he recalled.

Clements served in many ways. He was vice president of a New York City firm which operated the world’s largest closed circuit television system, serving more than 60,000 hotel rooms. He appeared before congressional committees and testified at many public hearings.

One industry magazine once reported Clements represented about 75 percent of the U.S. cable TV connections. In representing them, he had to testify before hundreds of city councils the country over.

He was farsighted in his consulting. He predicted signal scrambling, home dishes, satellite antennas, TV disks, VCRs and HDTV. He predicted that people would be able to pick up their home phone and order any movie they want to see. Later Clement sold his counseling business to CBS.

Clements has many glowing things said about his accomplishments. CATV, the weekly news service of cable television, called him “Charlie, the Waterville Wonder, Clements,” and rated him as one of the industry’s greatest assets. The publication also presented him its “CATV Pioneer Award.”

The National Cable Television Center and Museum at Pennsylvania State University has an oral history recording of Clements’ work, calling him one of cable television’s pioneers.

Clements remained in Waterville during his entire career, although he had an office in Seattle for a while. His business required him to travel extensively.

“When I quit, on Jan. 21, 1970, I had logged over 8,000,000 miles,” he said.

Clements loved his hometown and family so much that he arranged his schedule so he could get home most weekends, even when as far away as New York or Florida. At home were wife, Peggy, his son, Bob, now a wheat farmer, son Ron, who is a chiropractor in Spokane, and daughter Dawn Viebrock, who works in the Grant County Health Department. His wife died about two years ago.

He summed up his career this way: “I am glad to have been a part of a fast-growing industry that I saw almost from its very inception. My hat is off to the other pioneers and to the guys who put their hard dollars, time and effort in founding an industry that has become as big as most of us thought it would be.”