Over the last two years or so, we in conjunction with the Archbridge Institute have produced a series of “long-form” biographies of great entrepreneurs.  Each of these runs five to seven thousand words and takes twenty to thirty minutes to read.  In this week’s newsletter, we’re testing something different – a “bullet biography” which will only take a couple of minutes of your time.  Pictures are below the story.

When I recently told a friend the story of Powel Crosley, Jr, she said, “Why haven’t I heard of this guy?”  To which the answer is, “There are tens of thousands of entrepreneurial men and women we’ve never heard of, who shaped our lives.”  Check out the life of my “old friend,” the incredibly innovative Powel Crosley:

  • Born in 1886 to a successful Cincinnati lawyer and his wife
  • Is followed by three siblings, including younger brother Lewis who helps carry out Powel’s dreams for their entire working lives
  • Tinkers with automobiles at an early age, dreams of being a race car driver and an automaker
  • Drops out of college after dabbling in law and engineering
  • Sells cars and works for automakers in Indiana to learn the business
  • “Almost” drives a race car in the Indianapolis 500
  • Prospers in the auto accessory business, selling “add-ons” that did not come with the car
  • Age 34, 1921: wants to buy a toy radio for his son, but finds they cost $100 ($1500 today); buys a twenty-five-cent book about radio instead
  • He and son build their own radio, then he hires university-trained engineers to design a cheap radio
  • By the end of 1921, the Crosley “Harko” radio is offered to the public for $7
  • By 1925, radio takes off and Crosley is one of the world’s largest radio makers, possibly #1
  • Powel and his brother become wealthy; Powel owns fishing islands, hunting preserves, and mansions in Ohio and Florida 
  • Realizing that having a radio station would help sell radios, the Crosleys launch WLW radio station in Cincinnati, at first 500 watts of broadcast power, then 1000, 5,000, 10,000; Crosley also does early television experiments
  • WLW reaches 50,000 watts, one of the relatively few “clear channel” stations in the nation
  • WLW reaches much of the Eastern United States, develops unique programming like Ma Perkins and overnight music show Moon River; nicknamed “the Nation’s Station”
  • In 1934, WLW technicians boost power to 500,000 watts, the most powerful station in the world; can be heard in South America and Europe
  • Also in 1934, seeking more content for WLW, Powel buys the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, which was broke and about to leave Cincinnati, leads the way in live sports broadcasts
  • In 1935, Reds have the first night-time baseball game, under the lights and on the radio from Crosley Field; game attendance then booms and other teams adopt night games and radio broadcasts
  • After five years, in 1939, pressure from smaller stations leads FDR and federal government to make WLW come back down to 50,000 watts
  • Throughout the 1930s, Crosley’s company adds other appliances; invents and patents the “Shelvador” – the first refrigerator with shelves inside the door
  • Crosley dabbles in making airplanes, without success
  • At the 1939 Indianapolis 500, his company launches the Crosley car, the first real compact car (top speed 50 mph, 50 miles per gallon fuel efficiency, 80-inch wheelbase, and 39-cubic-inch engine); 5,700 are sold by the onset of WW II
  • In World War II, Crosley becomes a major defense supplier, making 150,000 radio sets, bomb fuzes, military vehicles, and many other key items
  • During the war, the government uses Crosley technology to broadcast our messages to Europe from Cincinnati; just before the atom bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, government prepares to ship WLW’s 500,000-watt transmitter to Asia, but it is not needed
  • In 1945, fifty-eight year old Crosley is bored with radio and sells his station and appliance businesses to Avco Corporation, former owner of American Airlines
  • But he believes in his economical little car; his new 1946 “CC” model sells for $850 ($11,300 today)
  • Crosley Motors is the first American car company to use disc brakes on all models
  • In 1948, Crosley sells almost 25,000 cars
  • As General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler clinch their domination of the US auto industry, Crosley gives up in 1952 after selling about 84,000 cars (now collectors’ items).  Owners now or then include Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Swanson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Nelson Rockefeller, and Boy George.
  • Powel Crosley, Jr., dies in 1961 at the age of seventy-four
Crosley Radio Factory, Cincinnati

There is a lot more flesh and detail available on this fascinating story, most easily found in the biography Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire that Transformed the Nation, by Rusty McClure, David Stern, and Michael Banks.

If you like this story of an unsung innovator, we have a few thousand more on our to-do list!

Gary Hoover

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