Filling The Air With Music

“BRANDY” Point of Sale display for C. Brandes headphones. American, c. 1923

The ‘Sarnoff speaker’ is considered the rarest, most exotic, and expensive horn receiver in existence today. Considered too valuable to reproduce, this beautifully crafted speaker has a permanent home at the SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention. The remarkable story of how this one-of-a-kind speaker came into existence, and how the Museum ultimately acquired it, begins at the turn of the 20th century, with the first radio receivers.

The first radio listeners often wore two, low-resistance telephone earpieces connected by a wide leather strap, creating the world’s first headset, or now commonly referred to as headphones. Nathaniel Baldwin is commonly credited with inventing the first practical headphone (1910). A fine example is C. Brandes Inc.’s “Superior Matched Tone” Headphones, New York, USA “For Land, Sea and Air!” This superior headset incorporates a unique driver system that amplified sound with a clarity that became an industry and US Government standard. Headsets were already sold to thousands of switchboard operators, but as broadcast stations began to pop-up all over the country, and radio became available everywhere, radio enthusiasts lined-up for this necessary component. But even with improved fidelity, many Americans felt limited and tethered by their headsets.

It seemed only natural to share the experience of radio with others, and soon entire families were listening off a single headset by placing it in a wooden bowl or cardboard box to amplify the volume. Legend has it that someone over at Magnavox corporate headquarters accidentally dropped a telephone earpiece inside a horn of an Edison Amberola Cylinder Phonograph and the voice emanated with such volume that it could easily be detected two blocks away. (So the first horn speakers were little more than an amplified telephone receiver laid flat and used as a base for a horn or cone.) This event launched Magnavox into the public address loudspeaker business and soon rooms-full of people everywhere were listening and dancing to the sounds of a single radio.

Family gathered around a radio with headsets

By the 1920s radio was big business and it seemed as though everybody was trying to get in on the phenomena. Americans with little or no experience producing radio equipment suddenly flooded the market with a creative array of speakers. Most were not successful. Many of the existing horn speakers from that era are one of a kind, and some are truly amazing.

Sea-Tone loudspeaker Tonks Brothers, Newark, NU Made with an
authentic seashell. American, c. 1925

Certainly one of the most inspiring examples from the period is the Seatone speaker, made by the Tonk Brothers of New York. Rumored to have mastered their trade making manhole covers, in Yonkers, this is their first and only known attempt at producing a horn radio speaker—but what an attempt it is! The Seatone is 26 inches of heavy brass, cast in the shape of a woman standing barefoot at water’s edge, holding above her head an actual seashell, where the sound “flows-out”. Yet as hard as they tried, the American designers and manufacturers failed to match the fine, Old World craftsmen of Europe. One need only glance at the Museum’s display of European radios and receivers from the 1920s to realize how imaginative and skilled their creators were.

Here we see scores of beautifully crafted horn-type speakers in all shapes and guises: There’s the lavish serving bowl forged out of a polished silver, a charming hand painted floor vase, even a jade green glass shaped like a Chinese philosopher—all fully operational radio speakers. The English, French and Czech’s were making more than just good radio equipment, they were producing fine works of art, and everyone knew it, including Mr. Sarnoff.

Collection of 1920’s speaker horns from the SPARK Museum’s collection
Copyright: © The Estate of Yousuf Karsh

In 1924, David Sarnoff was president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and later became the founder of the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). He was considered the most powerful and influential character in the history of radio, and color television. Often compared to Caesar, Patton, and Captain Ahab, Sarnoff became the very definition of the cigar chomping mogul, and characterized in countless books and films.

That same year, Sarnoff commissioned a group of artisans in Czechoslovakia to construct the two most beautiful and unique horn speakers imaginable. The idea was to produce an appealing, ultra-high-end speaker for serious audiophiles, AND, collectors of unique art. Upon completion, the two speakers were sent to Sarnoff along with the estimated cost to produce them.

What Sarnoff saw was like nothing attempted before or since. The taller of the two prototypes stands at just over 2 feet. The horn is a straight, classic gooseneck design and a seamless blend of wood, brass and metal. Hundreds of minute, cut-glass beads are set in swirling arcs and accented with mother of pearl. The Sarnoff speaker is made with the kind of detail and symmetry that make this the rare instrument it is. One can only imagine Sarnoff’s face when he first saw the speakers. It’s much easier to guess his look when first seeing the bill.

Sarnoff Speaker from the SPARK Museum’s collection

The cost was staggering, even for Sarnoff, who immediately realized the speakers were too impractical to reproduce or sell to the American market, no matter how beautiful or well made. The speakers remained in storage at RCA for over fifty years, until discovered by Ralph “Doc” Muchow, a Midwestern dentist, and one of the world’s premier radio collectors.

The Sarnoff speakers were displayed in the Muchow Museum until 2001 when Muchow died, and the speakers were sold at auction. The taller, more valuable ‘flute’ speaker was purchased by the Museum’s co-founder John Jenkins. The speakers featured in this article—along with many, many more—are on display in the Museum’s extensive galleries.

There’s nothing like experiencing this remarkable collection in person, less than an arm’s length away.