The History of the Car Radio
Could you imagine driving somewhere without listening to your favorite podcast of Spotify playlist? Or even worse, could you imagine without listening to anything besides the passenger in your vehicle?! Radios have become such a large part of our lives that it’s often hard to imagine a time without them. Unsurprisingly they have such a large and rich history.
By the 1920's, radios were taking over like a storm and people LOVED it! At the time radios were noisy, hard to tune and required some sort of technological knowledge. It wasn't long until people started implementing the radio into automobiles!
Some Early Attempts
Supposedly the first attempt at implementing a radio in a car was by Lee DeForest as a means of vehicle to vehicle communications at the 1904 World Exhibition in St. Louis.
There were other early attempts like the one pictured below. Obviously to insert a radio in a car was extremely complicated and required an antenna to stretch over the top of the vehicle.
The beginning of the car radio is a bit foggy and controversial. There are many accounts of who made the first car radio, so we are going to go over the ones that claim they were the first!
It wasn't until 1922 that the first FACTORY car radio appeared in the Chevrolet 1922 model. Chevrolet offered a Westinghouse radio as a $200 option ($2,734 in 2016 dollars and almost half the price as the car itself!)
Another claim for the first radio installed in a vehicle was a man named George Frost, an 18-year-old enthusiast. Legend has it that he was the first person to attach a portable radio to his Ford Model T, though no one is able to verify or deny that claim.
Even though radios had their popularity, it was rare for automobiles to have radios installed, most people didn't even own radios for their household!
Also at the time, radios were extremely hard to tune! They required constant adjustment and had three knobs to be tuned to the exact radio frequency (which was AM radio). It wasn't until the invention of superheterodyne tuning that made everyones life easier when tuning a radio.
"A superheterodyne receiver, often shortened to superhet, is a type of radio receiver that uses frequency mixing to convert a received signal to a fixed intermediate frequency (IF) which can be more conveniently processed than the original carrier frequency. It was invented by US engineer Edwin Armstrong in 1918 during World War I. Virtually all modern radio receivers use the superheterodyne principle."
By the late 1920s, superheterodyne tuning was becoming standard on home receivers. It reduced the tuning to a single knob and basically reinvented the radio!
"In 1926, Philco invented what could be considered the very first mass produced car radio, the Transitone and production began for the 1927 model year to be an option in Chevrolet sedans."
Though it may have been Philco that was the first, it was The Galvin brothers that made the car radio an essential requirement.
Galvin and his brother, Joseph, bought the bankrupt Stewart Battery Company at auction for $750.
In 1930 the first commercial car radio was introduced by a company known as Galvin Manufacturing Company, now known as Motorola; these radios were branded the Motorola 5T71 and rose in popularity, with sales reaching all the way across the border into Mexico. These radios were expensive for their time, the estimated cost being one hundred thirty dollars ($130), however, the price did little to reduce their popularity.
Early model of a Motorola car radio!
Motorola made their last car radio in 1984.
"AM stands for “Amplitude Modulation”, as AM radio signals vary their amplitude to adapt to the sound information that is being broadcasted through the wavelengths. While changes in amplitude occur on FM radio as well, they are more noticeable in AM radio because they result in audible static. So, essentially, when you’re switching the channels on an AM radio, you’re hearing changes in amplitude, which is why distant broadcasts with weak signals will come across as very faint with the sound largely dominated by static."
"FM stands for “Frequency Modulation,” and, unlike AM radio, sound is transmitted through changes in frequency. While both FM and AM radio signals experience frequent changes in amplitude, they are far less noticeable on FM. During an FM broadcast, slight changes in amplitude go unnoticed because the audio signal is presented to the listener through changes in frequency, not amplitude. So, when you’re switching between stations, your FM antenna is alternating between different frequencies, and not amplitudes, which produces a much cleaner sound and allows for smoother transitions with little to no audible static."
In 1933 Edwin Howard Armstrong invented the FM car radio and they started the be offered in vehicles in the early 1950s. Despite this, however, most people kept the AM channels for the preference for the top 40 hits that were played.
"And second, FM radio signals at the time were quiet and uncompressed. While AM signals remained fairly steady driving over hills and around buildings, FM in motion was subject to the "picket fencing" effect, the "fwip-fwip-fwip" sound an FM radio makes in motion.) Because of this, FM was thought as useless for cars by most mainstream radio manufacturers. But this didn't prevent upstart innovators from trying."
In 1979 the FM audience finally beat out the AM. In 1953 the search or seek function was added to car radios, making flipping through radio stations much easier!
Hi-Fi became extremely popular in the 1950s. But until 1956, it was only radios. You still couldn't play your own recorded music in your car.
"The Highway Hi-Fi was an option for newer Chrysler cars from 1956 to 1960. They played special 7" records that played at 16 2/3 RPM, half the speed of a standard LP. The 16 RPM speed also became featured on many home record changers, allowing these records to be played in the car or at home."
"Chrysler dropped the 16 RPM Highway Hi-Fi in 1960 and quickly reinvented the Highway Hi-Fi in the early 1960s as an after-market system using RCA's 45 RPM records in a changer. While this allowed for broader selection as nearly all record companies made 45 RPM records, the record wear problem and skipping in the grooves from vehicle vibrations remained. And ultimately, RCA gave up on the system.
But auto manufacturers didn't give up on the concept of car audio. In fact, their attention merely shifted to endless-loop cartridge tape systems such as the 4 Track tape player."
4 Track and 8 Track Tape Players
"The endless loop tape cartridge was invented in 1952. It had many potential uses, but radio stations adopted the endless loop cartridge before anyone. Toledo businessman Earl Muntz saw a potential for car audio use in these broadcast tapes and went into business making 4-Track tape cartridges and players for car use in 1962, later adding home units as well."
Roughly around the year 1985, the 8-track was introduced. These were developed by Learjet Corporation and allowed for people to play eight tracks in their vehicles, which also allowed for the tracks to be re-listening to again and again with the rewind function.
"The 8-Track reigned car audio for most of the '70s. But cassette tape was starting to make inroads. By 1980, cassettes had overtaken 8-Tracks as the most popular car tape format."
The company of Phillips introduced the cassette in 1964 though the popularity of the cassette wouldn’t gain the mass popularity that it is known for until the 1970s. With the introduction of the cassettes people were opened to the idea of mixtapes, which were mixes of music that people put together. Cassettes also allowed for musicians to reach their audiences better, with the recordings being sold in mass production.
In comes the 1980s and with it the introduction of the CD. With CDs now in the mix the car radio industry experienced a massive shift, needing to adapt to a disk that can be stuck on repeat as well as have the possibility to have a multi-disk rig on the radio.
"It was designed as a rich audiophile toy because nearly all of the very first CD titles were classical. The CDs themselves costed $30 each in 1984 (that's $70 in 2016 dollars.) Pop music also began appearing on CDs that year and so were the first in-dash CD player prototypes."
"But car CD players didn't become standard until the early 1990s. And soon, they would be upended by the MP3. But there were usually no adapter inputs for MP3 players. This led to the creation of tiny FM transmitters that relayed the audio from the headphone jack of an iPod or any other headphone jack equipped medium to the car's FM radio."
As with all things technology the CD was eventually rendered obsolete. Music and how we brought it into our lives were forever changed with the introduction of downloadable music. Car radios now need to have the function that allows you to hook up your wireless device, letting you play your own music over the car radio or else they are viewed as old and worn. Modern-day radios also have the ability to reach stations all across the world, rather than relying on the chance that there was a local station near you.
"And going into the future, it looks very likely streaming and on-demand radio will eventually replace AM/FM, satellite radio and all physical formats. As cars themselves become more dependent on web based artificial control and access, this is the only next logical step in the evolution of car audio. Terrestrial radio is just one of a bazillion different other entertainment apps of daily life. And mobile technology is quietly developing as we speak.
While 5G isn't much more than a tech marketing buzzword now (the ITU has plans to have the 5G standards ready by 2020, in spite of the current tech market speculation.) And things will change further.
And as so will the model of car audio."