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Legends: Elmer H. Wavering

Radios in cars. The idea was music to Elmer Wavering’s ears.

November 16, 2007

A tinkerer from the time he could walk, Wavering had already built his first radio at age 14, in 1921, shortly after graduating from grade school. Three years later, he and friend Bill Lear cobbled together their first car radio, however the vehicle’s ignition switches, generators, spark plugs, etc., produced electrical interference that hurt sound quality and reception. Wavering, along with Lear and Paul Galvin, another radio manufacturer, set out to mass produce the car radio while better electrical systems would eliminate the interference. Lear had actually met Galvin at a Chicago radio convention and told him about Wavering’s desire to build a mobile radio. Galvin invited Lear and Wavering to scratch-build such a device and install it in his Studebaker.

Wavering’s radio cost $110 and buyers installed it themselves. It contained vacuum tubes and a speaker and was mounted under the dashboard. The radio would be commercially introduced on September 1, 1930. The company’s name, Motorola, was the combination of “motor” and “Victrola.” In 1934, Galvin and Wavering worked together to lead Motorola’s car radio and police two-way communications business. Following the Second World War, Wavering became vice president of Motorola’s automotive products division and went on to pioneer many other inventions including the alternator, which replaced the generator. Wavering went on to become president of Motorola and achieve many other things before retiring in 1972. Wavering later led the effort to produce the radio used by the Apollo astronauts when they communicated from the moon. He was selected as a member of the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1989. But he was most proud of something that gets him little recognition: the invention of the automotive alternator that provides power for many of the complex vehicle systems we take for granted today.

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