The Muzak Man
WHEREVER YOU GO, YOU WILL HEAR IT—IN MALLS , airports, supermarkets, even over the telephone. Muzak, with 100 million listeners daily and revenues approaching $200 million a year, is the largest radio station in the world. It can make bored secretaries type faster without realizing it, annoy the most placid souls to distraction, and render the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints” indistinguishable from Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” This ubiquitous technology was invented not by a corporate laboratory or a team of psychological researchers but by a lone individual from another century.
A photograph of Maj. Gen. George Owen Squier, taken in the midst of a protracted legal battle against AT&T, reveals a man of singular Victorian intensities. Between a bowler and a weak chin, a pair of small, ferocious eyes peer out through pince-nez glasses. Matching the severity of his expression is his ramrod posture, the product no doubt of a life in the service but also a clear sign of his determination to prevail at any cost. His hands, though, remain soft and finely articulated.
A contradictory figure in a transitional era, Squier was a kind of renegade insider, a man caught between the call of his imagination and the demands of a rigid command structure. In a just world he would be remembered not as the father of Muzak at all but as the creator of wire-wireless, a technology that helped spawn the myriad permutations of the modern telecommunications industry. As it was, Muzak became his last-ditch effort to assert control over what he had wrought.
Squier was nothing if not prolific. Born in Dryden, Michigan, on March 21, 1865, he attended both West Point and Johns Hopkins University before entering a long career as a soldier-scientist in the U.S. Signal Corps. (Any family or love interests he may have had are completely absent from accounts of his life.) In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, he invented the Synchrograph, which used telegraphy to study the flight of projectiles. Later an interest in heavier-than-air flight led him to champion the efforts of the Wright brothers, and when the time came for them to demonstrate their machine, he was among the first passengers to fly in it. Later still he stood almost alone in supporting the rocket pioneer Robert Goddard.
In 1905, concerned that radio equipment would be cumbersome on the battlefield, he patented a radio antenna that could be fashioned from “living vegetable organisms.” This device, called a floroscope, turned out to be simple enough: Two spikes—one driven into the base of a tree, the other farther up—tapped into the natural conductivity of the trunk. Whether Squier’s floroscope was ever used in combat remains unclear, though similar devices continue to appear in radio magazines to this day.
As Squier requested more and more time off from his normal military responsibilities to pursue his various schemes, he came to be seen as something of a shirker. As an 1894 memorandum sent from the Department of the East to the adjutant general of the Army put it, “Lt. Squier is one of those scientific officers who apparently has no relish for line duties.”
Nevertheless, his wandering imagination had its advantages. A decade into the twentieth century, the telephone industry was fast conquering the mysteries of the long-distance wire. Meanwhile the inventor Lee de Forest was predicting an “empire of the air” in which vast segments of the world population would communicate by radio. But until Squier came along, few gave serious consideration to linking wire and wireless into a single interchangeable system, combining the telephone’s range, resistance to interference, and low power requirement with radio’s ability to travel without wires, transmit multiple signals, and reach multiple recipients. In effect, it would be a new and highly flexible medium.
Like so many twentieth-century inventions, the idea of wire-wireless was driven by military considerations. The Signal Corps recognized the benefits of radio, but no existing apparatus seemed suitable for battle conditions. Field radio sets suffered greatly from interference and could transmit scarcely farther than 20 miles. They also lacked secrecy. Squier suggested that these problems might be solved by sending radio signals over telephone lines. His scheme would also be more efficient for point-to-point communication: Instead of broadcasting in all directions, the signal would be confined to a single path. In addition, it would allow the use of uninsulated wire, unlike a regular telephone system, and would continue to work even if the wire broke. Squier was given $30,000 to explore the idea. He set up shop in 1909 at the Signal Corps laboratory in Washington, D.C. Soon he expanded into a new research facility at the Bureau of Standards, seven miles away, and leased a phone line between the two labs.
At the time, voices traveled through phone lines as fluctuations in alternating current, and no line could carry more than one voice at a time. But as Squier pointed out, “if the frequency of the alternating current is within the radio frequency range, we have what amounts to radio transmission where the radiation is directed along a copper or metallic circuit. … such currents on a telephone line will in no way affect the ordinary telephone receiver.” In other words, he would put a radio signal on a phone line at high radio frequency and not even affect the phone call that might be going on at a low frequency.
On September 29, 1910, he demonstrated this idea—known technically as carrier-current telephony—for his superior, Brig. Gen. James Allen, by communicating between the two labs. Squier showed not only that he could send a radio signal over a wire already carrying a telephone conversation but that by using tuning circuits he could send several radio messages at a time. He recorded the moment in his customary spare military prose: “The severe tests conducted during the afternoon were completely successful.”
The increase in telephone traffic that this technology could permit was important, but more important still was the matrix of new possibilities that arose. With radio and telephony joined, phone calls could be sent through the air, radio signals sent long distance by phone, or even radio signals sent by air to receivers connected by telephone wires. The communications industry was quick to see the magnitude of the achievement. Telephony, Telegraphy, and Wireless magazine called wire-wireless “the greatest advance made in electrical communication since the introduction of the telephone itself.” John Stone Stone, a noted communications engineer, proclaimed that “a new art has been born to us.”
In this flourish of praise, only one sour note was sounded. Under the 1883 patent law then in effect, Squier could have kept the rights to his invention, even though he was a government employee. Alternatively, he could allow the invention to “be used by the Government or any official or employe of the Government in the prosecution of work for the Government or by any other person in the United States.” Squier chose the latter option, which relieved him of paying the normal patent fees.
Stone was as perplexed by this decision as anyone. “Major Squier,” he wrote, “has dedicated to the public his patents relating to this new art—an act which, though laudable in the spirit it displays, is nevertheless unfortunate, as … capital may hesitate to enter a new field and promote an undertaking in which it is led to believe that it will meet with unrestricted competition as the reward for its enterprise.”
Stone needn’t have worried about a lack of industry initiative. When Squier announced his innovation, the telecommunications industry was still in its infancy, but three years later AT&T was on the move. In 1913 it surreptitiously bought the patents for the audion vacuum tube, which had been invented by Lee de Forest and which wire-wireless depended on. The company then joined with the Navy to use wire-wireless to transmit a message from New York City to Virginia by telephone and from there to Hawaii by radio—farther than any human voice had traveled before. By 1918 AT&T felt confident enough to cast doubt on Squier’s priority and cited pre-existing patents of its own to claim exclusive rights to the technology. Within a few years it became clear that radio companies like RCA would have to rely on AT&T’s lines to send their programs any great distance.
Squier was horrified. In making his patents available to everyone, he had overlooked the possibility that they might be monopolized. And so in March 1922, having surprised the world once with his generosity, he surprised it again by taking AT&T to court, on the basis of a purported ambiguity in the patent law. When he received his patent in 1911, Squier had hoped that the government, the military, hobbyists, and small firms would all share in the benefits of its use. In an interview at the time, he said: “Anybody now can use those patents, any person, any Government. They were given unequivocally to the public; they were not assigned to Government use or anything of that kind. No one can build a monopoly of them.” Now, however, Squier saw a huge corporation trying to hog his technology. So he sued AT&T, claiming (rather implausibly, and contrary to his sweeping statement in 1911) that the phrase “any other person in the United States” in the 1883 law referred only to people doing government work.
As Squier’s case against AT&T made its way through the courts, the two sides wasted no time adapting wire-wireless to their own ends. And both, oddly enough, gravitated toward adapting it to the new phenomenon of providing music in the workplace.
World War I had created a kind of proto-Muzak, as department-store and factory managers took up the notion that music could make workers more productive. In 1915 Thomas Edison installed phonographs in a cigar factory. At Westinghouse workers discovered that they did better with music playing. At General Electric management installed pianos in its shops and had them played during business hours.
In response to the growing demand for workplace music, Major General Squier, by now chief signal officer of the Army, had devised yet another method of transmitting radio signals. He unveiled it on March 24, 1922, as he was filing his suit against AT&T. It was an ingenious response to the wire-wireless monster he had done so much to create. Dispensing with telephone lines altogether, he transmitted radio waves over power lines to a radio set plugged into an ordinary wall outlet. No antenna was needed, and in keeping with his penchant for multiplex communications, three or more transmissions could be sent at once without drawing any power away from household appliances.
This time he made no bold gestures to the public. In early 1923 he licensed his new patents to the North American Company, a Cleveland-based enterprise, for use via electric-power lines. Then he looked on with satisfaction as North American issued a stock circular announcing the dawn of a new industry and commenced service in Milwaukee. The arrangement resembled modern-day cable television. A central station received and rebroadcast a variety of programs, with a bill of fare that included news and dance music. Thus did Muzak, then known as Wired Radio, make its appearance in the world.
AT&T, meanwhile, had its parallel schemes. Since the turn of the century, control of radio had been shifting from amateurs to corporations, which increasingly worried about the lack of financial return. Until 1922 advertising was not considered a proper solution because it carried a moral stigma. Companies like Westinghouse, G.E., and RCA planned to broadcast commercial-free as a way to sell radio sets. AT&T could not share in the profits from this arrangement, for its articles of incorporation permitted it to manufacture only transmitting equipment. But this restriction turned out to be an ace in the hole.
Until the advent of satellite and advanced submarine-cable technologies, after World War II, long-distance radio signals had to be sent by telephone lines from a central station to stations in hub cities, where the signals were converted into radio waves for local broadcast. Thus AT&T, presiding master of the telephone line, was in a powerful position in the expansion of radio. Not only could it lease (or refrain from leasing) its phone lines to radio stations around the country, but it could make its own New York station, WEAF, the most competitive in the country. AT&T would make money not by selling radio sets but by selling airtime to companies that would provide programming to wrap around soft-sell ads for their products.
The experiment, known as a toll station, was inaugurated on August 28, 1922, when a spokesman for the Queensborough Corporation delivered a homily about Nathaniel Hawthorne on air and added a brief mention of its latest housing development, which bore the writer’s name. Toll broadcasts followed at other radio stations, and soon companies were rushing to have their employee-based musical groups play on the air— the Remington Typewriter Company Band, the Lucky Strike Orchestra. Music in the workplace suddenly had a new outlet, as product placement. AT&T had turned wire-wireless, and by extension the whole of radio, into a solid money earner. Indeed, the toll-broadcast concept was so successful that by the early 1930s radio stations had dropped all pretense and were broadcasting straight advertisements complete with pitches, prices, and jingles—the same as today.
On September 3, 1924, a federal court in New York City found against Squier. Still struggling to get Wired Radio off the ground, Squier (who had retired from the Army at the end of 1923) appealed the decision, but to no avail. The appellate judge sitting on the case observed: “Pride in the army and his own corps and a very human liking for the ‘limelight’ all produced in Maj. Squier a desire, quite sincere at the time, to do exactly what the subtitle of his patent indicated and have it ‘dedicated to the public.’… Of course, the very existence of this suit shows that the fit of public spirit has passed.”
By 1930 Wired Radio was sending three channels to listeners in the Lakeland district of Cleveland, Ohio, at a cost of $1.50 a month, using electric-power lines. And on Squier’s recommendation, programmed music began to flow into the dining rooms of hotels and restaurants. The company’s good fortunes didn’t last, however. Wired Radio was eventually forced to abandon the power lines, which suffered from excessive interference, in favor of phone lines leased from AT&T. By the early 1930s AT&T had emerged as the undisputed victor in the wire-wireless war.
Squier had been acquiring land around his grandfather’s farm in Michigan since the turn of the century. With his career on the wane, he dubbed his estate the Poor Man’s Country Club and invited the general public to come hunt, fish, or play golf. More than 60,000 visited annually. In this cheerful environment he undertook a history of communications for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Dedicated to the switchboard operators of World War I (“Dip your flag for the telephone girl”), Telling the World imagined a future bejeweled with “radiopolises,” cities founded on the use of radio. Also while at his country getaway, he came up with a new name for Wired Radio. Combining music with that most popular trade name Kodak , he arrived at Muzak.
By this time, however, he was far from the center of the action. While he had conceived of Muzak as a purveyor of news and dance music, his successor as head of the company—Waddill Catchings, a Wall Street investment banker— preferred programming that might appeal to employers by increasing workplace productivity. Soon factories and stores were growing thick with saccharine airs.
Meanwhile wire-wireless was paying off for AT&T, thanks to improvements in both telephone and radio technology. In 1927 it inaugurated the first transatlantic telephone service to London, using two-way radio to carry the calls. A similar service to Hawaii began in 1931, with Tokyo following in 1934. And in 1937 AT&T’s importance in broadcasting was reinforced when it developed a super-high-frequency wire capable of delivering high-definition television images—the familiar coaxial cable. Radio stations eager to get into commercial television happily signed on to lease the new cable lines for long-distance TV transmission. After an interruption for World War II, the television age was under way.
George Owen Squier died of pneumonia on March 24, 1934, and was buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery. Today the air above his grave—indeed the air everywhere—carries untold choruses of voices to or from telephone lines. As for Muzak, one could almost chart the course of the American century by the spaces it has saturated. It calmed stranded elevator passengers when a bomber crashed into the Empire State Building; it wafted through the deserted halls of the United States Embassy after the last Americans left Saigon; it even played in the cabin of Apollo 13 during its ill-fated lunar mission. Only the trees, it seems, await their dispatches in vain.