The Prolific Inventor That the World Has Mostly Forgotten
We learn at an early age that Ben Franklin was America's first great inventor; Henry Ford invented mass production, Thomas Edison the light bulb and the phonograph, and the Wright Brothers invented the first airplane. These men, and a few others, are well remembered and honored for their spectacular achievements. Their legacies are tribute to their genius and the possibilities available to any American willing to exploit our capitalist system that honors and rewards innovation.
One of the 20th century's greatest inventors, businessmen and philanthropists was a Cincinnati-born and reared serial entrepreneur named Powel Crosley. Mr. Crosley dreamed of building the world's first great compact car company, but he failed in this endeavor. However, he succeeded spectacularly at every other business challenge he undertook.
After dropping out of college to pursue his obsession with automobiles, Crosley started the Marathon Six Automobile Manufacturing Company in 1907. He quickly failed. He immediately made several more attempts to produce a commercially-viable automobile, including a cyclecar. These efforts were for naught as well. In 1916 he enjoyed his first success by launching the American Automobile Accessory Company. His products were soon carried by Sears and other major retailers. Working closely with his brother Lewis Crosley, Powel began to branch out and started to make popular phonograph cabinets that sold very well.
In 1920, the consumer products that Crosley's companies sold began to be supported by a "money back guarantee". This was a breakthrough and was consistent with Mr. Crosley's passion for providing the very best product at the best possible price. Customers immediately gravitated to the Crosley items sporting the "money back guarantee".
In the 1920s, radio was the new rage. Mr. Crosley's young son had requested that he be given a radio. Crosley visited the Shillito Department Store in Cincinnati to satisfy his sons wish. He was shocked when he learned that the radios of that day cost over $100. This was the impetus for Crosley to mass produce radios. He hired two co-op students from the University of Cincinnati and they designed the Harko model radio. This product was introduced to the public and became an immediate success. By 1924 the Crosley Radio Corporation was the largest radio manufacturer in the world.
In 1925 the Crosley Radio Corporation introduced the Crosley "Pup" a small one-tube radio set that retailed for $9.75. The branding icon that Crosley used to identify the "pup" was a cute rendering of a dog named Bonzo. Bonzo was redrawn wearing a radio headset and that image became one of the most famous advertising images of that time. Today, a papier-mache replica of Bonzo is on display at the Smithsonian Institute and original examples of the "Pup" are highly prized by collectors.
Now that Crosley was immersed in radio, he quickly came to realize that the new medium would require greatly expanded programming options for listeners. Once again, the deeply curious Powel Crosley undertook the task of creating a broadcasting platform source for producing entertainment. In 1922 WLW went on air as the flagship radio station for Crosley Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The station's signal was a whopping 50 watts.
Over the next six years CBC increased WLW's signal to 50,000 watts. Mr. Crosley correctly surmised that the more powerful the station's signal, a larger audience could be reached and more radio sets would be sold. Gradually the station built its signal strength to over 500,000 watts; however, the government stepped in and made the CBC scale back to a maximum 50,000 watt signal.
The massive reach of WLW made it truly the "nation's station". As the station prospered it became one of the largest producers of original programming in the world. Doris Day, Andy Williams, Red Skelton, Fats Waller, the McGuire Sisters, Rosemary Clooney and the Mills Brothers were only a few of the talents that were launched on WLW. In association with Procter and Gamble, Powel Crosley developed the first radio soap operas and they became hugely popular.
In the 1930s Powel Crosley expanded into electrical appliances. He always re-invested his profits in his own businesses, and as a result was not heavily invested in the stock market when it crashed in 1929. This enabled his businesses to come through the Great Depression in better shape than other industrialists.
Crosley's first appliance innovation was the Icyball, a kerosene powered cooling chest. He sold hundreds of thousands of units. Next Crosley patented the original idea of putting shelves in refrigerators. His Shelvador refrigerators became one of the best selling models in the country.
In 1934 Crosley bought the Cincinnati Red Legs major league baseball team. He pioneered the sale of radio sponsorships for team broadcasts and prevailed on the commissioner to allow night baseball games for the first time. Night games greatly improved the team's finances by increasing attendance and the radio audience for game broadcasts.
By the late 1930s Powel Crosley had migrated back to his first love; manufacturing automobiles. In 1939 he launched his new small car to the public by selling the vehicles through independent appliance dealers and department stores. The diminutive Crosley car sold for about $325, sported a chubby body, was powered by a two cylinder engine and weighed all of 900 pounds. The onset of World War II, unfortunately put a stop to all auto production.
During the war years most industrial production in the United States was devoted to war materials. Crosley was again in the vanguard. His companies produced a wide range of products essential to fighting the conflict. Among the most important was the "proximity fuse" which Powel Crosley continually improved. After the atomic bomb and radar, the proximity fuse was considered the third most important produced during the war years. General George Patton said, "the funny fuse won the Battle of the Bulge for us".
After the successful conclusion of the war, Powel Crosley immediately went back into automobile manufacturing. He reintroduced his small Crosley car which he had improved significantly by the introduction the disc brake which he invented. Over 75,000 Crosleys were sold before production was halted in 1952.
Powel Crosley provided jobs, creative opportunity and inventive products for millions of people. His innovations saved lives, created new industries, inexpensively entertained the public and improved daily life. It is unfortunate that he is largely forgotten and unstudied today. His is a tale of American genius and self-made success. Entrepreneurs should acquaint themselves with the breadth and depth of Mr. Crosley's achievements.
Author: Geoff Ficke
This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 12th, 2010 at 11:07 am.