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History of the Car Radio-Unproven!

History of the Car Radio-Truth! & Unproven!

Summary of eRumor:
A “History of the care Radio” commentary states that two young men named William Lear and Elmer Wavering developed the first car radio after one of their girlfriends suggested that a romantic evening at a look out point in Illinois would have been made better by music.
The Truth:
There are conflicting reports about the history of the car radio and who first developed it, but we can definitively say that many of the details in “History of the Car Radio” are accurate.
William Lear (who went on develop the now-famous Lear Jet) and Elmer Wavering (who went on to invent the alternator and to serve as president of Motorola) were friends, inventors, and radio enthusiasts in Quincy, Missouri, (the commentary incorrectly referred to Quincy, Illinois) during the 1920s.
Lear and Wavering are often credited with inventing the car radio, as “History of the Car Radio” claims, but the idea that they got the idea from a girlfriend at “lookout point” and a few other details are more folklore than proven fact.
William Lear’s Encyclopedia Britannica entry, for example, seems to downplay his role in the history of the first car radio. Lear is credited with coming up with the concept of the car radio, but the entry states that he sold the idea to the Motorola Company early on in the process — which doesn’t mesh with the legend:

History of the Car Radio-Unproven!
History of the Car Radio-Unproven!

After completing eighth grade, Lear quit school to become a mechanic and at the age of 16 joined the navy, lying about his age. During World War I, Lear studied radio and after his discharge designed the first practicable auto radio. Failing to secure the financial backing to produce the radio himself, Lear sold the radio to the Motorola Company in 1924.

Elmer Wavering’s 1998 obituary in the New York Times provides a little more detail about Wavering and Lear’s hand in inventing the car radio, and it credits Wavering with coming up with “what eventually became the first commercial car radio,” which lends credibility to the idea that the concept was fleshed out by Motorola, not the young men from Quincy:

When he was in high school, he worked in a radio parts store run by Bill Lear, who went on to found the Lear Jet Corporation. They helped customers build their own radios.

By tinkering and absorbing engineering on his own, Mr. Wavering worked with Mr. Lear and built a car radio that could withstand the rigors of bumpy roads and severe climate changes.

He met his future wife, Vera Deremiah, a teacher in St. Louis, on one of his trips to sell his radio.

The radio was later called a Motorola by Paul Galvin, the founder of the company that eventually became an electronics giant. Mr. Galvin thought the name suggested sound in a motor car.

The radio was made up of a receiver, a bulky black box with vacuum tubes and an octagonal box that contained a speaker and was mounted under the dashboard.

A smaller box housed a tuner and volume control and was mounted on the steering wheel. The receiver was connected to two batteries under the seats. A V-shaped aerial ran from the controls and was connected to the rear axle.

Costing about $80 on cars that sold for $600 to $800, the radio was not for everybody and was slow to catch on.

So, those historical records don’t mesh with key details in the story. The most important being that William Lear and Elmer Wavering built and installed the first fully-functional car radio and installed it in their own car. In reality, it appears that Lear and Wavering came up with the concept of the car radio and sold it to Motorola, where Paul Galvin took the rains and brought it to market. Wavering became CEO of Motorola in the 1950s.

And there isn’t agreement about who, exactly, developed and built the first car radio. Many radio enthusiasts credit George Frost, a young man from Chicago, with being the first build a car radio in 1922, according to Radio Museum:

Initially, it was portable battery radios that were individually adapted for installation into a car. The radio that George Frost, President of the “Lane High School Radio Clubs” in Chicago, had installed in his Ford-T-Model in 1922 is one of those receiving wider recognition. Another example, also dating back to 1922, is the “Marconiphone” radio installed in a “Daimler” that could be seen at the “Olympia Motorshow” in England. Some cities experimented with radio receivers in early patrol cars in an attempt to reach officers wirelessly. Also for military pourposes car radio was an issue. You will see in the attachments how transmission was done. On the same page of “Radio World” from 28th October 1922 there are the two photos below with the title: “The Dashboard Special makes 40,000 Mile Tour, Equipped with Radio”.

So, some of the facts in the “History of the Car Radio” commentary are true, but others can’t be proven or are disputed. We can definitively say that William Lear and Elmer Wavering played a role in developing the car radio. Beyond that, other claims are debatable.