Clock Radio History

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Clock Radio History

When you woke up this morning, did you wake up to a buzzer, some music, a video, or something else [hint, hint]?

Every modern alarm clock has a variety of means to stop slumber. In celebration of all of these options, we decided to do a blog post on the early history of the clock radio.

I presented this to my researcher who instantly jumped on the idea. A few weeks later, she staggered into my office looking very frazzled. Her curly red hair had developed some level of sentience. Frayed nerves bulged under her skin. I think she was wearing the same clothing as when I gave her the assignment and, honestly, it smelled like the same clothing too. She slammed a stack of papers as long as my arm on my desk and said, “History of the clock radio? You know not what you ask!” She then popped something in her mouth and collapsed on my floor.

While she “rested” on my floor, I sifted through her information. (Don’t look at me like that, I checked for a pulse first.) It seems that three companies are connected with the first clock radio and she’d been trying to find an authoritative source that declared the first one. The answer seemed simple to me. I looked at her limp body and said, “Check the Patent Office.”

A weak, “Tried that,” rose up from her body.

After checking with The US Patent Office, calling corporate GE, calling corporate Emerson, working with three research librarians with the Consumer Electronics Trade Association, a researcher with the The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame, a researcher with The Radio and Television Museum, and scouring the archives of countless newspapers, she is willing to say that the first clock radio was invented by: the Bulova Clock company, GE, Emerson, unnamed inventor, or Samuel G. Frantz.

The Case for Bulova

Their website states that they invented the first clock radio in 1928. Several jeweler websites also make note of this. We were unable to find any newspaper articles or advertisements in newspapers that confirm this. We were also unable to find any pictures of a clock radio circa 1928.

The Case for GE

An article in the St. Petersburg Times (1952) references GE as “a pioneer” of clock radios. This same article stated that the first clock radio was invented “more than five years ago”. That statement seems to indicate the first clock radio hit in the 1940s. Anything beyond that would have been listed as “more than a decade ago”. Of course, the article could have been poorly written.

The Case for Emerson

The website Jrank and Harvard Business School state that Benjamin Abrams, founder of Emerson Radio and Phonograph Corporation, produced the first clock radio. We’ve been unable to learn a model number, patent number, find any newspaper articles, or find any newspaper advertisements to confirm this.

The Case for the Unnamed Inventor

In 1930, the Lewiston Daily Sun, reported several snippets from the Popular Mechanics. One of these snippets mentions a new device that speaks the time and includes a radio and phonograph all in the same cabinet. The fact that the informational brief specifies that the clock and the radio are in the same cabinet implies that combination is new; however, there was not enough information provided to further investigate.

The case for Samuel G. Frantz

An article from 1931 in the New York Times showcases a new type of radio. This radio will allow the listener to “program” six different times for the radio to come on, turn off, or switch stations. Since each “programmed” selection works independently of each other and can be turned off or on individually the “clock tuner” can be used as a “radio alarm clock”. This article included a lot of explanation on how a clock and a radio could work together. This abundance of information implies that the writer would think his audience wouldn’t be familiar with the concept and that implies it’s a new concept. Sadly, implications are not enough to state something was the first.

I was going to mention that Wikipedia notes an inventor in the 1940s as having created the first alarm clock, but my researcher gets “screechy”, crazy, and homicidal whenever I mention Wikipedia. Once research ninjas come out of the woodwork and start throwing stars at my clocks, it gets frightening.

Perhaps the inventor of the first clock radio is some highly regarded CIA secret. Perhaps if we dive any deeper into this my researcher will find herself in an “undisclosed location” with nothing but her blackberry and leeched Wi-Fi. No one wants that, so we’ll just move on to the rest of the history of the clock radio.

The original clock radios were huge. The smallest of these monstrosities of sound weight about 25lbs! In 1932, Emerson produced the first compact clock radio. The Emerson Model 25 weighed 6lbs. During this timeframe clock radios shifted from wooden console cabinets to sleeker models that would sit on a nightstand or a counter top.

By the 1940s, a new “space age polymer” (translation: plastic) was being used to produce smaller, lighter, and vibrantly colored clock radios, but the brightest and most eye-catching clock radios didn’t come around until the 1950s.

The “shocking” pink AMICO miniature radio is exactly what the name implies: a bright pink. There’s an emblem on the dial that Star Trek fans are sure to recognize. The Crosley Model 20NM 5Tubes does for red what the AMICO model did for pink. It’s fire engine red and rather pretty if one likes red. Maybe it was the result of the new “space age polymer”, but sales for clock radios soared in the 1950s. The Radio-Television Manufacturers Association estimated that 30,000 clock radios were being produced each week and GE stated that clock radios made up 65% of their “home and portable radio” sales.

The 1980s brought about the invention of the microchip and radios shrank with them. Discovering the first clock radio to use a microchip sent my researcher into more spasms. She’ll get back to me on that. The earliest ones used rotating numbers to show a digital-like display. Later models came out with LED numbers. Today, we’ve seemed to go in reverse. Many people have digitalized their lives so much that waking up to music is becoming a thing of the past.

Note: would like to give a special thanks to Cindy Stevens with the Consumer Electronic Hall of Fame, Katherine Rutkowski and Angela Titone with the Consumer Electronics Trade Association, and Brian Belanger with The Radio and Television Museum for their help with the research for this blog post.

It was a wild ride for us, researching clock radio history, but we hope it’s been informative!

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