Jacqueline Hochheiser, Corporate Communications

Most of us in the 21st century think nothing of jumping into the car and turning up the radio. For us, music in the car is second nature, a deeply ingrained facet of our culture. But there was a time when there was nothing, other than good company, to keep early drivers occupied on long trips. In fact, it took nearly 20 years after the conception of the motor vehicle for radio and automotive technologies to unite. The first commercial car radios were introduced by two brothers named Paul and Joseph Galvin, who revolutionized the driving experience.

The 1920s was a time of booming entertainment in the United States, and among the many new forms of theater and dance, radio programming also began to flourish. Mainstream radio broadcasting began in the U.S. with the first public radio station, KDKA, headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. KDKA was a public station that broadcast talk shows, and its popularity grew as more Americans began to purchase home radios. Before the 1920s, it was rare for receivers to be privately owned, but with the rising availability of affordable technology, nearly 60% of Americans in the 1920s owned a private radio.

It is easy to see how radios quickly became a commodity. Families no longer had to leave their homes to find entertainment; it was right in their living rooms. Over time, other stations began to populate the radio waves as demand grew. By 1922, nearly 600 radio stations occupied the AM band. Amplitude Modulation (AM) transmission was the first method developed to carry audio radio transmissions. This wave band was limited to spoken word formats such as talk shows, news, and sporting events since AM is susceptible to interference. Compared to FM radio, which would not emerge for many more years, AM transmissions are much weaker with lower audio fidelity.

In 1921, as the radio industry grew exponentially, Paul Galvin and his brother Joseph Galvin founded their storage battery factory in Mansfield, Wisconsin under the name Galvin Manufacturing Corporation. When the factory went out of business two years later, the two brothers started the corporation again in Chicago. Unfortunately, it went bankrupt, but not before the Galvin brothers had invented a way for home radios to draw power from an electrical wall outlet that they called a dry-battery eliminator.

Paul Galvin bought back the eliminator from his bankrupt company for $750, a small fortune at the time, and immediately went back into business with his brother in 1928 selling and repairing eliminators and AC radio sets for customers such as Sears and Roebuck. This new business again retained the name Galvin Manufacturing Corporation.

During this time, travel radios had begun to spring up. These were portable radios powered by battery that could be taken into a car to listen to music along the journey. However, travel radios were cumbersome and took up room that could have been used for another passenger. In addition, the early travel radios were quite expensive, around $250, which was not accessible to the average consumer.

Intrigued by the idea of portable radios, Paul and Joseph soon gravitated toward finding a solution for an affordable radio mounted in the car itself. In June 1930, the brothers enlisted the help of inventors Elmer Wavering and William Lear to retrofit Paul’s Studebaker with a radio. During the project, Paul and Joseph decided to rename their business to Motorola: “motor” for motor vehicle, and “ola,” which was derived from the company Victrola, the preeminent phonograph manufacturer, to evoke the idea of music.

There were multiple challenges that the Galvin brothers, Wavering and Lear had to overcome to make the car radio a success. Motor vehicles had many electrical circuits of their own, and introducing radio circuitry to that environment caused interference in the radio’s signal, resulting in static. Remember that AM signals are especially susceptible to transmission interruption. To avoid this issue, the radio’s components were split up and installed in various parts of the vehicle. This technique also accounted for the radio’s large size. The receiver was mounted to the engine wall with wires running to the dashboard, where the controls would be mounted as well as the speakers.

Car batteries in the 1920s typically supported only six volts of electrical charge. The radio required 50 to 250 volts of direct current, well exceeding what motor vehicles could provide. As a solution, an additional battery was mounted under the seats or sunk into the floor. A long antenna was also mounted to the exterior of the vehicle, supplemented with a net of wire mesh over the roof.

Once the first prototype of the car radio was complete and installed in Paul’s Studebaker, Galvin drove 800 miles to the Radio Manufacturer’s Association’s annual meeting in Atlantic City. He parked outside the convention and turned the radio on at full blast hoping to attract attention and customers.

The first Motorola car radio, introduced in 1930. Image Credit: https://www.motorola.com/us/about/motorola-history-milestones

Galvin returned home with several deals, and sold his new FT71 radios for $130 each, enough to break even for the year. These affordable and accessible radios were the first of their kind, and the first to be installed into a car itself rather than a portable radio that took up much more space. With Galvin’s new company name and new product, Motorola went on to sell millions of car radios and became the leading innovator in transistors, solid-state electronics, televisions and cell phones. Today, the company continues to sell top-of-the-line radio products. Mini-Circuits has supported Motorola solutions for the last 40 years selling mixers, amplifiers, VCOs and other products allowing Motorola to achieve superior performance in their radios.

The way Americans traveled by motor vehicle changed the moment Galvin introduced the first affordable car radio. Travelers now had built-in entertainment for long drives, and that collective cultural experience would only expand over time as the technology advanced and the radio broadcasting industry grew. In the modern age, it’s easy to forget how the technology we take for granted came to be. Without the Galvin brothers and the help they commissioned from Wavering and Lear, it might have been a much longer, quieter drive to where we are today.