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. The equipment and its setup 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, with the house wiring acting as the carrier for the transmitted sound.
The 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 aviator Charles Lindbergh’s young son. As a result, McDonald experimented with an ad hoc system of microphones and receivers that allowed him to keep an ear out for his daughter’s well-being. Satisfied with the system’s workability, he handed it off to his engineers to create something more reliable and marketable. The finished product, however, was much more than a marriage of concerned fatherhood, ingenuity, and engineering; the presence of another creative mind—that of Isamu Noguchi—resulted in an industrial design classic. (Discover more Noguchi-related artifacts in our Digital Collections here.)
Instructions for Zenith’s Radio Nurse baby monitor depicted how the transmitter and receiver might be used in the home. / THF128154
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.
His 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 gray 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: Adjusting 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.
Zenith’s 1938 Radio Nurse was made from molded phenol-formaldehyde resin, more commonly known as Bakelite, the first totally synthetic plastic. / THF188679
But was it neutral enough to sit close at hand without, in silence, striking its own discordant note? Its poor sales might suggest otherwise, although apparently it was a technical problem, broadcasts transmitting beyond the confines of a house’s own wiring, that gave customers cause for complaint. Alarming as the Radio Nurse might be when finally provoked into uttering one of Junior’s broadcasts, the possibility that some unknown voice might start to speak through that blank grille would surely have made the unit’s presence somewhat suspenseful.
Marc Greuther is Vice President of Historical Resources and Chief Curator at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series and was published in the September-December 2007 issue of The Henry Ford Living History Magazine.
The Henry Ford’s archives contain a great deal of material about radio and television shows produced or sponsored by Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company. Here is just a small sampling of the types of items and shows covered.
Henry Ford began broadcasting over his WWI radio station in 1922. Early broadcasts featured musical acts from company bands, such as the Ford Motor Company Band and the Ford Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra. Later broadcasts expanded the talent pool to acts across the United States, including singers, bands, soloists, and even the California Bird Man.
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, February 1924. / THF134739
The Ford Sunday Evening Hour was a popular radio show produced by Ford. This show was broadcast from 1934–1942 (and then again from 1945–1946). The show was performed live in Detroit, first at Orchestra Hall and then at the Masonic Temple, and broadcast over the CBS radio network. Musical pieces were played by 75 members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the name the Ford Symphony Orchestra, with each show featuring guest star soloists and singers.
Ford Sunday Evening Hour program, October 7, 1934. / THF137776
Ford Sunday Evening Hour Dealer Display, 1938.The program was broadcast across the U.S. and was advertised by Ford dealers all over the country. / THF269154
In the summer, the Ford Summer Hour offered lighter, more popular tunes. This program used a smaller 32-piece orchestra and sometimes featured Ford employee bands such as the River Rouge Ramblers and the Champion Pipe Band.
Ford Summer Hour program, August 24, 1941. / THF134690
Ford Motor Company sponsored their share of television programs in the 1940s and 1950s as well. The Lincoln-Mercury division sponsored Toast of the Town, later The Ed Sullivan Show. The archives holds this scrapbook of reviews of the first season of the show (or shew) in 1948.
The 50th anniversary of Ford Motor Company in 1953 was a big celebration. Paintings were commissioned by Norman Rockwell to depict the company history, calendars were assembled, banquets and celebrations were planned worldwide, and the company put together a TV special to celebrate its 50-year history.
Advertisement, "Ford 50th Anniversary Show," June 15, 1953 / THF622247
The TV program featured many well-known performers, many of whom signed Benson Ford’s personal copy of the script.
Script for the Ford Motor Company 50th Anniversary TV Show, Broadcast June 15, 1953 / THF622239, THF622240
These are only a few of the radio and TV shows produced or sponsored by Ford over the years. The archive at the Benson Ford Research Center has additional material, including scripts, ratings, and public relations analysis reports, for several of these shows. Some of these items may be viewed in our Digital Collections, while others have yet to be digitized. While the reading room at the Benson Ford Research Center remains closed at present for research, if you have any questions, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claude Harvard faced many racial obstacles over the course of his young life, but when he addressed a crowd of students at Tuskegee University in 1935, he spoke with confidence and optimism:
“Speaking from my own experience, brief as it is, I feel certain that the man or woman who has put his very best into honest effort to gain an education will not find the doors to success barred.”
One of the few, if not the only, Black engineers employed by Henry Ford at the time, Claude had been personally sent to Tuskegee by Ford to showcase an invention of his own creation. Even in the face of societal discrimination, the message of empowerment and perseverance that Claude imparted on that day was one that he carried with him over the course of his own career. For him, there was always a path forward.
Claude Harvard practicing radio communication with other students at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272856
Born in 1911, Claude spent the first ten years of his life in Dublin, Georgia, until his family, like other Black families of the time period, made the decision to move north to Detroit in order to escape the poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow laws of the South. From a young age, Claude was intrigued by science and developed a keen interest in a radical new technology—wireless radio. To further this interest, he sold products door-to-door just so he could acquire his own crystal radio set to play around with. It would be Claude’s passion for radio that led him to grander opportunities.
At school in Detroit, Harvard demonstrated an aptitude for the STEM fields and was eventually referred to the Henry Ford Trade School, a place usually reserved for orphaned teen-aged boys to be trained in a variety of skilled, industrial trade work. His enrollment at Henry Ford Trade School depended on his ability to resist the racial taunting of classmates and stay out of fights. Once there, his hands-on classes consisted of machining, metallurgy, drafting, and engine design, among others. In addition to the manual training received, academic classes were also required, and students could participate in clubs.
Claude Harvard with other Radio Club members and their teacher at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272854
As president of the Radio Club, Claude Harvard became acquainted with Henry Ford, who shared an interest in radio—as early as 1919, radio was playing a pivotal role in Ford Motor Company’s communications. Although he graduated at the top of his class in 1932, Claude was not given a journeyman’s card like the rest of his classmates. A journeyman’s card would have allowed Claude to be actively employed as a tradesperson. Despite this obstacle, Henry Ford recognized Claude’s talent and he was hired at the trade school. By the 1920s, Ford Motor Company had become the largest employer of African American workers in the country. Although Ford employed large numbers of African Americans, there were limits to how far most could advance. Many African American workers spent their time in lower paying, dirty, dangerous, and unhealthy jobs.
The year 1932 also saw Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company once again revolutionize the auto industry with the introduction of a low-priced V-8 engine. By casting the crankcase and cylinder banks as a single unit, Ford cut manufacturing costs and could offer its V-8 in a car starting under $500, a steal at the time. The affordability of the V-8 meant many customers for Ford, and with that came inevitable complaints—like a noisy rattling that emanated from the engine. To remedy this problem, which was caused by irregular-shaped piston pins, Henry Ford turned to Claude Harvard.
To solve the issue, Harvard invented a machine that checked the shape of piston pins and sorted them by size with the use of radio waves. More specifically, the machine checked the depth of the cut on each pin, its length, and its surface smoothness. It then sorted the V-8 pins by size at a rate of three per second. Ford implemented the machine on the factory floor and touted it as an example of the company’s commitment to scientific accuracy and uniform quality. Along with featuring Claude’s invention in print and audio-visual ads, Ford also sent Harvard to the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago and to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to showcase the machine.
Piston Pin Inspection Machine at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. / THF212795
During his time at Tuskegee, Harvard befriended famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who he eventually introduced to Henry Ford. In 1937, when George Washington Carver visited Henry Ford in Dearborn, he insisted that Claude be there. While Carver and Ford would remain friends the rest of their lives, Claude Harvard left Ford Motor Company in 1938 over a disagreement about divorcing his wife and his pay. Despite Ford patenting over 20 of Harvard’s ideas, Claude’s career would be forced in a new direction and over time, the invention of the piston pin sorting machine would simply be attributed to the Henry Ford Trade School.
Despite these many obstacles, Claude’s work lived on in the students that he taught later in his life, the contributions he made to manufacturing, and a 1990 oral history, where he stood by his sentiments that if one put in a honest effort into learning, there would always be a way forward.
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
We all know that 2020 was quite the year—there was a worldwide pandemic, protests across the United States, and a contentious presidential election. It’s understandable that during the year, we all had a lot on our minds.
That said, we shared more than 160 new posts on our blog during 2020. Most of these were eagerly found and devoured by our readers. But a few really great stories from our collections might have gotten lost in the shuffle—and we wanted to make sure you didn’t miss them. Here are ten of those hidden gems to help you start off 2021 right.
The Jazz Bowl: Emblem of a City, Icon of an Age. Discover how a 24-year-old ceramic artist, Viktor Schreckengost, designed a bowl that both captured the essence of New York City in the early 20th century and became an icon of America’s “Jazz Age.”
A LINC console built by Jerry Cox at the Central Institute for the Deaf, 1964.
New Acquisition: LINC Computer Console. The LINC computer may not be as familiar to you as the Apple 1, but it is in contention for the much-debated title of “the first personal computer.” Learn more about its history and the people involved in its creation.
Immerse Yourself in Pop Culture
Lady and the Tramp Charm Bracelet, circa 1955 / THF8604
Lady and the Tramp Celebrates 65 Years. Take a new look at an old classic—Disney’s 1955 movie Lady and the Tramp. Learn how it came to be and share in some personal memories from one of our curators.
Crosley Reado Radio Printer, 1938-1940 / THF160315
Experiments with Radio Facsimile at W8XWJ. Learn about the “Press-Radio War” of the 1930s, and a revolutionary, but ultimately short-lived, experiment by Detroit News radio station W8XWJ to deliver print-at-home news.
A More Colorful World. Discover how a chemistry student, seeking to create a synthetic cure for malaria, inadvertently created the first synthetic dye, aniline purple—and then created more, transforming the world’s access to color.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
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.
A crowd gathers outside the news office of the San Francisco Examiner to await the outcome of the 1920 presidential election. Reporters used loudspeakers to announce the results to the throng of voters and spectators. / THF610502
On Election Day, November 2, 1920, Americans waited anxiously for news of who would be the next President of the United States. In the evening, many voters milled around newspaper and government offices waiting to hear from election officials and reporters the latest results that were streaming across telephone and telegraph wires; others waited to read about the outcome in the next day's newspaper. But in 1920, a growing number of Americans could stay at home and listen to election returns announced over the expanding wireless media -- radio. During the next decades, radio would become an essential link in the political life of Americans -- not only for Election Day results, but for news of campaigns, conventions, and inaugurations; reports on the life of the President; and for the calm reassurance of leadership articulated in fireside chats.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, radio station KDKA broadcast the election returns in between musical interludes to hundreds of listeners on Election Day. The station was the first federally licensed commercial radio station in America. This photograph shows the studio in 1920. / THF120670
Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
In the early 1930s, tensions were running high between two competing news sources: newspaper publishers were feeling the strength of their monopoly slipping away as the public’s appreciation for radio news broadcasts grew. This time of conflict in communications history is known as “The Press-Radio War.”
Publishers felt especially threatened by the nimbleness of radio networks. Broadcasters could share breaking news immediately over the airwaves, rather than having to wait for the next day’s run of newspapers to be printed and distributed. At first, newspaper companies tried to boycott radio’s ability to grow into something more than just an entertainment medium by asking wire services to block the flow of newsworthy information to radio stations. But eventually, the two media formats settled into a truce by the late 1930s, partly owing to the demand for reliable information-sharing as the threat of World War II grew.
The Detroit News “autogiro” aircraft flies over the WWJ transmitter towers on the roof of the Detroit News building. The autogiro used a swiveling camera to take aerial photos of newsworthy events and quickly transported reporters to the sites of developing stories. /THF238502
Some newspapers saw the financial benefit in blending formats and went so far as to cut out the competition by starting their own radio news stations. The Detroit News was one of the first newspapers in the United States to incorporate a commercial radio station into its operations. In August 1920, WWJ (then owned by the Detroit News) launched its program of nightly broadcasts under the call sign 8MK. As of 2020, WWJ has been on-air for 100 years!
In this image, the Detroit News autogiro flies over downtown Detroit. The Penobscot Building—site for the News’s experimental W8XWJ station—appears in the foreground. The original vertical “whip” antenna is just visible on the ball that tops the metal tower. /THF239963
In 1936, the Detroit News launched experimental audio broadcasting station W8XWJ from the 47th floor of the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. W8XWJ was formed under the FCC’s ultra-high short-wave “Apex” station program, an experiment designed to provide listeners with higher quality AM signals. The station’s original 100-watt AM vertical “whip” antenna was attached to the beacon sphere that tops the metal tower perched on the roof of the Penobscot Building. The height of the Penobscot—the tallest skyscraper in the city at that point—helped to disperse the radio waves over the entire city. Many people are familiar with the glowing red beacon at the top of the Penobscot, but its connection to the growth of radio in the city is not as well known.
From 1938-1940, W8XWJ ran a fascinating but ultimately short-lived experiment with an emerging technology called “radio facsimile.” Customers would hook a special “radio printer” up to their own radio, which would print the news overnight while they slept. In the morning, the news would be ready to enjoy with morning coffee – no need to deliver a physical newspaper!
One of the original Finch Facsimile Transmitters from W8XWJ, complete with original station badge visible and a sample of a radio fax. /THF160295
At W8XWJ, a Finch Facsimile Transmitter was used to convert images and text into audio tones. These signals would arrive in customer’s home via radio waves, where their “radio printer” would translate the tones into human language. Everything would print out onto continuous rolls of thermal paper.
This is a Crosley Reado Radio Printer – the type of device that people would connect to their home radio and would receive their faxed newspapers on. When The Henry Ford conserved this artifact through an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant, our conservators were excited to find an example of a facsimile still on the drum inside the machine. In this image, you can see an original radio facsimile portrait of Boris Karloff, who was famous for his 1931 portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster.
The Henry Ford’s collections also include the original transmitter and amplifier that powered the W8XWJ station.
W8XWJ’s Western Electric 500 Watt Ultra Shortwave Transmitter and Amplifier. These two devices are visible in their original installation here. /THF173159, THF173165
The idea behind W8XWJ’s radio facsimile experiment was revolutionary, but the process was slow and fussy. It could take over 20 minutes to print a single page of news, and signal reception became unreliable beyond a mile or two away from the transmitter. In 1940, W8XWJ ended its radio facsimile project.
While the original “whip” antenna for W8XWJ was replaced by a FM antenna in the early 1940s, if you look toward the top of the Penobscot building today, there is a tangle of communication equipment visible from street level. And in the interesting way that the new and the old can merge and converge within the histories of technology, some of this contemporary equipment fulfills radio facsimile’s promise to provide easily accessible information—the top of the Penobscot now serves as an important hub for Detroit’s wireless Internet network.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Portrait of Young Girl with Hoop and Stick, 1868-1870. THF226622
The challenges posed by COVID-19 have inspired us to figure out new ways of working — and also of playing. Our entertainment is now focused on what can be enjoyed in and around our homes.
The past century saw an explosion of entertainment choices to enjoy in our leisure time, and plenty of these remain accessible to help lift spirits and put smiles on our faces. Favorite music, movies and television shows are at our fingertips. Video and board games can be enjoyed. Craft projects await. Reading material surrounds us —found online, downloaded on tablets or discovered on our own bookshelves. Weather permitting, outdoor activities like walking, riding a bicycle or even barbecuing remain accessible — all while maintaining social distancing, of course!
Right now, for many, there is little physical or mental separation between work and leisure. Taking time to savor leisure activities while remaining at home helps renew energy and focus. There are so many ways to stay engaged. Enjoy!
Perhaps the close quarters many of us are currently experiencing may even inspire more face-to-face communication, creativity — and play.
Model Wearing Walking Office Wearable Computer Prototype, circa 1984. THF274746
On March 13, 2020 The Henry Ford made the unprecedented decision to temporarily close to the public to help slow the spread of COVID-19. With Historical Resources staff transitioning into working from home, we are continuing to develop new digital content and drawing together thematic groups of material relevant to our world today.
Like many office workers around the world now working remotely, museum staff working off-site have carved out space wherever they can: taking over living rooms and spare bedrooms, repurposing kitchen tables and setting up cozy basement nooks. We, like many others, are figuring out our new ways of working while simultaneously adjusting to social distancing, cooking healthy meals at home, juggling child care and negotiating with confused dogs demanding walks.
In this new and unexpected reality of #MuseumFromHome, we are grateful for the digital tools (and telephones!) that have allowed us to stay connected with our collections and our colleagues.
It won't come as a surprise that our curators have been thinking this week about the links between our artifacts and the concept of telecommuting. And so we are sharing the following content — drawn primarily from our incredible well of online resources — that is focused on resourceful inventions and behaviors related to long-distance communication.
From the transatlantic cable and a prototype for an intriguing object called "The Walking Office" to the stories of community built by ham radio operators — and one story about the evolution of the office desk for good measure — we hope these stories and resources bring you a little joy and many learning opportunities during these difficult times.
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.