How Music Went Mobile With The Invention Of The Car Radio

Illustration for article titled How Music Went Mobile With The Invention Of The Car Radio

Happy Sunday! Welcome to the first edition of Holy Shift, where we highlight big innovations in the auto and racing industries each week—whether they be necessary or simply for comfort.


Since the holidays tend to be full of dreams about items that are more of luxuries than necessities, we’ll kick off our first week of this new series with an item that fits pretty well in that category—the car radio. Sure, radios aren’t necessary, but how would anyone survive long road trips without them? (After settling on the station, of course. That can sometimes be the hardest part.)

The innovation actually comes from a couple of guys who weren’t having the best of luck in the entrepreneurial industry back in the 1920s. They managed to go out of business twice in less than a decade while manufacturing batteries.

That’s when they changed their focus.

The pair—Paul Galvin, an engineer, and his friend, Edward Stewart—took their business to Chicago and began a venture into the car-radio market with Galvin Manufacturing Corporation, creating the first mass-produced commercial car radio. That venture ultimately led to the creation of the company Motorola.

From History:

The first car radios—portable “travel radios” powered by batteries, followed by custom-installed built-in radios that cost $250 apiece (about $2,800 in today’s dollars)—had appeared in 1926, but they were way too expensive for the average driver. If he could find a way to mass-produce affordable car radios, Galvin thought, he’d be rich.


And he did find a way. Galvin began producing radios for about $110 per unit in 1930, but needed a way to get the word out. After all, he couldn’t exactly buy radio advertisements that would go directly to his target audience.

In order to gain attention for his product, Galvin parked his radio-equipped car outside of an annual convention for the Radio Manufacturers Association and blasted music from his car. He sold enough of the cheaper radios that year to almost break even, later changing his company’s name to “Motorola” in 1947—a title with roots in the car industry.


The combination of the word stems “motor-” for “motorcar” and “-ola” to symbolize sound made up the new Motorola name, meaning “sound in motion.” That’s what the company continued to be, but by different means.

Manufacturers caught on over the next few decades and began to produce their own car radios, phasing Motorola out of the car-radio market completely by 1984. In the meantime, Motorola went from two-way radios to cell phones—splitting the business in half under those categories in 2011.


From two business partners to two separate companies, Motorola owes many of its successes to the industry that it essentially founded—putting radios inside of cars, allowing us all to head bang (or “Dab”—I hear that’s a thing these days) on the way to work each day.

If you have suggestions for future innovations to be featured on Holy Shift—in street cars, the racing industry or whatever you’d like—feel free to leave them in the comments section. The topic range is broad, so don’t hesitate with your ideas.


Photo credit: AP Images/PR Newswire

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Thank you, Mr. Galvin and friend.