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highway hifi, ultramicrogroovey revolution!
October 12, 2009 6:41 PM   Subscribe

Peter Goldmark, developer of early color tv technology, is lesser known for a cooler invention, the Highway Hifi – the first recorded-music player for an automobile. The under-dash system played records provided by Columbia Records which played at 16 ⅔ rpm even when the vehicle was in motion. It was first released with Chrysler models in 1956 but lackluster promotion of the option by both Columbia and Chrysler led to the option being discontinued before the 60s.

More details from Goldmark's autobiography. Goldmark later went on to work with Recording for the Blind to develop small microgrooved records that would play at 8 rpm but that experiment was ultimately abandoned in favor of continuing to record at 16 ⅔ rpm, anticipating the rapid development of tape technology that would render talking book records obsolete. (more on the early Talking Books project)
posted by jessamyn (36 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Did the records play backwards when you drove in reverse?
posted by ...possums at 6:46 PM on October 12, 2009


I hate to admit this, but, when I was a kid, I knew someone that had this... god forbid you hit a bump.

But, damn was that cool!

Then came 8 tracks, then cassette players, then cd players, then MP three players... now...now I'm driving an iCar.....
posted by HuronBob at 6:47 PM on October 12, 2009


Do the records speed up to 45 rpm when you're doing donuts in the snow?
posted by crapmatic at 6:48 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Do the records speed up to 45 rpm when you're doing donuts in the snow?"

If they did, we would have to transfer this discussion to the Chipmunks thread....
posted by HuronBob at 6:56 PM on October 12, 2009


The real reason this failed was because the on-visor record storage, much like today's on-visor CD storage, blocked the driver's view of the road and caused crashes.
posted by Frank Grimes at 6:56 PM on October 12, 2009


The real reason this failed was because the on-visor record storage, much like today's on-visor CD storage, blocked the driver's view of the road and caused crashes.

I heard that the majority of accidents were caused by people trying to scratch while driving.
posted by ...possums at 7:11 PM on October 12, 2009


This photo has inspired me to finally relaunch my so-called recording career, if only to see it as a 12" album cover.

Some cropping required.
posted by philip-random at 8:03 PM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


As a tot, I had a talking Captain Kangaroo doll. As a young adult, I commited the Captain to vivisection to find what made him tick... er, talk. It was a flywheel-driven record player, the interior disc having about a 4" diameter. Pulling the string set the flywheel spinning, and the needle would be precisely but randomly positioned above one of the Captain's phrases, and then lowered against the disc. One supposes the disc must have spun at a custom-low speed. I intuit that my Captain, o my Captain, was a descendant of the disc-based playback cited above.
posted by mwhybark at 8:03 PM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


I remember hearing somewhere that the origin of the company name "Motorola" was a knock-off of this device (or possibly the other way around?). "Motor" + "Victrola" = Motorola.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:04 PM on October 12, 2009


By the way, I love this kind of stuff. Gets you thinking of where the world would be in terms of functional life-enhancing technology if the greatest minds in science + engineering hadn't been mainly focused on weapons systems since ... well, pretty much forever.

You know there'd be hotels on the moon.
posted by philip-random at 8:06 PM on October 12, 2009


Pic of the Captain. He had a removable hat!
posted by mwhybark at 8:06 PM on October 12, 2009


Nah, Motorola started with car radios. There were a lotta old sound equipment companies with that -ola suffix, whether or not they made turntables.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:16 PM on October 12, 2009


Jalopnik.com

Late 70s, early 80s model Datsun vehicles used a miniaturized, ruggedized 3" plastic record with six grooves on it housed in a voice warning module under the dashboard. The record played recorded warnings from each groove, which would warn you if you left your keys in the ignition, the lights or parking brake were left on, if your left or right door was ajar, or your fuel was low.
posted by FireballForever at 8:32 PM on October 12, 2009


Fireball, it's hard to tell from those pix, but that looks suspiciously like the Captainola - all the plastic parts were that similar shade of slightly-translucent white plastic.
posted by mwhybark at 8:56 PM on October 12, 2009


Epic Welk
posted by device55 at 8:56 PM on October 12, 2009


Wait, izzat jonmc?
posted by mwhybark at 9:00 PM on October 12, 2009


I remember a football board game that I had as a kid where, when you decided on your play, you picked a 3"-diameter (approx) disk out (labelled with a set of possible football plays) and you put it in this plastic recordplayer box, and the box would play the record and announce the play. ("End-around! Gain of 5 yards.")

The game was much more fun when the box had fresh new batteries, or very low batteries.
posted by not_on_display at 9:09 PM on October 12, 2009


Awesome, a Datsun with Captain Kangaroo's voice, now there's a thought...
posted by FireballForever at 9:10 PM on October 12, 2009


not_on_display, I have vague recollecions of the advertising for that game. There's a whole hidden history of grooved-disc playback mechanisms, it seems.
posted by mwhybark at 9:13 PM on October 12, 2009


I heard that the majority of accidents were caused by people trying to scratch while driving.

Hey, yo, I'm on the one and the OH FUCK NO THAT'S ACTUALLY THE STEERING WHEEL
posted by middleclasstool at 9:25 PM on October 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


And to think we don't even TRY to use turntables for dj setups on burning man art cars. Clearly we are a bunch of slackers.
posted by flaterik at 9:56 PM on October 12, 2009


Talking books were awesome. I don't know if they still make them. Maybe books on tape or CD or mp3s or something have rendered them obsolete. But in the '70s they were great. Some of my best childhood memories revolve around those slow-spinning records, sitting with my father, listening to books and magazines.

My dad was legally blind, disabled, retired from the military. I'd help him make his selections from the catalog, and a few weeks later, we'd get a book in the mail. The books came in big plastic boxes like shipping containers for movie reels. Inside were a dozen or so vinyl records, labeled in braille. Magazines came in a white cardboard envelope, and they were flimsy plastic sheets, like the gag records they used to bind into Mad magazine.

There was a special record player, with a turntable that spun very, very slowly. I don't remember the precise specs but 8 and 16 RPM sound about right. Books were recorded slower than magazines to take up fewer discs I think.

Of course the amazing thing to me as a kid was, these big packages arrived in the mail, and when my dad was done listening we'd put the records back in the big plastic box, tighten the straps, and put the box back in the mail. No postage. Free! This stuff was free. And it made my dad's life a bit easier. And it gave me a way to connect with him, at least a little.

My father had severe verbal aphasia and tremors and just about the worst case of multiple sclerosis you never want to see. I could never really have a conversation with him. It took me years after he died to get out of the habit of finishing other people's sentences because it took him so long to say anything.

So we couldn't have conversations about who he was, what kind of man he was, or even what kind of stuff he liked. I had to get to know him some other way. Thanks to those slow-spinning records he was able to share his love of learning, his love of reading, his love of books, his love of science fiction with me.

I don't remember individual books, though I listened to a bunch, but I do remember the magazines. And the people who read them. You got to know them by their voices. The same guy would always do Analog, and I can still hear him in my head. "Analog. Science fiction, science fact. June. Table of contents..."

I wish I could thank that guy.
posted by bigbigdog at 10:37 PM on October 12, 2009 [22 favorites]


What is the practical low end limit for a records RPM? It seems like at some point you'd start to lose hi end. 16 seems pretty slow.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:46 PM on October 12, 2009


That's pretty awesome.

What always surprises me, a little anyway, about car audio is that despite all the research and development that's been poured into various technologies for recorded music over the years — ruggedized vinyl, open-reel tape, PlayTape, 8-tracks, compact cassette, CD, and most recently hard drive and solid-state systems — radio has remained probably the dominant medium for in-car entertainment. Sure, it moved from AM to FM, and there's a currently-ongoing (if somewhat halfhearted) move towards digital broadcast, and the receivers themselves have changed over the years, but that's a lot less change than recorded music has seen over the same span.

There are a few things that people want that recorded systems can't deliver — news and traffic information, for instance. Until very recently I would have said that made broadcast radio pretty safe. But with more channels for news (the desktop PCs most of us stare at all day, plus mobile phones) and with GPS devices that receive traffic information in machine-readable formats, digest it, and present it in a much more useful format (a highlighted map) than someone simply rattling off a list of congested roads, I wonder if radio won't finally be given a real challenge.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:51 PM on October 12, 2009


I wonder if radio won't finally be given a real challenge.

No, with such technologies as LTE and WiMax, combined with embeded wireless connections, (about the only product I know that uses this technology now is the Kindle) I think we'll see the car radio (or something somewhat resembling a radio) take off in some pretty interesting directions.

I think it would be pretty cool, for example, to listen to some Norwegian experimental rock station while stuck in traffic in San Francisco, or visa-versa.
posted by eye of newt at 11:05 PM on October 12, 2009


This is a fabulous post, jessamyn! Never heard of any of this until now. Thanks!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:53 PM on October 12, 2009


Checking the list of available titles from the Columbia library... it's heavily weighted toward classical, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, spoken word and middle-of-the-road jazz. I guess the folks at Chrysler assumed there'd be few takers for this player among country fans, blues fans or rock fans (although of course rock was very young at that point).
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:11 AM on October 13, 2009


My mother had one. For Ted Kennedy, she played "High Hopes" which Frank Sinatra had recorded as a campaign song for Jack Kennedy.
posted by Cranberry at 12:27 AM on October 13, 2009


I remember a football board game that I had as a kid where, when you decided on your play, you picked a 3"-diameter (approx) disk out (labelled with a set of possible football plays) and you put it in this plastic recordplayer box, and the box would play the record and announce the play. ("End-around! Gain of 5 yards.")

ABC Talking Monday Night Football. Yeah that game was awesome.
posted by First Post at 12:46 AM on October 13, 2009


This would be the only reason, I would have even bothered to get my driving license. But since this technology died, all drivers in continental Europe have no need to worry.
posted by ouke at 3:36 AM on October 13, 2009


See and say toys also have a tiny little turntable with a mechanical cone amplifier. And they are ubiquitous in thrift stores. For acoustic experimentation, there is great fun to be had with the cone/needle assembly inside, because it amplifies quite nicely without needing electricity.
posted by idiopath at 7:55 AM on October 13, 2009


I thought I remembered hearing about this from History Detectives, and here (pdf) it is. Couldn't find a clip of it though.
posted by sweetmarie at 9:47 AM on October 13, 2009


My grandmother had one in her Chrysler Imperial. We would drive around the streets of Omaha blaring JFK's theme song, "High Hopes" and having a good old time. I guess I was 7 or 8-ish. Good fun!
posted by Lynsey at 9:50 AM on October 13, 2009


An obnoxiously overloaded with ads howstuffworks on the see-n-say, with pix of the guts. Looks like the Captain has relations.
posted by mwhybark at 6:21 PM on October 13, 2009


A little late to the party here, but I spent a long evening digging in my attic last night, based on a vague memory and found this from a 1968 JC Whitney catalog to share. Because a dash system that plays 12 45s back to back was just too cool not to share.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 11:08 AM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


that is too awesome 1f2frfbf.
posted by Mitheral at 5:27 AM on October 15, 2009


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