An excerpt from
The Motorola Service Station Story
by Kathi Ann Brown (1992)
From Chapter One: Magic on the Airwaves
The ability to transport sound invisibly across many miles has fascinated amateur and professional tinkerers alike for more than a century. Marconi and Maxwell, Hertz and Henry, Faraday and Fleming, DeForest and Armstrong, down through the years to today's veritable army of technological whizkids...all have been kept busy finding ways to harness the airwaves for human communications. Thanks to their collective ingenuity, the magic and mystery of wireless communications touch nearly every facet of modern life.
It is to the earliest pioneers of radio that Motorola and the independent Motorola Service Station (MSS) organization both owe their roots. The vast two- way radio communications industry of which they are part grew out of the determination of nineteenth and early twentieth century inventors to find a wireless means of transmitting not merely sound, but the human voice itself.
The persistence of these early inventors was rewarded in the United States in 1906 when the first American broadcast of voice and music was aired by R. A. Fessenden. Not until fifteen years later, however, was the popular imagination fired by the potential of radio to provide entertainment on a broad scale. The first radio broadcast of a baseball game, emceed by Graham McNamee from the Polo Grounds in New York City in 1921, was soon followed by regular broadcasts aired by Pittsburgh's pioneering station KDKA in 1922. Other stations quickly popped up across the country.
The novelty of radio bewitched the public. From a mere 3000 radios in the nation in 1920, the total jumped to 300,000 sets two years later. By the decade's minpoint, two and a half million home radio sets were in use. Families and neighbors gathered nightly in front of their fancy tube-and-wire-filled wooden cabinets to listen to news and entertainment designed to appeal to mass audiences.
The headlong growth of the American radio broadcast and manufacturing industries in the 1920s was no accident. The loss of the country's Victorian innocence in World War I had opened the door to the devil-may-care attitude that earned the decade the light-hearted nickname: the "Roaring Twenties." Hungry for distraction from the moral wages and woes of the Great War, the nation eagerly lost itself in a series of latest crazes. Radio, together with the fledgling movie industry, helped to promote the national love affair with fads by making words and images accessible to large audiences normally isolated from one another by geography or class differences. People of all levels of education and income could learn about the newest trends by listening to the radio and going to movies.
The 1920s also brought Henry Ford's mass-produced automobile, a development that broke barriers, too, by putting in the hands of Everyman an affordable means of physical, if not social, mobility. In 1924, the same year that saw more than two million radios sold, Ford watched his ten millionth car roll off the assembly line. In both communications and transportation, the thoroughly modern process of "shrinking" the world had begun in earnest.
Tapping into a trend
The country's postwar restlessness to be entertained wasn't lost on its entrepreneurs. Chicago businessman Paul Galvin was among those to recognize--and act on--the national zeal for radio.
In September 1928, Paul Galvin, along with his brother Joe, established the Galvin Manufacturing Company in a small section of a rented building at 847 Harrison Street in Chicago. Galvin had spent much of the 1920s weathering setbacks to a small battery manufacturing venture plagued by financial and technological problems. He's also tried his hand at producing his own "A" and "B" battery eliminators, the devices needed to convert the new standard 110-volt AC house current to the voltages required to run battery-draining radios. Recognizing that the market for battery eliminators would itself soon be eliminated by radios designed to run on house current, Galvin decided to find a more promising outlet for his energies. He turned to manufacturing home radio sets for distribution under the brand labels of his customers.
Although his new radio enterprise was at the mercy of a market driven by cutthroat competition, Galvin felt that he had found the right niche for himself and his small band of employees. Radio stock was the rising star of the stock exchanges. In 1926 alone, national radio sales had reached the half billion dollar mark. The future looked bright for anyone with the know-how and drive to keep pace with the public's apparently insatiable demand for radios.
Then disaster struck. On October 25, 1929, the high fever of the stock markets suddenly broke, sending the country into an economic tailspin. Durable goods production dropped by 80 percent and unemployment skyrocketed. Fortunes were lost overnight. Bread lines and soup kitchens dotted the landscape. Hard times of one kind of another lay ahead for nearly everyone....
For at least one future Motorola Service Station owner, the sobering days of the Depression made an indelible impression on his youthful mind, shaping his future ambition. Economic security, he was convinced, would be found by tapping into the one thing that everyone needed--perhaps more than ever: entertainment.
"People made no money at the time," recalls MSS Joe Wilmer of Edgewater (MD). "Men used to have to stand in line all day to get one hour's worth of work....But the one thing that a person needs is entertainment. He either gets entertainment from reading the newspaper or listening to the radio. There were no televisions, so radio was a very essential item to the average man, his wife and family."
"I went to work for radio station WMAL, sweeping up the shavings out of the phonograph records they used to make. I got an opportunity to learn electronics, and study through correspondence courses...to learn to fix radios. In my day you used to go to work when you were twelve years old to make a living. I was able to repair radios....So I had a lot of people bring their radios to me....You could repair them and make a few dollars and pay your board--my board was four dollars a week--and still have some money left over to buy a Model A Ford car...."
While young Joe Wilmer and millions of other Americans were preoccupied with securing their futures in the face of economic uncertainty, Paul Galvin was struggling to keep his young radio enterprise afloat. The Crash had resulted in a massive dumping of brand-label radios on the market, effectively undercutting his ability to get rid of his own unlabelled inventory. After his long struggles to make a go of the battery enterprise, this latest setback to his radio operation didn't seem to bode well for the future of Galvin Manufacturing.
But salvation arrived in the form of a bold, risky idea, carrying with it the potential to make or break Galvin's tiny company: car radio.
Music on wheels
Different accoutns have been offered over the years to explain how and why Paul Galvin decided in the dark days of a national economic ctrisis to test the durability of America's budding love affair with automobiles and radios. A major depression would not appear to be the textbook perfect moment to market an untested, unknown, luxury item. Paul Galvin, however, would not be easily deterred.
The most delightful rendition of Galvin's venture into car radio comes from Elmer Wavering, retired Motorola president, who credits romance with inspiring the invention that launched a corporation.
It seems that Wavering and his friend and sometimes partner, Bill Lear, enjoyed treating their sweethearts to the panoramic views of their hometown, Quincy (IL). Wavering reminisces: "Quincy is located in western Illinois, on a high bluff. There were scenic spots with parking areas. So we could watch the sun set over the flatlands of Missouri. The girls suggested it would be wonderful to have music in the car....We said we thought we could do it and we went to work on it."
The main challenge was to eliminate the assorted sources of interference from the car's engine and electrical system that threatened to drown out the music. By fooling around with various ways to shield key elements like the antenna lead, Wavering managed to eliminate all the incoming noise to the set...The radio-on- wheels was born....
[T]he idea languished until Lear ran across Paul Galvin at a radio convention in 1929 and told him about Wavering's success.
Wavering recalls Galvin's response:
"Paul said, 'Well, we'll give it a try, Bill. GEt hold of your buddy in Quincy. Get him to come up here and the two of you put a complete radio together in our little machine shop and install it in my Studebaker sedan. I'll drive around the Chicago area and see if it will do everything you claim it will.' Bill called me and I took a leave of absence from Wave-Rite Radio Service, my company, and went up to Chicago. Bill and I put a complete radio into his car."
Galvin was impressed. Soon he, wife Lillian and eight-year-old son Bob were bouncing along the country's rough-hewn highways in the Studebaker to reach Atlantic City (NJ) in time for the 1930 convention of the Radio Manufacturers Association. Unable to afford a booth at the show, the Galvin parked their musical novelty at the entrance to the pier. Thanks to a speaker that Wavering had installed under the hood, Galvin could crank up the radio to be heard by convention-goers as they walked from their cars to the meeting hall. Lillian Galvin took down the names and addresses of interested dealers and distributors. In no time, orders started rolling in for the new radio---soon dubbed "Motorola" by Paul Galvin---and Galvin Manufacturing was off and running again.
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