The History of the Car Radio: From Morse Code to Mixtapes

To honor our beloved car radio, the invention that made road trips more fun, and long, straight stretches of blacktop more bearable, we unearthed a bit of car radio history.

History of car radios image

Compared to iPods, satellite radio, and Pandora mobile, AM/FM radio may seem as technologically hip as a Victrola. But when the car radio made its debut in the 1920s, it was the hottest thing to hit the streets, blending 2 of the nation’s great loves: music and cars.

To honor our beloved car radio, the invention that made road trips more fun, and long, straight stretches of blacktop more bearable, we unearthed a bit of car radio history.

1906: Music is heard on air

In the early days of radio, only Morse code could be transmitted through the airwaves. But that changed on Christmas Eve 1906, when Reginald Aubrey Fessenden spoke into a microphone from Brant Rock, Massachusetts, to ships at sea. Shocked shipboard operators on the Atlantic heard Fessenden read a passage from the Bible, play a recording of Handel’s “Largo,” and fiddle “O Holy Night” (which, incidentally, makes these the first songs to be broadcast on the radio.)

1920: The first U.S. radio broadcast license granted

Though Fessenden’s broadcast caused a wave of excitement, it took 14 more years for the first commercial radio station to be born. On October 27, 1920, KDKA in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, obtained the first broadcast license. About a week later, on November 2, they aired the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election.

The nation was enchanted, radio stations proliferated, and radio became America’s new favorite form of entertainment.

1922(ish): The first car radio debuts

Naturally, entranced listeners wanted to take this new form of entertainment with them on the road. So not long after commercial radio broadcasting was born, the first car radios began to appear.

The early history of the car radio, however, is a little unclear. Legend has it that George Frost, an 18-year-old radio enthusiast from Chicago, was the first person to attach a portable radio to the passenger door of his Ford Model T. No one knows if it’s actually true, but it makes for a good story anyway.

1930: Car radios go commercial

Although commercial car radios hit the market in the late 1920s, it wasn’t until Galvin Manufacturing Company (now known as Motorola) introduced the Motorola 5T71 radio that commercial car radios really became popular. (In fact, the name “Motorola” is a combination of the words “motor” and “Victrola.”)

The first Motorola radios were expensive (estimated by some to cost around $130) and wildly popular. Sales of the Motorola 5T71 reached all the way across the border into Mexico.

1952: FM car radio

Edwin Howard Armstrong invented FM radio in 1933, but in the early days, people preferred AM radio for its top 40 hits. It wasn’t until 1979 that FM audience levels finally surpassed AM.

1953: The search function

Widely considered by many to be the first luxury car radio, the Mexico by German manufacturer Becker featured both AM/FM and the first fully automated “seek” feature!

Radio and beyond

Though the radio is still alive and well today, new technologies introduced over the years gave drivers more options to rock out while on the road. Here are some notables:

1965: The 8-track

8-tracks may seem like a throwback, but in 1965 they represented the culmination of hard work and ingenuity. Developed by Learjet Corporation, the 8-track tape housed in its plastic cartridge a continuous loop of magnetic tape that held a total of — you guessed it — 8 tracks.

1970s: Cassette players, mixtapes, and cars

Though Phillips introduced the cassette in 1964, it was in the 1970s that car cassette players became a standard feature, putting Americans and mixtapes on the open road.

1980 to 2011: The death of the cassette and the birth of rocking technology

The cassette player, now defunct in all new cars, revolutionized the way drivers listened to music, enabling them to rock out to their favorite songs at the push of the button. But, alas, revolutions come and go. In 1982, Sony released the CD…and the rest, you know, is history.

Related resources

MTV’s history of mixtapes

One Response to “The History of the Car Radio: From Morse Code to Mixtapes”

  1. Bill Nourse
    March 4, 2014 #

    You forgot about four track tape players.

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