95 years ago, Galvin began building the first affordable in-car radio
In-car entertainment sure has evolved in the last 95 years, but it likely owes a lot to the initial efforts of Paul and Joseph Galvin and the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation. Before Galvin Manufacturing’s entry into the market, the in-car radios were items for the wealthy. Buying one could run you as much as $250 in 1926, rivaling the contemporary asking price of a new Model T. Galvin’s product, by contrast, cost around $100–130. But it took time, as the product was introduced in June 1930, almost two years after the concept was green-lighted.
We can cut the folks at Galvin some slack, as they overcame the hurdles of engine ignition interference, durability for unpaved or even non-existent roads, and the packaging constraints of cars with modest cabin space and even smaller dashboards. The engineering was spot on, but the business fortitude was triumphant, as they were enduring an uphill battle of economic headwinds headed their way.
With so many accomplishments hiding under a single product, a unique name was almost mandatory: Motorola. The name is a portmanteau of a moving vehicle (motor) and an audio source (the “ola” suffix was a naming convention of the era, and popularized by Victrola). It was clearly catchy enough to put the Galvin name to rest, as the company was renamed Motorola Inc. in 1947.
No matter the company name, the Motorola 5T71 was introduced in 1930, after Paul Galvin famously drove his Motorola-equipped Studebaker from Chicago to Atlantic City, making a splash at the 1930 Radio Manufacturers’ show. But Paul wasn’t an exhibitor at the show; rather, he parked his Studebaker in a high-traffic location at the Atlantic City Pier, amped up the Motorola with external speakers/amp, and let curious showgoers come his way. Turning a car into a mobile boombox takes some creative bootstrapping, and likely became the first display of audio superiority in a motor vehicle parked for display purposes!
Despite his daring promotional antics, the Motorola 5T71 wasn’t terribly successful from the get-go, as it required multiple components to install (including a separate battery) and was marketed during the worst economic period in American history. But prices dropped significantly and quickly, just like the automobile a mere twenty years before. Lower prices demanded more avenues to sell, so strategic partnerships became a significant revenue source. The Motorola was sold elsewhere as factory equipment for 1933 Fords and installed at any BF Goodrich tire store in 1934.
As the advertising above suggests, the asking price roughly halved during the decade immediately following the 5T71’s initial offering. And wow, that’s a serious price drop, on par with any modern day tech company scaling up and selling out in stores. Speaking of historical context, as with many bits of new technology in life, the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act has, thanks to bipartisan support, a darn good chance of becoming law. This means the legacy of Galvin Manufacturing is likely to endure for many more decades, setting back the sands of time once again thanks to the irreplicability of AM radio.
Who knows, maybe the 95-year legacy of Galvin Manufacturing’s innovation, parked at a pier in Atlantic City for everyone to enjoy, is far from the end. So strike while the iron is hot (or at least lukewarm) and thank your lucky stars that the mass market radio was green-lighted into reality on this very day.