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Dead medium: Chrysler's Highway Hi-Fi, pt. one
From: (Richard Kadrey)

Source(s):; Maverick Inventor by Dr. Peter Goldmark; 1973; published by Peter C. Goldmark and Lee Edson; chapter nine (page numbers unknown)

Chrysler's Highway Hi-Fi

The Highway Hi-Fi could be found in Chrysler automobiles from 1956 to 1959. It was developed by Peter Goldmark and manufactured by CBS Electronics with special 16-2/3 rpm records from Columbia. Goldmark's account of his invention is a chapter in his 1973 book Maverick Inventor, and the excerpt How the Highway HiFi Was Invented is on the comprehensive Imperial Home Page with pictures and factory literature and a list of record titles on the 1956 to 1959 Made by Columbia page. Another version that played 45 rpm records was manufactured from 1960 to 1961 by RCA.

After developing the LP microgroove in 1948, Goldmark made an ultramicrogroove record with over 1000 grooves per inch. Slowed to half the speed of the 33-1/3 LP, a 7-inch ultramicrogroove record could play for an hour. Goldmark drove a Chrysler car and after a demonstration to Chrysler officials it was decided to call it the Highway Hi-Fi9 for the 1956 models. According to the official Chrysler press release of September 12, 1955, Highway Hi- Fi plays through the speaker of the car radio and uses the radio's amplifier system. The turntable for playing records, built for Chrysler by CBS-Columbia, is located in a shock-proof case mounted just below the center of the instrument panel. A tone arm, including sapphire stylus and ceramic pick up, plus storage space for six long-play records make up the unit.2


This is an excerpt from chapter nine of the book Maverick Inventor by Dr. Peter Goldmark:


Dad,9 Peter suddenly blurted out. Why don't they have adventure stories on the radio? Something you can put on yourself. This stuff can be so boring.9

Well, why not? How many times has one felt the agonizing boredom on long trips, the irritating fights between brother and sister, as young minds and bodies start to feel cramped? I suppose I could have dropped the idea and gone on to the things that were of more immediate concern at CBS, but I kept thinking of my son's question.

When I got back to work, I started to wonder how much information one can put on a small record for use in a car without a changer. The answer, it turned out, is easy to figure. To give us forty-five minutes of playing time on a side, as much content as both sides of an LP, and to give us a record small enough to fit with its mechanism inside the glove compartment, the record would have to be seven inches in diameter and would have to revolve at 16 2/3 rpm, one-half of the LP speed. In addition it required almost three times the number of grooves per inch as did the LP.

I talked it over with my colleagues. I never know whether they're affected by my enthusiasm or by the idea itself. I generally try to restrain the excitement that surges through me so that my associates won't feel they are being dominated by my ideas, which I must admit sometimes may seem to go far beyond immediate realizations. In any case they liked the notion of playing records in an automobile, and they seemed to mean it.

So we got to work immediately. Our earlier experience with the LP stood us in good stead, and in just six months we developed the narrowest microgroove in the business, the ultramicrogroove. It was one-third the width of a human hair. The fidelity was superb.

It was time to show it to Stanton. I told him I had a gift for him and installed a custom-designed player in the glove compartment of his jet- black Thunderbird. He loved it. I thought you'd given up the idea,9 he said. Then he added, I'm glad you didn't.9

I thought that the ultramicrogroove record turntable might not only work in an auto, but also might become a standard in the record business if radio stations went into broadcasting pop music, which generally comprises short numbers. Remembering the earlier interest of Murphy and others at CBS in the seven-inch record, I proposed it to management. Paley didn't think much of this market; in fact, he didn't think pop music was a market at all. He also felt that record players installed in cars might cause drivers to turn off the radio to listen to records, and thus CBS would lose listeners. I must confess that I didn't think the world would suffer if car drivers occasionally turned off The Shadow and listened to Debussy.

Here is another case where I couldn't allow my enthusiasm to be dampened by management's negativism to new ideas. I decided to go ahead on my own and to see how far I could get with the automobile installation. Since I was then driving a Chrysler, I thought the Chrysler Corporation might be interested in the device, and got in touch with a man named Kent, who was the company's chief electrical engineer.

A ruddy-faced, middle-aged man who was then pioneering air conditioning in automobiles, Kent was interested in new ideas and invited me to Detroit. When I arrived, I told him I had something in my car that he just had to see. Curious, he agreed to go with me to the parking lot. Inside the car, I turned on a switch. The music came pouring out of the loudspeaker of the car radio, clear, beautiful, and static-free.

Kent was startled. I opened the compartment and showed him the setup. He looked at the strange, homemade tone arm on the player and shook his head. It's fine while you're parked,9 he said. But what about driving on the road?9 You drive,9 I said, offering him the keys.

He slipped behind the wheel, put the car in drive, and slid down the highway. The music continued to pour out faithfully. Then he turned into a lot and stopped. Do you mind?9 be asked, pointing to a field ahead.

I looked at a spot of land that must have been created out of an auto engineer's nightmare. There were cobblestones, potholes, washboard earth formations, trestles, and almost any other strange irregularity one could find. This was Chrysler's testing ground, he told me, where new models were jolted up before they were sent to distributors. My heart sank. I consoled myself with the thought that if the machine is properly balanced, nothing can throw it off. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but worry.

Kent shot the car over the trestles, but there was not even a waver in the sound. He ran over cobbles, skidded past wash-boards, climbed up and down small, jutting mounds. Still the music came forth, loud and undisturbed. Kent was impressed and immediately said he would demonstrate the set to the president of Chrysler. One thing I learned later was that each set of cobblestones had its own frequency of vibration when in contact with the moving car, so I later had to design a filter that worked for more possibilities of vibration than I had ever thought of.

Several days later we went down to the Chrysler garage, where several people joined us. We all piled into one of the executive cars, which had been outfitted with one of my sets. Lynn Townsend, who later became president of the auto company, sat in back with me while the then president of Chrysler drove. The executives gave the tone arm the same test as before-over cobblestones, around curves, over washboard roads, slowing down, speeding up, even emergency stops. The jolts were incredible. But so was the record player. Nothing could stop it from carrying out its appointed mission. I, on the other hand, was getting sick.

With music filling the air, the president wheeled the car into the company garage. Townsend turned to me and said, I must have it for the Chrysler.9 Everybody else agreed and chanted, Yes, we must have it.9 2