Pocket Radio, circa 1925, manufactured by the Auto Indicator Company of Grand Rapids. / THF156309
Today, the portability of audio entertainment has become second nature to most people around the world. With relative ease, a person can put in/on a pair of headphones, wirelessly connect to a handheld device of their choosing and pick from a wide variety of options, including music, podcasts, audio books, etc. While we have become accustomed to this comfort and convenience today, in the early 1920s, “portable” and “wireless” tech, like the battery-powered “Pocket Radio” manufactured by the Auto Indicator Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was considered cutting edge in the audio entertainment industry.
The roots of the portable nature of the Pocket Radio can be traced back to Thomas Edison’s 1877 unveiling of his phonograph. The machine, which was the first to practically demonstrate that sound could be recorded and reproduced, proved that an audience didn’t have to be physically present in order to enjoy a listening experience. By the 1910s, subsequent improvements of the phonograph by other inventors and companies had brought a booming audio entertainment industry to the masses.
Thomas Edison, Charles Batchelor and Uriah Painter with Edison's Phonograph, April 18, 1878. / THF111744
Consumers grew used to the idea that the sounds they enjoyed could be listened to on their own time and in their own space – all with the help of their own personal phonograph. When World War I broke out, portable versions of phonographs found their way to the front lines not only for military use in the training of recruits, but also to entertain troops. The much-needed musical reprieve provided through a phonograph boosted morale by helping soldiers, individually or in groups, briefly escape the terror happening around them.
Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph, 1919. In the years just after World War I, Americans loved listening to music on their phonographs. Thomas Edison's Diamond Disc Phonograph Company was at its peak of production. / THF63458
Wartime also provided an opportunity to explore another cutting-edge technology that had gained traction before the war – wireless communication in the form of radio waves. During World War I, the U.S. government took over the fledgling radio industry and instituted a ban on civilian use of radio in order to further their wartime experimentation. After the war, the ban was lifted in 1919, and by mid-1922 a “radio craze” was sweeping the nation, as Americans became infatuated with the new technology. Around the country, broadcasting stations began to spring up to serve the thousands of listeners seeking to tune in to hear music, news and more.
Behind the Scenes of a Radio Drama, 1923 / THF120581
In 1924, partners in the Auto Indicator Company of Grand Rapids sought entry into this market with their Pocket Radio. As one of the first companies to patent and manufacture signal lights for automobiles, their demonstrated business savvy showed they understood that the increasing affordability of the automobile and a booming post-war economy meant more consumers on the go – and these consumers wanted to take their audio entertainment with them.
Like many Americans during the 1920s, these two couples, their children, and a family dog, answered the call of the open road. The families have set up in an open field while auto touring. / THF105461
By today’s standards, the four pound (12 x 3 x 3 inches) “Pocket Radio” would not be considered “pocket-sized.” But in 1924, the summer tourist or picnicker that bought this radio for $23.50 would have understood that “pocket” referred to the pocket door of an automobile, where the radio could be stored. Without having to worry about bringing physical records to play on a portable phonograph or lugging around an early battery-powered table-top sized radio, a Pocket Radio owner could tune in to any broadcast station within five miles, and, with the addition of an aerial or ground receiver, could listen to a broadcast station that was 1,000 miles away.
Operadio 2 Portable Broadcast Receiver, 1923-1927. The Operadio 2 was among the first generation of commercial portable radios. While a "mobile" device weighing 30 pounds may be laughable to us now, the Operadio was a groundbreaking device. / THF160275
A seemingly smart product, the Pocket Radio didn’t bring the business partners of the Auto Indicator Company much success. By the mid-1920s, they had given up on the radio and molded their former business into the Multi-Selecto Phonograph Company, an unwise decision in a turbulent time. Throughout the 1920s, while the phonograph remained a viable product, the industry underwent significant strain with the changes brought on by the advent of the “Golden Age of Radio.” While companies tried to stay afloat by selling hybridized products that combined the radio and the phonograph, like many other phonograph companies of the time, the Multi-Selecto Phonograph Company wouldn’t make it out of the Great Depression.
Victor Electrola, 1927. By the late 1920s, radio tuners, phonographs, amplifiers, and loudspeakers began to condense into one unit. Manufacturers housed this technology within attractive wooden consoles, accepted as furniture within consumer's living rooms. / THF159418
Today, the Pocket Radio serves as documentation of an exciting time in the history of technology, where new ideas met at a crossroads to provide the consumer with more personal freedom in how and where they enjoyed their entertainment choices.
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
First portable “superhet” radio receiver, made by Edwin Armstrong in 1923. THF 156549
Edwin Armstrong’s First Portable Superheterodyning Receiver
A far cry from today’s pocket-sized MP3 players, the radio pictured above nonetheless advanced the idea of “portable radio.” This device was created in 1923 by Edwin Howard Armstrong—an inventor and pioneering electrical engineer. As the world’s first portable “superhet” radio receiver, this set is powered by six vacuum tubes, has a compartment for a battery, and a detachable horn for amplifying sound. It can be latched shut and conveniently carried by its handle, like a suitcase.
Armstrong’s legacy is rooted in three essential advances in radio history: regenerative circuits, superheterodyning, and frequency modulation (known to us today as FM radio). Individually, each of these concepts acted as some of the most important discoveries in radio history. Together, they helped to raise radio up to a new level. These concepts amplified radio waves, allowing voices to be carried rather than the dots and dashes of Morse code, and by extension, turned radio into an accessible and collective experience.
Superheterodyning The superheterodyning principle discovered by Armstrong is embedded within the radio receiver above, and has carried over to virtually every modern radio created since. Heterodyning involves mixing two different radio frequencies to create a third frequency, which could be used to tap into very sensitive high-frequency radio waves. Modern radio as well as televisions and cell phones owe a lot to the “superhet” concept.
Edwin and Marion Armstrong, on the beach, 1923. THF 120661
Tunes for the Honeymoon Not only was Armstrong an intrepid inventor, he was also a daredevil. His shy persona was a contrast to his bold innovations and daring publicity stunts. Before he married his wife Marion, he climbed to the top of the RCA tower in New York City to impress her. Apparently, it worked—because we soon see Marion and Armstrong on their honeymoon, sitting on the shore of Palm Beach in Florida. Armstrong built the portable radio in this image as wedding gift to Marion, and it is the same radio in the collections at The Henry Ford.
Marion Armstrong at The Henry Ford, 1967. THF 131774
Armstrong’s Legacy Armstrong was well known in his own time, and was highly respected. His story is also tragic, because he spent decades of his career in legal battles over patents that other inventors raised against him. Even though he would receive credit for his contributions to radio, much of that vindication came after his 1954 death. In the image above, we see Marion Armstrong donating her husband’s radio to The Henry Ford in 1967.
Although today’s radio formats are shifting towards satellite and subscription services, if you’ve ever listened to a car radio where you a spin a dial to tune in to a station—you’re listening to Armstrong’s FM radio.
The sonic imprints of his legacy continue to bleed into our everyday lives: from voices on the airwaves, to entertainment on the road, to enlivening a relaxing walk with headphones—or a summery day with music at the beach.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.