How the radio reinvented the car

The car radio received all the press, but The car radio received all the press, but it wouldn't have been possible without the electricity to power it. So, Elmer Wavering invented that too. Photo Credit: Handout

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It began as an innocent question.

One evening in 1929, high above the Mississippi River town of Quincy, Ill., a couple sat in their car watching the sun slip away on another day. A young woman asked her 22-year-old boyfriend a question: Wouldn't the night be nicer if there was a little music?

Radios in cars. The idea was music to Elmer Wavering's ears.

How could she have known the question would provide such a clear answer? The end result -- the car radio -- would make Wavering one of the most revered men of the 20th century.

In 1999, when the New York Times newspaper put together a list of inventions (and inventors) for the previous 100 years that made our lives easier, Elmer Wavering was placed in the company of the creators of bubble gum, the disk drive, the Cuisinart and the La-Z-Boy recliner.

Like many such stories, you just never know just how far a good idea will take you, even when that idea has wheels. After all, Wavering was just a curious kid who was actually more proud of his other invention ‹ the automotive electrical alternator -- even if it received far less attention.

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A tinkerer from the time he could walk, Wavering had already built his first radio at age 14 in 1921, shortly after graduating from grade school. Three years later, Wavering and his friend, Bill Lear, had installed the first radio in a car in a rather rudimentary fashion. And, after graduating, Wavering had left college to open his own radio shop in Quincy.

But the question of permanently installing a radio in a car was intriguing. By the late 1920s, radios began to appear in vehicles as portable, battery-driven gizmos called "travel radios."

But there were problems. The ignition switches, generators, spark plugs and other equipment produced electrical interference that washed out the radio¹s sound and hampered reception.

Some people went to the trouble of installing radios on a custom basis. But at $250 per installation (about $3,000 in today's dollars, according to the Washington Post), there wasn¹t much of a market for the custom radios.

Wavering, along with Lear and Paul Galvin, another radio manufacturer, decided that mass producing a radio would lower the cost and make it more affordable. Better electrical systems and batteries would eliminate the interference.

Lear had met Galvin at a Chicago radio convention and told him about Wavering¹s idea. Galvin invited Lear and Wavering to build a radio from scratch and install it in his Studebaker sedan. They went to work on project, called 5T71.

Wavering installed a speaker under the hood of the car and both drove the Studebaker 800 miles from Chicago to Atlantic City, N.J., to show their invention at the 1930 Radio Manufacturers Association convention.

Unable to afford a booth at the show, however, Galvin and Wavering parked the car outside the front door and cranked the tunes.

The gimmick created more orders than they could imagine.

Made in the shape of a big black box, Wavering¹s radio cost $110 and car owners installed it themselves. It contained vacuum tubes and a speaker and was mounted under the dashboard. The tuner and volume control were attached to the steering wheel and the two batteries that powered the unit were stashed under the seat.

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The radio would be commercially introduced on September 1, 1930, and, at the end of the first year, with more than $287,000 in total sales, their little company¹s balance sheet suffered only a $3,745 loss.

It would be the only loss ever incurred for a company later named Motorola, a combination of "motor" and "Victrola."

In 1934, Galvin and Wavering worked together to lead Motorola's car radio and police two-way communications business. Following the Second World War, Wavering became vice president of Motorola's automotive products division and went on to pioneer many other significant inventions, including his concept car of the future. Unveiled in the mid-1950s, the vision included a car with an alternator instead of a generator, a 12-volt battery supply instead of six volts, electronic ignition and computerized controls.

Sound familiar?

Wavering would go on to become president of Motorola and achieve many other things before retiring in 1972. Wavering later led the effort to produce the radio used by the Apollo astronauts when they communicated from the moon. He was selected as a member of the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1989.

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But he was most proud of something that gets him little recognition: the invention of the automotive alternator that provide power for many of the complex vehicle systems we take for granted today. He was even given the title of father of modern automotive electronics.

The radio stole the headlines, but Wavering, ever the engineer, always knew what was more important.

"The radio made the car fun," he once said, "but the alternator made everything else possible."

Jason Stein is Wheelbase Communications¹ contributing writer.  Wheelbase Communications provides automotive news and features to newspaper classified sections across North America.

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