This Depression-Era Carphone Was Way Ahead of Its Time

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Today if your car breaks down or you’re in an accident, help is little more than a phone call away. It’s something that many drivers of the 21st century take for granted, what with our Space Age smartphone technology. This automotive safety net, of course, wasn’t available in the 1930s. But one visionary who was known for thinking decades ahead wanted to change all that with a revolutionary idea: the carphone.

In the 1930s, radios were increasingly popular in American cars. So much so that cities and states throughout the U.S. started banning radios because they feared that they were too distracting for motorists. But in 1935 magazine publisher (and sci-fi legend) Hugo Gernsback imagined that these boxes of distraction could be turned into live-saving radiophones—the two-way car radio of the future.

Writing in the June 1935 issue of Radio-Craft magazine, Gernsback painted a picture for readers, explaining that too often people of the 1930s were getting in near-fatal accidents and had no way of signaling for help.

Picture a scene which can be reconstructed from any Monday morning’s newspaper—indeed, almost any newspaper of any day throughout the length and breadth of this country. The driver on the highway, due to carelessness, or due to intoxication, or because he fell asleep while driving, runs into a telephone or telegraph pole, partially demolishing his car. Let us assume in this instance that he has not been killed outright, because not all accidents are fatal. One of the passengers, however has been seriously injured. The accident is on a little frequented road. It will take time to summon help, granting that there are passing automobilists who may have witnessed the accident. If it happens in the daytime, passing cars may be relied upon, of course, to tell about the accident at the next town. However, if the accident happens at night and the car ran off the road where it is not visible, the injured party or parties may lie for hours before they are discovered—and in the meanwhile death may occur!


Gernsback’s solution? Turn all of those radios that were becoming so popular into transceivers—radios that can both receive and send messages.


Curiously, Gernsback thought that the radio set should be positioned underneath the driver’s seat to ensure that it was protected from damage in the event of a crash. Makes you wonder how many more accidents this would’ve caused if the driver tried to change the radio station from such an awkward position.

Suppose, now, that we have the car radio set (a transceiver, or convertible type of set capable of operation as either a transmitter or a receiver, at will) available in working order, (the radio set of the future will not be in the front of the car but will probably be under the seats in the rear compartment so it will stay in operation, unless the entire car is smashed to pieces). Even if the driver or the other passengers of the car are injured to some extent, they still may have the strength to flip a switch and talk into a microphone placed conveniently in some compartment in the front or rear of the car. An SOS is sounded, the car giving directions where the wreck occurred, and in very little time help will arrive at the spot. In addition to occasionally saving lives, it will often save untold suffering, because ambulances may thus be summoned quickly, and in the case of a minor accident, a towing car can reach the wreck with the least possible delay.


But it wouldn’t be so easy at first. Gernsback recognized that the FCC would have to step in and allocate radio spectrum for his transceivers if they were going to be used by the broader public.

In the first place, a special wave- length for automobiles must be set aside by the Federal Communications Commission. This must be a frequency below 6 meters; preferably, such a frequency where the effects of the broadcast transmission are ineffective beyond the horizon, or, let us say, within a radius of 20 miles or less. The reason for this is obvious. If you choose a higher wavelength, then the SOS will go out indiscriminately over a very large area and the result would be that too many wrecking cars or ambulances might be summoned. By choosing the correct frequency, however, only a few miles will be effected. The power of the “transceiver” should be such that it need not reach more than about 10 miles. This should be sufficient for all ordinary purposes. (The transmitter must be crystal-controlled so that communication is only possible in this particular channel.)


Gernsback believed that it was simply a matter of creating a dedicated frequency for emergencies that all service and gas stations could keep tabs on. Should they get a call, a tow truck or ambulance could be dispatched immediately.

Every service station in the country would then have in continuous operation a special short-wave receiver tuned only to this frequency. Any incoming call could, therefore, be heard and the attendant would immediately know where the accident occurred. (If he believes that another service station is nearer he will not go for help, unless the call is repeated within ten or fifteen minutes.)


Gernsback finished his argument for two-way car radios as a standard feature in the cars of tomorrow by pointing out that the idea, while futuristic, was entirely practical. They could be installed the very next day in every car in the country. And he was right! Police departments around the country implemented car radios for dispatch not long after.

But simply having the technology available often isn’t enough. Certain political, financial, and social hurdles need to be addressed before anything revolutionary can be adopted by the broader public. It doesn’t matter how great your tech is if the FCC doesn’t grant the spectrum, or if the gas station owners don’t equip themselves with transceivers, or if people find installing your fancy new carphone too expensive.


Whether it’s carphones or Hyperloops or flying cars, figuring out the tech is often (relatively speaking) the easy part. As every great inventor eventually learns, getting your vision into the hands of ordinary people can take generations—and strangely can be as much about figuring out political solutions as technical ones.

Images: scanned from the June 1935 issue of Radio-Craft magazine