Rolling rhythms moving melodies

Today it is almost unthinkable that one might have an automobile without a radio. In fact, most car companies have taken to calling them “entertainment centers” because the radio function is but one of many different functions. They provide turn-by-turn maps, voice navigation, interfaces with cellular phones, satellite radio reception, video playback, backup cameras… Yet, with all those different capabilities, the basic idea of listening to some music whilst we drive persists.

We owe that pleasure to a man named Paul Galvin. This week in 1928, work began at the new Galvin Manufacturing Corp. in Chicago. Galvin along with partner, Edward Stewart, had developed a “dry battery” radio system about a decade earlier, but that venture had failed — twice.

Undaunted, Galvin forged ahead. He knew that the idea of mobile music was a bankable one.

In 1930, Galvin would introduce the Motorola radio, the first mass-produced commercial car radio. The name, Motorola, represented a combination of “motor” — which evoked cars and motion — and “ola” derived from “Victrola” — the most popular brand of early phonograph record player. Combined, the name was to evoke images of moving music. Apparently it worked. It worked well enough for Galvin to rechristen his company Motorola.

Of course, the path to success required more than a clever name and a good idea. The idea had to come with a tolerable price point. The first car radio systems didn’t. These first “travel radios,” which were powered by batteries, cost around $250 apiece. That translates into roughly $2,800 today. The average 1926 driver just couldn’t afford such luxuries — especially since the average automobile cost just $380.

Galvin knew that his road to success hinged upon making the devices affordable. In June 1930, he enlisted the assistance of inventors, Elmer Wavering and William Lear, to retrofit his old Studebaker with a radio. He then drove the car 800 miles to the Radio Manufacturers Association’s annual meeting in Atlantic City. He parked outside the convention, turned up the music (for this purpose, Wavering had installed a special speaker under the Studebaker’s hood), and waited for the RMA conference attendees’ to take notice.

The splash was hardly overwhelming. Galvin only got a few orders, but they were just enough to keep him in business for another year. From that point he was able to make improvements, cut deals with automobile manufacturers and propel Motorola into the electronic giant it became.

Gradually, car makers developed their own radio systems and Motorola was squeezed out of the industry it helped to create. The company now known more for cellular telephones and walkie-talkies quit making car radios in 1984.

Here too though, the company has faced yet another squeeze from the very market it helped to invent. Once the leader in cellphone manufacturing, Motorola is again a pale shadow of its former dominance.

More than a simple cautionary tale, Motorola provides for us an important lesson about business. It is not enough to have the great idea. It is not enough to capitalize upon it. Successful companies know that today’s triumphs are only sustainable through planned innovation and successive improvements.

The buying public is fickle. The thing that is bright and shiny today will seem trite and old fashioned tomorrow. Nowhere is this more evident than in technology-driven products.

Even so, we are glad that Galvin had his dream. For his dream permits us to drown out the din of road noise, to quiet the incessant “are we there yet” and to ease the rush hour wait.