It seems lately that what is old is new again. Take Hollywood for instance; there really doesn’t seem to be much new content lately, but there are a lot of old TV shows, comic book characters and movies being remade. Interestingly enough, there are examples of this same situation in the technology world as well.
Currently, a popular home upgrade is adding wireless (or wired) speakers to various rooms when building or remodeling homes. Companies like Sonos, JBL and Bose, just to name a few, all offer wireless speaker systems. Whether they operate on Bluetooth, wifi, or other technologies, the results are the same. You install these speakers in your home and stream music wirelessly from devices such as your smartphone, PC, set top box, etc. This is actually pretty cool as you can set the mood for different rooms or situations. Want to feel like you’re at that swank Italian restaurant? Just add some traditional Italian music and let the pasta fly! Need to get in the groove for your workout? Crank some classic rock in your basement gym. This is all possible because of some recent breakthrough in technology right? Actually, it’s not. In fact, streaming audio through your home has been available as early as 1930s!
I came across this miracle of technology while looking for wiring schematics for my 1942 Philco 42-390 console style tube radio. I was trying to identify an oddly shaped antenna that was mounted inside the cabinet. I was quite surprised to find that it was used to connect the radio to a wireless remote that allowed you to adjust volume and stations from anywhere in your home, without wires! How cool is that? In addition to the remote, the radio was also equipped with “Television Sound.” What’s Television Sound? I’m glad you asked. Back in 1939 as America was coming out of the Great Depression, radio manufacturers were looking for ways for their products to remain relevant with the advent of a new invention called television. Many people were claiming that television would spell the end of radio broadcasts and thus the need for radios. In addition to the question of which technology would reign supreme was the question of cost. Televisions were very expensive but so were radios. My Philco sold for $95 brand new in 1942. After adjusting for inflation, this comes to $1,439.17 in 2015! In order to increase the sales of new televisions, manufacturers decided to omit an audio amplifier and speaker. This also allowed them to make their radios “ready for TV sound” by including a small transmitter in the TV and allocating a pushbutton preset on their radios. The result was that you could buy a new TV and use your very nice radio to play the sound from the TV. This was a win/win for electronics companies such as Philco, because now they could sell consumers even more devices than before.
This an excerpt from a Philco advertisement, circa 1940: “The 1940 Philco you buy today is ready for Television when it arrives . . . and in a new, different and better way – the wireless way! It is built to receive Television Sound. And, when used with a Philco Television Picture Receiver, you need no wires, plug-in or connection of any kind. This wireless way is another achievement developed in the great Philco Laboratories.”
Prior to the “wireless way,” manufacturers had been adding an additional phono plug (originally used to connect phonographs to the radio) as a means of playing television audio through their radios.
So here we are over 75 years later thinking we’ve just invented something really cool, only to realize that our grandparents or even great grandparents were already enjoying this technological marvel. Solomon was right, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Feeling nostalgic? Try turning off the TV and using your imagination to set the stage as you listen to old time radio drama. You can enjoy many of the old shows online at Old Time Radio and WPR's Old Time Radio Dramas, or tune in to your local NPR station on Saturday nights from 8-11pm.
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