Birth of the Car Radio

By the mid 20s, homes all across the country were beginning to be wired for electricity, and in 1928, the Galvin Brothers, Paul and Joe, began a company in Chicago specializing in battery eliminators. Most radios of the period ran on batteries, and it was the job of the eliminators to allow radios to be “plugged in.”

One evening, in 1929, so the story goes, two young men named Bill Lear (1902-1978) and Elmer Wavering (1907-1998) drove their girlfriends to a lookout point high above the Mississippi River town of Quincy, Illinois, to watch the sunset,. Romance was in the air, when one of the women made the observation that it would be nice to be able to listen to music while the sun was setting.

The idea intrigued Lear and Wavering, and it wasn’t long before they were taking apart a home radio and trying to get it to work in a car. They immediately ran into problems.

Automobiles have ignition switches, generators, spark plugs, and other electrical equipment, all of which generate static, making it nearly impossible to listen to the radio when the engine is running. One by one, the two men identified and eliminated each source of electrical interference, and when they finally got it to work, they took it to a radio convention in Chicago, where they met Paul Galvin.

As it happened, Galvin was looking for a new product to manufacture, and found it in Lear’s and Wavering’s radio. Galvin believed that mass-produced, affordable car radios had the potential to become a huge business.

The radio and speaker were installed under the dash, and the tuner control was placed on the steering column.

The radio and speaker were installed under the dash, and the tuner control was placed on the steering column.

The two inventors set up shop in Galvin’s factory, and when they perfected
their first radio, they installed it in Galvin’s Studebaker. Then Galvin went to a local banker to apply for a loan. Thinking it might sweeten the deal, he had his men install a radio in the banker’s Packard. Unfortunately for Galvin, half an hour after the installation, the banker’s Packard caught on fire. (They didn’t get the loan.)

Galvin didn’t give up. He drove his Studebaker nearly 850 miles to Atlantic City, to show off the radio at the 1930 Radio Manufacturers Association convention in June. Galvin Manufacturing Corporation wasn’t registered for the show, and Paul Galvin had no display booth or appointments with prospective customers, nor was there any money in the company’s budget for marketing. So, he parked his car outside the convention hall and cranked up the radio so that passing conventioneers could hear it. With his wife, Lillian, helping to demonstrate the radio, he encouraged show attendees to take a look. When visitor traffic was slow, he went inside the hall to convince people to come outside for a demonstration. The idea worked. Galvin returned to Chicago with enough orders to go into production.

When Motorola radios went on sale in 1930, they cost about $110 uninstalled, or about $1500 in today’s dollars. To put this into perspective, the average price of a new car in 1930 was $640 ($8100 today.)

It was also expensive to install. It took two men several days to put in a car radio. The dashboard had to be taken apart so that the receiver and a single speaker could be installed, and the ceiling had to be cut open to install the antenna. It originally ran on its own batteries, which were stored under the seats. The installation manual had eight complete diagrams and 28 pages of instructions.

Motortola 3Paul Galvin and Elmer Wavering traveled around the United States selling radios and teaching new dealers how to install them correctly. With business growing, a fleet of Motorola sales and service trucks with factory-trained sales engineers soon supported radio dealers with sales, service and installation.

Galvin and Wavering cast about for a name for the new product, and came up with “Motorola,” simply a blend of “Motor” and the popular suffix “-ola” then used for all types of audio equipment. The product was such a success that, later in 1930, Galvin changed the name of the company to Motorola.

After a couple of lean years, things began to pick up in 1933 when Ford began offering Motorolas pre-installed at the factory. In 1934 they got another boost when Galvin struck a deal with the B.F. Goodrich tire company to sell and install them in its chain of tire stores. By then the price of the radio, installation included, had dropped to $55 (around $800.)

In 1936, Motorola pioneered push-button tuning, and also began production of the Motorola Police Cruiser, a standard car radio that was factory preset to a single frequency to transmit and receive police broadcasts.

FM was introduced in 1952 by the German company Blaupunkt.

Wavering stayed with Motorola, and in the 1950s helped develop the first alternators. These took the place of the notoriously inefficient generators and paved the way for all the power equipment we enjoy in cars today. Wavering served as Motorola’s president from 1964 to 1970.

Lear continued inventing, and is best known today for the Lear Jet, the world’s first mass-produced, affordable business jet.

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