One hundred years ago this month, inventors Peter L. Jensen and Edwin S. Pridham shocked locals when they blasted their marvelous new creation -- the loudspeaker — across Napa.
The planet hasn't been as quiet since.
During their brief Napa residency, 1911-1916, they invented the loudspeaker within the walls of a small farmhouse at 1606 F St.
On Saturday, this A-B-C-streets property will be the site for a centennial celebration of Pridham, Jensen and their cutting-edge invention eventually named Magnavox, or “great voice.”
The birthplace of the loudspeaker has changed since 1915. The neighborhood has filled in around the once-rural and isolated farm. The house, that served as the laboratory, has new siding and its porch has been enclosed, but it is still recognizable.
The property has shrunk in size from three parcels to one parcel. Also, the barn that served as the machine shop is gone, as is the outhouse and a small storage building.
This property was selected in early 1911 by Pridham and Jensen’s financial backer, Richard O’Connor. He felt an isolated setting away from the distractions of San Francisco would prove to be a more productive work environment for the inventors.
Joining them in Napa as part of the Commercial Wireless and Development Company team was Carl Albertus as the master mechanic. Together, he and Jensen had emigrated from Denmark to America years earlier. Jensen’s brother, Karl, was also a mechanic while Hugh Sym was their assistant.
Pridham and Peter Jensen, who met while working together in Sacramento, were trying to improve telephone sound quality. They thought they had developed an innovative solution, the Dynamic Coil Principle telephone. Unfortunately, it was unmarketable, which dashed their hopes and tried their stockholders’ patience.
Then, inspired by the passing comment of Ray Galbreath, a local sports enthusiast, Pridham and Jensen devised a way in 1915 to potentially transform their phone apparatus into a possibly profitable amplification system.
The team tested a crude version of a loudspeaker made up of their apparatus connected to a phonograph speaker horn, microphone, transformer and 12-volt battery. This rudimentary system was set up in their F Street laboratory -- the house’s parlor.
This first test was nearly deafening as Jensen explained in his book, “The Great Voice.” He wrote, “When the final connection was made to the terminal of the storage battery, a crack like the report from a gun came out of the horn, followed by a screaming howling noise which was ear-splitting and terrifying.”
He continued: “Pridham shouted at the top of his voice: ‘Disconnect the battery ...’ At this point, the connection was broken, but Pridham was unaware of that, and he finished the sentence by hollering in a deadstill room ‘... before the house blows up!’”
Jensen added, “We didn’t laugh at Pridham’s peculiar sounding warning. We were too perplexed and mystified by the phenomenon we had just witnessed.”
After pausing to ponder and calm down, they discovered what is now common knowledge - feedback caused by placing the microphone and speaker too close together. This was the first of their many surprises and discoveries.
During a second test the system surprised them again by how much it amplified their voices. They then wanted to test its power. While Karl Jensen held the speaker on the roof and faced towards the countryside. Pridham spoke into the microphone as Peter Jensen and Albertus ran to see how far his voice could be heard.
At one mile, they stopped as a cross-wind was distorting Pridham’s voice. Then Jensen chatted while Pridham went out on his bicycle to investigate. They were ecstatic.
A subsequent trial definitely introduced Napa to the loudspeaker as well as caused some confusion. Jensen explained, “We decided one evening, early in our experiments, to make a test, to see really how far we could hear the voice.”
So it was planned that Jensen would go up to the “Cup and Saucer,” an Alta Heights rock formation, to listen for Pridham’s voice. And, if he did hear it, Jensen was to light a bonfire as a signal.
"As it is difficult to think of something intelligent to say for half an hour at a time, Pridham, on this particular occasion, gave an imitation of a wireless conversation such as he remembered it in our old radio days at Stockton and Sacramento,” Jensen wrote.
He continued: “His words were heard all over town when he said: ‘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.’”
Jensen responded by lighting the fire as Napans were astonished by what they had heard and seen. Jensen added, “... it took us weeks to convince them that we had not talked to Sacramento, 60 miles away.”
As the inventors continued perfecting their loudspeaker, they tried broadcasting recorded music. “When these sound broadcasts started, they caused great surprise and wonder,” wrote Jensen. However, they were favorably received by Napans. Frequently, while entertaining Napans with those evening concerts, locals called the inventors with requests.
Some of those broadcasts may have been intended for Pridham's and Jensen’s wives. Both men married young Napa women - Vivian Steves (Jensen) and Hazel Mauritson (Pridham) - and had children.
As for the loudspeaker, with mounting public curiosity, it was officially debuted on Christmas Eve 1915 from the balcony of the new, and current, San Francisco City Hall. That successful demonstration garnered rave reviews from the press and other opportunities to showcase the system - including the Dec. 30, 1915 San Francisco Civic Center dedication and President Wilson’s 1919 speech in San Diego.
By 1919, Pridham, Jensen and the others all had left Napa with the 1916 sale of the F street property. They moved their operation, now Magnavox Co., to Oakland. The company ultimately relocated to the Midwest. Jensen left Magnavox in 1925 to establish his own company while Pridham continued with Magnavox until 1961. Both men remained friends and passed away in the early 1960s.
Over time, Napans forgot about its distinction as Magnavox’s birthplace. In the '80s when Billy Malone, Magnavox’s historian, came to Napa to research and write Magnavox’s early history, he was disappointed it was essentially forgotten by locals.
“But he was delighted we knew the history," said the David Meagher, 1606 F St. owner. "When my parents bought the house in 1970 we knew its importance. But growing up here, it was still just a house, our home.”
"Although now, it is a much bigger deal to me," he added. "In fact, I’ve left the living room open as it was in 1915. It’s something like a museum.”