Photo and collage by the author.
There’s the car, of course, perhaps the most successful attempt at an American microcar. But there’s also the anti-baldness device, the proximity fuze, the refrigerators, the electric newspaper, and the radio empire: All inventions and innovations from the fertile mind of Powel Crosley, and many of which will form the first permanent exhibition dedicated to the Cincinnati-based inventor.
“He was kind of part Einstein, part Edison, and part P.T. Barnum,” said Jack Dominic, executive director of the Voice of America Museum in West Chester, Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati.
Today, he’d more likely fall under the title of serial entrepreneur. A tinkerer from early on, he sketched automobile designs as a boy and dabbled in the auto industry as a young man but found success in 1916 as a direct-mail auto parts and accessories retailer, success that would lead into perhaps his most significant innovation: a radio that even the common man could afford.
By the early Twenties he became the world’s largest radio manufacturer. Accordingly, Crosley built the world’s largest radio transmitter to broadcast his own AM radio station, WLW, and he purchased the hometown Cincinnati Reds to have something to broadcast on WLW. Not until the late Thirties – after inventing the shelves-in-the-door refrigerator, the Icyball non-electric refrigerator, the Xervac hair restoration device, the Reado newspaper transmitter, and about 100 other devices – did he decide to return to his dream of designing and building an automobile with the eponymous Crosley.
Nor did Crosley stop innovating during World War II. His proximity fuze benefited the Allied military strength, but he also gave the Allied cause a powerful tool by helping launch the Voice of America broadcasting system.
“Powel Crosley pioneered the construction of high-powered transmitters – he broadcast at 500,000 watts for WLW,” Dominic said. “So when the feds wanted to find somebody who understood the complexities of high-powered transmitters, they came to Powel Crosley. The VOA wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”
Crosley got the contract to build and operate the VOA’s first transmitter and thus placed it adjacent to the WLW transmitter, housed in an art deco building now known as the Bethany Station.
While Voice of America continues to broadcast news internationally today, the Bethany Station transmitter was decommissioned in favor of satellites in 1994. Since then, according to Dominic, the non-profit Voice of America Museum’s foundation has worked to establish the museum in the 30,000-square-foot building. “In the last five years, we’ve made great progress,” he said.
However, while researching the history of the building and Powel Crosley’s contributions to the VOA – prompted in part by the questions visitors to the museum have about the nearby WLW transmitter – Dominic said he discovered that no definitive exhibit on Powel Crosley and his inventions exists.
According to Crosley expert Jim Bollman, the closest thing to such an exhibit would be the collection of Paul Gorrell, which Gorrell opens to the public by appointment. Other Cincinnati-area museums either have or are slated to have similar exhibits, though on a temporary basis.
The museum will kick off the Powel Crosley exhibit September 23, the anniversary date of the opening of the Bethany Station and the date of the museum’s fundraiser celebrating the 75th anniversary of the VOA. While Dominic said the museum does not have a Crosley automobile to include in the exhibit (“I’m not sure if the budget will allow for that,” he said), he is working to negotiate a quasi-permanent loan of one to the museum, and several will be on hand for the fundraiser.
For more information about the VOA Museum, visit VOAMuseum.org.