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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Noguchi Radio Nurse

March 6, 2014 Archive Insight

In March of 1938 Zenith Radio Corporation introduced a remarkable product—an elegant listening device, priced at $19.95, designed to allow parents to monitor their children after bedtime.

radionurse1The idea for the Radio Nurse originated with Zenith’s charismatic president, Eugene F. McDonald Jr. Like all parents, McDonald was concerned about his baby daughter’s safety—especially in the wake of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s young son. As a result, he had experimented with an ad hoc system of microphones and receivers that allowed him to keep an ear out for his daughter’s well-being.

Once he was satisfied with his improvised system’s workability, he handed it off to his company’s technicians to create something more reliable and marketable. The device they engineered could not have been simpler. The transmitter, called a "Guardian Ear" could be placed close to the child’s crib or bed; the receiver, called the ‘Radio Nurse” would be set close to wherever the parents happened to be spending their time; both components would be plugged into electrical outlets, the house wiring acted as the carrier for the transmitted sound. The final finished product however was much more than a marriage of concerned fatherhood, ingenuity, and engineering; the presence of another creative mind—that of sculptor Isamu Noguchi—resulted in a product now regarded as an industrial design classic.

Noguchi was responsible for the styling of the system’s most visible, and audible, component—the Radio Nurse receiver. Minimally, he had to create a vessel to house and protect a loudspeaker and its associated vacuum tubes, but actually his task was much more challenging: he had to find a way to soften a potentially intrusive high tech component’s presence in a variety of domestic settings.

Noguchi’s solution, remarkably, was both literal and paradoxical: he created a faceless bust, molded in Bakelite, fronted by a grille and backed by the suggestion of a cap—an impassive abstract form that managed to capture the essence of a benign, yet no-nonsense, nurse. Shimmering in a grey area where the abstract and figurative appear to meet, it strikes a vaguely surrealist note—it wouldn’t be out of place in an image by Giorgio de Chirico or Man Ray. A touch of whimsy is incorporated: adjustment of the concealed volume control wheel amounts to a kind of tickle under the unit’s chin—subtly undermining the effect of the stern Kendo mask-like visage. Still, with its human yet mechanical features, the Radio Nurse remains slightly sinister and finally inscrutable.

But was it neutral enough to sit close at hand without, in silence, striking its own discordant note? Sales never did take off, but it was a technical problem—rogue broadcasts picked up or transmitted by the house wiring—that gave cause for customer complaint. Alarming as the Radio Nurse might be when provoked into voicing one of junior’s broadcasts, the possibility that some other unknown voice might start to speak through that blank grille would surely have made the unit’s presence aggravatingly suspenseful.

To see more Isamu Noguchi-related artifacts, take a look at our online collections.

Marc Greuther is Chief Curator of The Henry Ford.

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