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In 1920, Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company broadcast the live returns of the presidential race between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox, two-term governor and two-term U.S. Congressman from Ohio. Cox’s running mate was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was president of the United States from 1932 until his death in 1945. Harding and his running mate Calvin Coolidge won in a landslide.

After the election, Harding was shamed by the Teapot Dome Scandal and an extramarital affair. Cox founded a newspaper business that exists today as Cox Communications, the cable provider for six million subscribers. 


The first radio signals were called wireless and communication was by Morse code. Radio as we know it came on the scene in the early 1920s when only one household in 100 had a radio receiver. It soon became the first electronic mass medium when 82% of Americans were radio listeners in the years before television came along in the 1950s.

Crystal radios

Hobbyists still build their own crystal radios from kits. Crystal radios were the simplest receivers, needing no external power, and relying only on the radio signal to power the broadcast. Because there was no amplifier, people listened with headsets. 

Vacuum tubes

The arrival of vacuum tubes meant radios now had enough power to amplify the sound, making headsets unnecessary. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were two who used vacuum tubes in their experiments. The invention of vacuum tubes led to the development of television, radar, and early computers.

Today’s dedicated audio enthusiasts play vinyl LPs on equipment made with vacuum tubes because they produce richer, “fatter” sounds than digital equipment. The McIntosh MC2152 tube amplifier below sells for $12,500. 


Transistors (miniature semiconductors) are made from the same silicon found in sand. In 1954, Texas Instruments and Industrial Development Engineering Associates built the Regency TR-1, the first transistor radio. It was small, lightweight, and able to receive only AM radio broadcasts.

Sony, Toshiba, Sharp, and others mass-produced cheap transistor radios

They were a huge hit with young people in the ’50s and ’60s. Because they were battery-operated, teenagers could now take their personal radios with them wherever they went.

Transistor radios were such a phenomenon that Freddie Cannon had a hit song called Transistor Sister and Allan Sherman (Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh) included “a Japanese transistor radio” in his Twelve Days of Christmas parody where with each verse he listed all the features of the one he got for Christmas.

Sony Walkman

In 1979, Sony’s Walkman introduced a portable listening device that played cassette tapes. TIME said the idea came from Sony’s co-founder Masaru Ibuka, who always traveled with his cassette recorder and player, the TC-D5. Because it was uncomfortably large and heavy, Ibaku ordered the development of a cassette player that would be smaller and lighter. Engineers met his goals by eliminating the recording mechanism the speaker. These changes made the listening experience a private one, where users controlled what they listened to and where.

Mix tapes

The idea of having complete control of your own music led to the popularity of people making their own mix tapes so they could listen to their favorite tunes. Tapes might be a single genre (country, disco, blues), all songs by a single artist (Willie Nelson, Donna Summer, or Muddy Waters), or a mix of favorites across artists and genres.

A friend gave themed tapes as gifts

One of the most popular was his Baby Tape, with a hand-drawn pink and blue label. All songs on the Baby Tape were original recordings and included Baby Please Don’t Go; Baby Love; Don’t Worry Baby; Love to Love You Baby; Baby I Need Your Lovin; Take Good Care of My Baby; Rock Your Baby; Hey Baby; Cry Baby; There Goes My Baby; Baby Come Back, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, and many more, including a personal favorite, Be My Baby. Today’s mix tapes are called playlists. Young Moderns will be surprised to learn many of the songs they associate with contemporary singers are covers of the originals recorded by someone they might not know. 

The Walkman had no external speaker

People listened privately through headphones, a flashback to the days of crystal radios. Smithsonian says the Walkman launched a cultural revolution, eventually becoming a fashion statement that allowed owners to tune out others and the world around them. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has a Walkman on display. 

Sony Discman 

Along came the Sony Discman, which played compact discs instead of tapes. Product extensions included the MiniDisc Walkman, the Video Walkman, The DVD Walkman, the Memory Stick Walkman, and the Hard Drive Walkman.


With the evolution to smaller, lighter, and ever-more-portable music players came the inevitable backlash. Known in the vernacular of the ‘70s and ‘80s as ghetto blasters, boomboxes gained popularity among those who wanted window-rattling bass notes and big speakers for lots more volume while breakdancing.

Cities began banning boomboxes from public places as a nuisance because they disturbed the quiet of public places. Now breakdancing is an Olympic sport. No word yet if the athletes will bring their own boomboxes.

The MP3 Player

In the 1990s, dozens of companies made MP3 players. These small, handheld devices encoded and compressed digital music that users downloaded from their computers. Back then, MP3 players had a 64-megabit limit for storing music files, which was only about a dozen songs. 


Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, with two breakthroughs. They had what was at the time a massive 5 gigabytes of storage, enough to hold 1,000 songs. iPods also came pre-loaded with iTunes, which made Apple even more billions. The blessing (or the curse if you had a PC) was that the iPod was compatible only with Macs. As technology continued to develop, the iPod (and other MP3 players) gained color screens, touchscreens, and the ability to play video files. With so many people playing music and videos on iPhones, the iPod was discontinued. 


With today’s power, battery life, and storage capacities, the do-it-all smartphone has eliminated the need for a separate music player (or camera, watch, flashlight, etc.).


Historians tell us that boomboxes played a key role in the evolution of Hip-Hop culture. Graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy said boomboxes allowed the young hip kids on the streets of New York to have deep, deafening, chest-thumping bass — the boom. Here’s LL Cool J’s I Can’t Live Without My Radio.

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Essay question

We’ve gone from radios the size of refrigerators to impossibly small music players in 100 years. How will we be listening to music on the go in 2123?

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