Tuesday, March 4, 2014

History of the Car Radio

For most people today it seems like cars have always had a radios, but let’s face it, they didn't. Here is a short history of the car radio along with a few other tidbits you might enjoy.

Back in 1929, two young men named William Lear and Elmer Wavering drove their girlfriends to a lookout point near the  Mississippi River in the town of Quincy, Illinois, to watch the sunset. It was a romantic night; however, one of the girls commented that it sure would be nicer if they could listen to music in the car. 

Lear and his buddy, Wavering, thought about that idea. Both men had tinkered with radios (Lear served as a radio operator in the U.S. Navy during World War I). That week the two buddies took apart a home radio and tried to get it to work in a car.

It wasn't easy; automobiles have ignition switches, generators, spark plugs, and other electrical equipment that generate static interference, making it nearly impossible to listen to a radio while the engine is running. One by one, Lear and Wavering were able to identify and eliminate each source of the electrical interference they encountered. When they finally got their radio to work, they took it to a radio convention in Chicago.

There they met Paul Galvin, owner of Galvin Manufacturing Corporation. Galvin made a product called a "battery eliminator", a device that allowed battery-powered radios to
run on household AC current. But as more homes were being wired for electricity, more radio manufacturers were making AC-powered radios so Galvin needed to find a new product to manufacture. 

When Galvin met Lear and Wavering at the radio convention, he found his new product. He believed that "mass-produced" affordable car radios had the potential to become a huge business. He convinced Lear and Wavering to set up shop in his factory, and that is where they perfected their first fully functioning car radio which they installed in Galvin’s personal Studebaker.

A few months later, Galvin drove his Studebaker 800 miles to Atlantic City to the 1930 Radio Manufacturers Association Convention. He wanted to show off his new radio that was installed in his car. Upon arriving at the convention, Galvin didn't have enough money to rent a booth at the convention so he parked his Studebaker outside the convention hall and cranked up the radio real loud so every passing conventioneer could hear it playing. That idea worked and Galvin got enough orders to go ahead and put the radio into full production.

His first production model was officially called the 5T71; however, he needed to come up with a name that was a little catchier. Back in those days, companies in the phonograph and radio businesses like to use the suffix "ola" in their names – Radiola, Columbiola, and Victrola – those were the big three. Galvin decided to do the same thing with his product.  Since his radio was intended for only use in a motor vehicle, he decided to call it the Motorola.

When the Motorola went on sale in 1930, it cost about $110 uninstalled. A brand-new car back then cost around $650 and the country was sliding into the Great Depression. (By that measure, a radio for a new car today would cost about $3,000.)

The kicker was it took two men working several days to install the car radio. The dashboard had to be taken apart so that the receiver and speaker could be installed, and the roof had to be cut open to install the antenna. Since those early Motorola's ran on their own batteries, not the car’s battery,  holes had to be cut into the floorboard to accommodate the new batteries.

Galvin lost money in 1930 and then struggled for a couple of years. But things picked up dramatically in 1933 when Henry Ford was so impressed with the car radio he became the first auto manufacturer to begin offering the Motorola pre-installed at the factory. In 1934 Galvin got another major boost when he struck a deal with the B.F. Goodrich Tire Company to sell and install his radios in its national wide chain of tire stores across the country. 

Soon the price of the Motorola, installed, dropped to $55. The Motorola car radio was now off and running. Galvin decided to officially change the name of his company from the Galvin Manufacturing Company to "Motorola" in 1947.

In the meantime, Galvin continued to develop new uses for car radios. In 1936, he introduced push-button tuning so a driver could preset channels. Then he introduced the Motorola "Police Cruiser’, a standard car radio that was factory preset to a single frequency to only pick up police broadcasts. In 1940, he developed the first handheld two-way radio -- The Handy-Talkie -- for the U.S. Army. 

Consequently a lot of the communication technologies we take for granted today were created by Galvin's Motorola labs in the years following World War II.  For example, in 1947, Motorola came out with the first television set for under $200. In 1956, the company introduced the world's first telephone pager; in 1969, Motorola designed the radio and television equipment that was used to televise Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. In 1973, Motorola invented the world's first handheld cellular phone. 

Today Motorola is one of the largest cell phone manufacturers in the world. And it all started with the idea of a car radio.

So here is the $64,000 question: whatever happened to the two men who built and installed the first radio in Paul Galvin’s Studebaker - Elmer Wavering and William Lear? Well, sad to say they ended up going their separate ways and taking very different paths in life. Wavering decided to stay with Motorola and during the 1950's, he helped change the automobile again when he developed the first automotive alternator, replacing the inefficient and unreliable generator. His invention of the alternator lead to such automobile luxuries as power windows, power seats and eventually air-conditioning.

Lear left Motorola but continued inventing as well. He received more than 150 patents. Remember eight-track tape players? Yep, Lear invented that. But what Lear is really famous for are his contributions to the field of aviation. He invented the first radio direction finder for aircraft and aided in the invention of the autopilot.  He then designed the first fully automatic aircraft landing system. In 1963 Lear introduced his most famous invention of all, the Lear Jet, the world's first mass-produced, affordable business jet. Now this is what blew my mind – Lear did it all with an eighth grade education.

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