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Boomboxes at The Henry Ford

February 25, 2020

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An image from the set of
The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.

For many people—especially those who grew up between the decades of the 1970s through the 1990s—the sight of a boombox often prompts the thought: “I wonder how heavy that thing would feel, if I carried it around on my shoulder?” Boomboxes are infused with the promise of human interaction, ready for active use—to be slung from arm to arm, hoisted up on a shoulder, or planted with purpose on a park bench or an empty slice of asphalt in a city somewhere.

Here at The Henry Ford, we recently acquired a trio of classic boomboxes to document stories about the growth of mobile media and the social communication of music in American culture.

The Norelco 22RL962 was developed in the mid-1960s by the Dutch company, Philips. A combination radio and compact cassette player, it had recording and playback functions as well as a carrying handle. While it was generally thought of as the first device that could be accurately called a “boombox,” the Norelco failed to gain mass traction. The core issue wasn’t due to poor performance from a technological standpoint, but rather the bad sound quality of the tapes. In 1965, the American engineer Ray Dolby invented the Dolby Noise Reduction system, which led to clean,
hiss-free sound on compact cassette tapes. His invention sparked a revolution in hi-fi cassette audio.

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The ubiquitous compact cassette tape.

In the early 1970s, Japanese manufacturers began to make advancements in boombox technology as an outgrowth of modular hi-fi stereo components. Living spaces in Japan were typically small, and there was a desire to condense electronics into compact devices without losing sound quality.

Later that decade, the improved boombox made its way to the United States, where it was embraced by hip hop, punk, and new wave musicians and fans—many of whom lived in large cities like New York and Los Angeles. In many ways, the boombox was a protest device, as youth culture used them to broadcast politically charged music in public spaces.

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An early image of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York Skyline. THF113708

Boomboxes literally changed the sonic fabric of cities, but this effect was divisive. By the mid-1980s, noise pollution laws began to restrict their use in public. The golden years of the boombox were also short lived due to the rising popularity and affordability of personal portable sound devices like the Sony Walkman (and later, the MP3 player), which turned music into a private, insular experience.

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The JVC RC-550 ”El Diablo” boombox. THF179795

JVC RC-550 “El Diablo”

This boombox was built for the street, and it is meant to be played loud. Its design is rugged, with a carrying handle and protective “roll bars” in case it is dropped. Many classic photos from the early years of hip-hop depict fans and musicians carrying the El Diablo around cities and on the subway in New York.

The JVC RC-550 is a member of what sound historians refer to as the “holy trinity” of innovative boomboxes. While the origins of its “El Diablo” nickname are uncertain, it is believed to stem from the impressive volume of sound it can transmit—or its flashing red sound meters. It is a monophonic boombox, meaning that it has one main speaker and it is incapable of reproducing sound in stereo. A massive offset 10-inch woofer dominates its design, coupled with smaller midrange and tweeter speakers. As with most boomboxes of this time, bass and treble levels could be adjusted.

An input for an external microphone led to the RC-550 being advertised as a mobile personal amplifier system. Brochures from the Japanese version show the boombox being used by salesmen to amplify their pitches in front of crowds, as a sound system in a bar, and by a singing woman accompanied by a guitarist. Recording could take place directly through the tape deck, or through the microphone on top, which could be rotated 360-degrees.

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JVC 838 Biophonic Boombox. THF177384

JVC 838 Biphonic Boombox
The JVC 838 is important for its transitional design. It was one of the first boomboxes to incorporate the symmetrical arrangement of components that would become standard in 1980s portable stereos: visually balanced speakers, buttons and knobs, and a centered cassette deck.

As boombox designs evolved, they began to include (almost to the point of parody) sound visualization components such as VU meters and other electronic indicators. In many cases, these were purely for visual effect rather than function. The needle VU meters on the JVC 838 however, were accurate.

A unique feature of the JVC 838 boombox is its “BiPhonic” sound—a spatial stereo feature that creates a “being there” effect through its binaural speaker technology, resulting in “three-dimensional depth, spaciousness, and pinpoint imaging.” The box also includes an “expand” effect to widen the sound even further.

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Sharp GF-777 “Searcher.” THF177382

Sharp “Searcher” GF-777
The Sharp “Searcher” GF-777 is an exercise in excess. Often referred to as the “king of the boomboxes,” it was also one of the largest ever produced. Weighing thirty pounds (minus ten D-cell batteries) and measuring over one foot tall and two feet wide, it took a certain amount of lifestyle commitment to carry this device around a city.

The Searcher played a key part in the performance and representation of hip-hop music. Its six speakers include four woofers individually tuned for optimal bass transmission and amplitude. It appeared in a photograph on the back cover of the first Run-DMC album, found its way into several music videos, and was photographed alongside breakdancing crews. 

Many people used this boombox as an affordable personal recording studio. Two high quality tape decks opened the possibility for people to create “pause tapes” – a way of creating looped beats through queuing, recording, rewinding, and repeating a short phrase of music. A microphone input and an onboard echo effect meant people could rap or sing over top of music backing tracks.

Much like Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the boombox came full circle, allowing people to record and play back music for public and communal consumption. And while they may not mesh with our ideas of what a “mobile” device is in our age of smartphones and streaming services, their reach permeated popular culture in the 1970s well into the 1990s. Sometimes acting as portable sound systems, sometimes used as affordable personal recording studios—carrying a boombox through the streets (wherever you happened to live) was as much a fashion statement and lifestyle choice as it was a celebration of music and social technology.

Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communications and Information Technology.

Innovation Nation, Boombox

In the 1950s, big cars ruled. Even low-priced cars like Plymouths, Chevrolets, and Fords were good-sized. The Nash Rambler was smaller and cheaper, with similar interior room.

thf903511950 Nash Rambler Convertible THF90351 

Smallness was not attractive in itself, so Nash -- which competed for the same narrow slice of the market with small cars like the Crosley, the Willys, the Hudson Jet, and Kaiser’s Henry J -- pitched the Rambler as a small car that seemed big.

thf845511950 Nash Sales Brochure, "The Smartest, Safest Convertible in the World" THF84551

Nash tried to make the Rambler appeal to everyone by giving it a little bit of everything—even seemingly contradictory things: economy and luxury, convertible and hardtop, small enough to park and big enough to seat five, as safe as a sedan and as sexy as a sports car.

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But if big was so appealing, why build small cars at all? The sales figures added up to one answer—don’t. There simply weren’t enough buyers, and all the tiny cars failed.

From the staff at The Henry Ford.

Innovation Nation

The Walking Office Wearable Computer is a visual prototype model that was created by the collaborative design group Salotto Dinamico in the mid-1980s. Salotto Dinamico, which translates to “dynamically, we grow,” was composed of Vincenzo Iavicoli, Paolo Bettini, Maria Luisa Rossi, Maurizio Pettini, and Letizia Schettini.

thf291245Image of poster advertising Salotta Dinamico’s “The Walking Office” THF291245

While all five members of the group had input in the project, Vincenzo Iavicoli submitted the concept as his 1983 undergraduate Industrial Design thesis at the ISIA school in Florence, Italy (under the guidance of his mentor, Paolo Bettini). The designers entered a physical model of the ideas in Iavicoli’s thesis in the 1985 Mainichi International Industrial Design Competition in Tokyo, Japan. The Walking Office won the top prize in the “Harmonization of Office Automation and Environment” category, attracting global attention in design, fashion, and technology publications. It was featured on the covers of Domus, ID, and Interni magazines, and received coverage in Brutus, Vogue, and approximately 70 other publications. The success of the project sparked the careers of the youngest members of the group, Iavicoli and Rossi, who formed their own successful design consultancy and became educators in Industrial Design programs around the world.

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Designers Vincenzo Iavicoli and Maria Luisa Rossi at the 1985 Mainichi International Industrial Design Competition THF274743

The Walking Office model is made of polished chrome. Two pieces fit together to form a keyboard, the display arch fits into the keyboard to serve as a display, and a cassette recorder links up with an acoustic coupler modem to record and transmit data through any available telephone line. The Walking Office also doubles as personal adornment, with the keyboard pieces worn on the shoulder and the display arch as a headpiece (looking much like a mohawk). It combines the expressive aesthetic detail of 1980s Italian design with provocative high-tech materials to create an unapologetically cyberpunk-chic device. The Walking Office was not meant to be concealed (comparisons might be drawn between it and the Google Glass Explorer program of recent years), and its seductive styling was quite revolutionary in 1984. In a 2016 interview, Iavicoli recalled that though Japanese designers adeptly diffused new technologies into the mainstream, they had not yet begun to focus consistently on styling their devices.  Early in the prototyping process, Iavicoli decided not to try to compete with the fast pace of technology, prioritizing strategy and concept instead.

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Model wearing “The Walking Office” prototype THF274747

Iavicoli’s thesis explored the design-thinking process behind the prototype: the history of physical office spaces (desks, lighting, cubicles, seating), the technology utilized within them (computers, calculators, modems, keyboards, online systems), and intangible aspects such as the psychology of work environments and spatial arrangements.

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Page from Vincenzo Iavicoli’s undergraduate thesis THF275237

The designers of the Walking Office explored negative and positive elements of its proposed function. On one hand, they described it as “an Orwellian omen condemning portable work” (anticipating the desire of today’s knowledge workers to “unplug” themselves from the distractions of always-on technology.) A more positive spin situated the Walking Office as a route to freedom that would allow people to embrace the “amoral and amusing” aspects of creative work. They imagined “electronic machines…coming out of the office, conquering urban space, dwellings, golf courses, bars and beaches, becoming natural body accessories.”

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Drawing imagining “The Walking Office” in use THF274752

The Walking Office was pitched as a “techno-human” object. As a modern prosthetic, it subverted where (and when) the office could be, essentially turning the human body into a mobile workstation. It proposed the same type of fluid interactions with technology as one would have with pens, watches, and eyeglasses. And finally, it provided an alternative method of accessing and using information in an efficient way.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology.

Innovation Nation

thf137271Portraits of Robert Propst. THF137271

PROFESSION: Designer (Although he preferred to be called "searcher")

INNOVATION: The Action Office II System (1968) and the movable "coherent structures” of the Co/Struc System designed for hospitals (1971)

ATTRIBUTES: Empathetic observer, serial problem solver, unorthodox thinker

You could be forgiven if you aren’t familiar with the work of Robert Propst. After all, if his designs were working as he intended, they simply disappeared.

Propst became director of the Herman Miller Research Division (HMRD) in 1960, setting up shop in a small concrete building in Ann Arbor, Mich. The founder of Herman Miller, D.J. DePree, saw potential in Propst’s ambitious thinking and hired him to broaden the company’s product range. Very few guidelines were in place at HMRD: Nothing should be connected to military use, no furniture designs — and whatever was designed should simply “be useful.”

thf137214Robert Propst Outside Herman Miller Research Division Office, Ann Arbor, Michigan, July 1964. THF137214

Deliberately choosing a building more than 150 miles away from Herman Miller’s headquarters in Zeeland, Mich., Propst exercised his freedom to research without the distraction of corporate meetings. For every idea he had that went into production, hundreds more were filed away.

Two of Propst’s most impactful projects were holistic environments designed for high-impact workplaces: the improved Action Office II system (1968) and the movable “coherent structures” of the Co/Struc system designed for hospitals (1971).

In Propst’s mind, offices had become chaotic wastelands. Cobbled together furniture, nonergonomic chairs and an invasion of technology onto ad hoc surfaces. Action Office — a modular system of free standing panel walls — could be fluidly arranged into nooks for working, conference areas and other purpose-driven needs. An idealistic vision for the birth of the modern office cubicle.

Propst wasn’t always a designer of “things” but of situations. He attacked issues from the reverse, finding clues in the algorithms of human behavior working in high-stakes spaces. How did people move while working? Where was time being spent? Wasted? How can we support safety? Privacy? Collaboration? The physical solutions he engineered encouraged ideas of access, mobility and efficiency. His modular approach to office landscapes was intended to have a 1+1=3 effect. Which is to say that by implementing physical change, “knowledge” workers could then springboard off an improved relationship with their workspaces, which were suddenly more hospitable to launching new ideas, productive workflows and transformative projects.

thf241708Action Office Project Drawing by Robert Propst, April 6, 1964. THF241708

Did You Know
- The proliferation of the office cubicle is almost single-handedly due to the introduction of the Action Office II system in 1968. Unfortunately, the mobile aspect of Action Office became rooted to the floor, quite literally. Large businesses filled their buildings with Action Office (or its various knock-offs) to create Dilbertesque “cubicle farms.”

- The first version of Action Office was conceived by Robert Propst and designed by George Nelson in 1964, but sales were lackluster. Corporate managers worried about the porous borders being offered to their staff, now called “knowledge workers,” and the cost was simply too high. Propst returned to the drawing board alone for AO2.

- Robert Propst did not like to be referred to as a designer. He also didn’t like the term “researcher,” because it implied looking backward. His ideal description for his activities was “searcher.”

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.  

Robert Propst, Innovation Nation

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In the 1980s, desktop computers emphasized non-committal, neutral shades: beige, off-white, black, and the just-barely-greys of putty and fog. During a time when popular culture included the flashiness of MTV, new wave music pressed onto colorful records, and hip hop culture--why so much beige?

Truthfully, home computers were becoming more common, but the largest market remained in office environments. Neutral computers provided visual unity among cubicles, and masked aging plastic.

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IBM Personal Computer, Model 5150, 1984THF156040

The Apple Newton eMate was one of the first personal computers to break away from the typical form of the "opaque beige box."

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Apple eMate 300, 1997THF172045

The eMate's distinctive translucency was soon echoed by Jonathan Ive in his radical case design for the iMac G3 computer. From 1998-2001, the iMac was available in an array of 13 colors--from Bondi Blue to Flower Power. 

MacMashup



View all 13 colors of the Apple iMac in The Henry Ford’s digital collections.

This post features objects and text displayed in the 2018 pop-up exhibition Looking Through Things: Transparent Tech, Fashion, and Systems at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

Innovation Nation