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The Making of Mobile Electronics

October 2002
The evolution of in-vehicle technology

By Brett Solomon

It may seem almost inconceivable that the mobile electronics industry is about the same age as Dealerscope, but everything in early automobiles, including the ignition systems, was controlled mechanically (ignition systems were controlled via mechanical "points and condensers"). Everyone takes for granted that you can hop into your car, click the key and it will start instantly. But mobile electronics are responsible for the evolution of the car as a reliable, safe and relatively economical mode of transportation. It is electronic technology that has harvested the caveats of the modern vehicle. And the electronic technology revolution began with the car radio. Auto sound acted as a harbinger of the technological breakthroughs in current automobiles—including telematics, mobile video and even dynamic stability programs.

While its unclear who first dreamed up the notion of listening to music in an automobile, the first car radio patent was filed in 1926 by William Heina. This early design included control knobs located in the dashboard, as well as an outboard antenna. Of course, OEMs were not even thinking about this feature, so it was the aftermarket that brought the car radio to life. In 1927, Heina's idea was adopted and, later, put to market by the Automobile Radio Corporation. The first Transitone aftermarket receivers began at $150, and ran as high as $250 with installation (the birth of the installer and 12-volt specialist). The new radios' biggest problem was the harsh ignition ticking heard through them while the car was running. Resistor spark plug suppressors provided a temporary quick fix, but that development was soon followed by the introduction of spark plugs with built-in resistors. Also in 1926, Peter Jensen designed and marketed the first moving coil, direct radiator loudspeaker, which is now famous for being the precursor to the Permanent Magnet Dynamic loudspeaker design—also developed by Jensen—that is the basis for every mobile speaker on the market today.

In 1929, OEMs caught up with the aftermarket when Stutz Motorcars struck a deal with the Automobile Radio Corporation, and Transitone radios were installed as a factory option. In the 1930s, aftermarket radios finally dropped below the $100 mark (still quite a bit of money during the Great Depression). OEMs countered—Cadillac, LaSalle and Buick offered radios manufactured by Delco. In 1930, Motorola jumped into the aftermarket, building radios designed by famous car radio forefather William Lear.

In Europe, the foundation for the development of today's in-car audio systems started with the introduction of the first European car radio, the Blaupunkt AS 5, in 1932. This bulky piece of equipment for medium- and long-wave radio claimed approximately ten liters of trunk space. The conventional car antenna was not yet invented, so antenna wiring was used and simply laid under the car roof or along the running boards. Because the radio took up so much space, it was not possible to install it within the reach of the driver. A steering wheel-mounted remote control unit proved to be the perfect solution in those days—now a luxury limited to top-of-the-line models. The radio cost 465 Deutchmarks, one-third of the purchase price of a small automobile. In 1933, Zenith introduced its first aftermarket units, which retailed for $59.95 installed (still an expensive proposition for the time).


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