There are few more important inventions in the history of the world than the radio.
While in recent years it may have become less popular than television or the internet, it could be argued that the radio was the first electronic gadget to play a prominent part in people’s lives.
Radio is where the world first heard Britain declare war on Germany, where Orson Welles accidentally fooled the public into believing a real alien invasion was under way in his “War Of The Worlds” serial and where young people first heard Billy Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock,” spreading popular music around the world.
But it is not just an aural medium. Like all important pieces of technology, design has had an essential part to play in its evolution.
An icon of the 20th century
Within the radio’s changing form over the years you can learn plenty about 20th century modern design.
From the giant mahogany chests of the early days to the kitsch Bush models of the 1950s, Panasonic ghetto blasters to chunky Sony in-car stereos and up to today, where radio is so often just an app on a laptop or a phone.
Celebrating this connection between design and radio is a new exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt museum in New York.
Entitled “The World Of Radio,” it tells the story of how the design world impacted this every day item, and the importance of radio in people’s lives.
“Radio really became a way of broadening one’s personal world,” says Cynthia Trope, Associate Curator at Cooper Hewitt. “You could link to the rest of the world through entertainment broadcasts, news broadcasts… almost instantaneously.”
From the offset, the look of a radio was as important as the information they brought into people’s living rooms: “Aside from being just a broadcast system, radio had to have an appeal to the domestic market, because it was used in people’s homes,” says Trope.
“Tabletop radios and larger pieces really had to work within interiors, they had to become part of the environment.”
As times moved on, the look and size of radios changed dramatically with new developments in materials and electronics.
“When they first started they were viewed more in terms of available materials, often in wooden cases, looking back to a historicist style. But by the 1930s, new materials like plastics really played a part. They were tough but they could also be molded, reflecting a modern, streamlined approach to this new technology.”
Linking design and technology
For Trope, the changes in radio reflect not only advances in technology, but also the times, taking influence from architecture and art, as well as scientific developments.
“There’s a wonderful skyscraper radio that dates back to the 1930s. It’s very art deco and really looks towards the architecture of its time for inspiration. There’s also the Sapper & Zanuso TS502 from 1964, which came in all sorts of bright colors. The TR620 portable pocket radio by Sony is a personal favorite, it really reduced the size and made radio a really personal device that could fit in a pocket.”
It’s in these early portable radios, such as the TR620 that you start to see the genesis of much of today’s technology.
“Transistors allowed the miniaturization of these forms, so they could really become personal devices. This goes through to later devices like MP3 players, phones and other really small devices that we carry today. These developments in radio technology really made all that possible.”
As radio becomes little more than an icon on a homescreen, web player, or Soundcloud link, the pieces featured in this exhibition take on a kind of poignancy: relics from an era when entertainment was so often a combination of sound and our own imagination.
“The World of Radio” is on at the Cooper Hewitt museum in New York until Sept. 24, 2017.