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January 21, 2003

A public radio commentary

My wife, Amy, and I are sitting outside our favorite restaurants waiting to be called for brunch. Now, as we enter, you'll hear something that G.K. Chesteron, the great British journalist and grump, called the worst feature of modern life. He called it "monstrous and ominous", and said it indicated "moral chaos."

That's us. Listen carefully as we enter and you'll hear Chesterton's nemisis. There it is: A MUZAK version of Simon & Garfunkel's "Feeling Groovy." Chesterton's "moral chaos" was music that was piped in while eating at a restaurant. Yet, to me this is MUZAK to my ears, because it's the work of a fellow engineer: George Squier.

To invent MUZAK, Squier fused, in the 1920s, long distance telephone service and radio technology.

He invented a way to broadcast radio signals down a telephone line, but let the telephone calls still take place - something called carrier transmission.

To capitalize on his invention Squier created Wired Radio, a nationwide broadcast of music and public service announcements.

Squier used one central station to create his broadcasts, then transmitted them via phone lines across the nation to his stations, which broadcast them locally. He charged customers eleven cents a day for the service, yet Squier's company nearly failed.

When he patented his invention, he chose to allow any US citizen to use it. This let AT&T, which dominated the phone lines, use the technology to help others compete with Squier's Wired Radio.

To overcome his rivals Squier invented a brand name for his broadcasts. He combined the word "music" with the most popular trade name of the time, Kodak, to come up with Muzak (M-U-Z-A-K). Squier thought of Muzak as a mix of news and dance music, but when he retired, his successor, a Wall Street banker, changed the format.

The banker learned that Westinghouse and General Electric used music to increase their workers output, so he repackaged Muzak to be piped into factories - and eventually into every nook and cranny in America. Muzak was even played in the Apollo Thirteen space module during its time of troubles.

Today Muzak is still around with eighty million listeners. And what of Major George Squier's method of putting two signals down a single wire - that carrier transmission?

Well, in addition to the music I hear right now, its also used today to bring 500 television channels into your house on a single cable. I'm Bill Hammack.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises