How the Highway Hi-Fi Record Player Was Invented for Chrysler Products

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This is an excerpt from chapter 9 of the book "Maverick Inventor" by Dr. Peter Goldmark (Copyright (c) 1973 by Peter C. Goldmark and Lee Edson).

Here is the story of how Dr. Goldmark invented the Highway Hi-Fi.  He was the man who headed CBS Labs and also invented the 33-1/3 rpm Long-Playing (LP) record format.



Inventing in Suburbia

"Dad," 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."

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 ultra microgroove. 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," he said. Then he added, "I'm glad you didn't."

I thought that the ultra microgroove 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," he said. "But what about driving on the road?" "You drive," 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?" 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." Everybody else agreed and chanted, "Yes, we must have it."

Actually I didn't know until later that the timing for my innovation was right. Chrysler was then preparing for its annual face-lifting-a model change-and they wanted to focus their advertising on a new development. Our machine was glamorous, novel, and it wouldn't add great expense to the cost of the car. The Chrysler people named it "Highway Hi-Fi" and designed it to fit under the dashboard with a two-way switch, one for radio and the other for records. We agreed that everything would be ready for the 1956 model. We made plans for a spectacular debut and a press showing.

I thought that our new CBS Electronics Division (the Hytron-Air King addition) could manufacture the players and discussed it with Dave Cogan, head of the division. "Sure, Pete," said Cogan, waving a cigar at me. "Sure thing." I wasn't sure what that meant. Columbia Records was interested in supplying records, but only if Chrysler placed an order for 20,000 machines, so they could sell that many records to start with. Chrysler seemed to be willing to oblige. So CBS Electronics went ahead.

All went well until two weeks before the press showing. I was summoned to the phone: emergency call from Chrysler. Something about the installation. I immediately flew to Detroit. As soon as I arrived, the engineer put me inside a car and started driving with the record player on. It was incredible. The machine wheezed, fluttered, groaned, jumped grooves, and made noises I had never heard before. It did everything it was designed not to do. What had happened?

And then I glanced at the dashboard and almost jumped out of my skin. The engineers of the Chrysler Corporation had installed my machine in Dodges and Plymouths. The characteristics of those cars are quite different from those of the Chrysler line. They were lighter and harder riding, for one thing, with different kinds of suspension. Obviously a record player installed in these cars needed a different kind of damping.

Here was a major corporate goof on the part of Chrysler's engineering department. I couldn't call it anything else. There was no reason to believe that any device geared to one type of car had a universal spirit in it that made it happily adjust to all cars.

Back in the laboratory we simulated the vibrational behavior of the Dodge and Plymouth and discovered what we had to do to fit them with our machines. The night before the press affair we were still feverishly at work, but by morning we managed to install our last hi-fl system in the last of several cars to be used in the display.

I must say that the press conference was a success, and CBS Electronics soon went into preliminary production with 18,000 units.

Somehow this nice cultural addition to American autointoxication didn't take off with the kind of sales we had expected. Chrysler carried on interminable meetings with CBS engineers. There were complaints from both sides about the way the record players worked. But the chief underlying reason for the middling response, I think, lay in the fact that Chrysler and Columbia Records failed to do proper marketing by not advising potential customers how to obtain additional records. Dealers failed to stock them, and little or no attempt was made to see that they did.

Without this stimulus to buying, the car buyer didn't order the optional record player in the numbers that we envisioned. Columbia persuaded Chrysler to pay for the initial set of records and phonographs and then grew apathetic, leaving follow-up to Chrysler. Seeing the slow sales, the auto company relaxed its promotion. Ironically, even though the business declined, the record-changer manufacturers were so enamored with the l6 2/3 that they included the new speed in their changers - "so you can take home your Highway Hi Fi" - even though there wasn't a 16 2/3 rpm record in sight.

As a spin-off from the new record technology I developed for the Library of Congress a seven-inch record that plays four hours of spoken word and rotates at 831 rpm. This came into being because of my association with Recording for the Blind, an organization that has brought the beauties of the spoken word into the homes of thousands of blind students. We used the identical tone arm as we did in the automobile, so that it could be pummeled around a bit without distorting the sound.

My wistful hope is still to bring back the past glories of the radio days, so that one can listen to drama, comedy, and stories on one's own portable talking machine, and by so doing remind people that their senses are not related only to the primitive visual ones utilized in TV viewing.



The Boxed Set of records that came with the Highway Highway Hi-Fi contained an eclectic mix of music and drama. The set below contained:

  • CR4 - Romantic Moods (Side 1) & Quiet Jazz (Side 2)
  • CR5 - Music of Cole Porter (Side 1) & Music of Victor Herbert (Side 2)
  • JR3 - Walt Disney's Davy Crockett (Side 1) & Champion (Side 2)
  • MR1 - Tchaikovsky's Symphony #6 in B Minor (Side 1) & Borodin: Polovtsian Dances (Side 2)
  • MR2 - The Pajama Game (Sides 1&2)
  • MR6 - Paul Gregory Presents (Side 1) & Don Juan in Hell (Side 2)
Highway Hi-Fi Boxed Set

Paperwork that came with the set

A Surpising Mix of music on six disks!
Lawerence Welk with the Highway
Hi-Fi in a '56 Dodge

Inserting a record in the Highway Hi-Fi

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