Ask a Librarian: Magnavox Loudspeaker

Just what is the Magnavox Loudspeaker anyway?

May 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the invention of the Magnavox Loudspeaker. Edwin S. Pridham and Peter L. Jensen, two Danish inventors, lived in a house at 1606 F Street here in Napa from 1911 to 1916, and worked tirelessly to craft and perfect their creation. Carl Albertus, Hugh Sym, and Peter’s brother Karl also assisted them in the little house, as did the two Napa women they wed; Peter married Vivian Steves, and Pridham Hazel Mauritson.

The first time Edwin Pridham and Peter Jensen tested the loudspeaker, they triggered a deafeningly loud shriek and a crack that sounded like gunfire – what is now called “feedback” and is caused by having the microphone and speaker too close together. The subsequent tests went much better. Jensen and Carl Albertus, one of their lab assistants, ran all over town waving their arms to let those back at the lab know when they could hear the sounds. They added a second speaker and Jensen waited at the top of Cup and Saucer Hill as Pridham spoke loudly and clearly, “Hello, Sacramento, hello, Sacramento. Can you hear me? How is my voice coming in? Do you hear me clearly and distinctly? Hello, Sacramento. If you can hear me, start your bonfire.” Napans all over heard the mysterious voice booming from the heavens, and it wasn’t long before locals were calling the house requesting music.

By 1919 the Magnavox Company had relocated to Oakland, and later moved to the Midwest. Today, the house is privately owned. Napa honored the Magnavox invention a number of years ago with the installation of a sculpture of the loudspeaker in Dwight Murray Plaza downtown. On May 8, 2015, NCHS will celebrate the centennial in our Annual Meeting.

As it happens one of our volunteers here at NCHS has an interesting family connection to Pridham and Jensen:

According to a long-lost news article I found in the Napa Register about five years ago, Edwin Pridham and Peter Jensen purchased certain supplies locally while inventing their moving-coil loudspeaker.  Records and, most likely, Victrola parts were purchased from my grandfather’s brother, Samuel J. Delaney, proprietor of Delaney’s Cyclery and Record Shop.  Delaney, a local piano tuner and musician, operated his business from about 1914 to 1921, originally at 219 First Street and, by 1920, at 9 N. Coombs Street, Napa.

Check out this gallery of rare photos of the Magnavox Company and Peter Jensen.