originally published January 12, 2014
While the world heaps its historical praise upon the Thomas Edisons, the Henry Fords, and the Giordi Lobzhanidzes (he invented the modern garlic press), we forget that for each titan of invention who helped to shape our twisted, wicked world, there are many who remain practically anonymous. I’m not talking about the utterly unsung individuals whose names are forever scrubbed from their legacy and lost to the ages. No, these are names that get heralded on some small scale in their time, but are likely to vanish into the fog of obscurity only one generation later.
I’d wager a flask of Ovaltine and my old Donald Fagen 8-track that no one from my generation is going to pipe up and claim that they remember Earl William “Madman” Muntz.
Blank and unimpressed as your face may presently be upon reading this, the topic of today’s probing kilograph, I would argue that, strange as it may seem, Muntz’s life’s work did have some sort of effect on the world around you. Perhaps it’s a tiny ripple, but isn’t that enough? Wouldn’t we all be tickled to know that the fabric of time continues to quiver from our impact some 24 years after we’ve scooted into oblivion?
Earl Muntz spent most of his life one or two steps ahead of his time. He spent his youth disassembling electronics and learning how they work. He might have followed this passion down an academic freeway, but the Great Depression booted him to the curb and forced him to quit school to work in his parents’ hardware store in Elgin, Illinois. A few short years later, a 20-year-old Muntz was ready to open his first business: a car dealership. He relocated to California once observing that used cars sold there for much more than they’d fetch in Elgin. Then Muntz single-handedly changed the industry.
In the early 40’s, a used car salesman approached his job in a snazzy tie, with professionalism and decorum befitting an honest vocation. Earl Muntz had a head for publicity, and nothing about a quiet businessman was going to draw folks to a car lot. He went on the radio adopting the ‘Madman’ persona. He splashed his face on billboards and became a local celebrity for his boisterous, over-the-top advertisements. It was the same shtick we see today in commercials and have universally determined to be downright obnoxious.
Muntz would pick one car to be his daily special, and announce to his audience that if it didn’t sell that day he’d smash it to pieces with a sledgehammer. He pitched that he’d “buy ‘em retail and sell ‘em wholesale… it’s more fun that way!”. He was such a character that he became comic fodder for comedians like Bob Hope, Steve Allen and Jack Benny – the 1940’s equivalent of popping up in Kimmel/Conan/Letterman/Fallon monologues. People were flocking to his southern California car lots just to see them. A 1946 travel survey by Panner Motor Tours had Muntz’s lots ranked #7 among pre-Disneyland tourist attractions in the area.
#7. That means that after Hollywood stuff and the beach, people came to L.A. to check out a used car lot.
This was the appeal of Earl Muntz. Had he stopped there, his legacy among obnoxious pitch-men would be enough to warrant him a footnote in history. But Muntz branched into the television business next, pouring his extensive knowledge of electronics into re-imagining that industry.
Muntz TVs were quite the phenomenon. Where most sets at the time made use of 30 vacuum tubes and all sorts of complicated innards, Muntz aimed to strip them down to only their essential parts. In fact, the very act of reducing the internal components of any electronic device to its functional minimum is now called ‘muntzing’ in the electrical engineering world. Muntz would famously walk up to one of his employees whom he felt might be over-complicating a particular circuit and start yanking things out. When the screen or sound would go dead, he’d have the employee put the last part back in and leave the rest.
With only 17 tubes delivering an equal picture, Muntz’s TVs were the first sets to retail in the US for under $100. They sold like crazy and helped to fuel the television revolution of the 1950’s. The things wouldn’t work in rural areas, since most of the removed components were meant to increase weaker signals, but in urban areas (where Muntz was happy to focus his business) the public loved them. And as TV spread its footprint around the country, Muntz took his radio act to television commercials, keeping the Madman in the spotlight.
Some say Muntz even invented the term ‘TV’ when his skywriters failed to produce a clear rendition of ‘Muntz Televisions’ in the air. Why not?
Then there was the car.
The Muntz Jet was a high-end sports car that Muntz began producing in 1951, featuring four seats, a snazzy V8 engine and a full cocktail bar in the back (because every car needs one). Unfortunately Muntz was not able to compete with the major companies, and after losing close to $1000 (in 1954 money) on each new unit, he shut down the car-making business after rolling only 400 vehicles onto the road. Muntz Jets have become massive collector’s items.
Where Muntz found greater success was in one specific region of the automobile, tucked into the dashboard. Most every car had a radio, but Muntz developed the Stereo-Pak 4-track tape cartridge, based on the endless-loop Fidelipac cartridges that radio stations used. Prior to this, the only way to listen to your own music in your car was with a record player. No joke, some manufacturers really tried to market this as a workable system, despite the fact that any bump in the road would likely cause your needle to bounce. In fact, this is where Motorola got its name – ‘motor’ + ‘Victrola’ (actually they produced early car radios, but you get the point). So many nifty little bits of tid one acquires while digging into the past.
The 4-track tape players were a huge seller. They featured four mono or two stereo pairs of tracks, and became the primary method for listening to pre-purchased music in 1960’s cars. Sinatra had one, Dean Martin installed one in his Corvette, and Jerry Lewis recorded his scripts onto the 4-track tape to help him learn his lines while driving to the studio. Earl Muntz had struck gold again, though once 8-track tapes took hold of the market by 1970, he had to shuffle over to something else.
That something was big-screen TV and home video. Muntz rigged up a Sony CRT screen with a special lens and a mirror and invented the first projection TV set. He aimed to create a total home theatre experience by selling these alongside Betamax and VHS machines in his store. In the 80’s he began selling cellular phones, offering the first Hitachi cell phone under $1000 retail in early 1985. Just two years earlier those phones cost at least $3000. Muntz died in 1987, but who knows? He might have made a killing predicting the landscape of the internet a few years later.
Earl Muntz may not be a household name, but that is only to the detriment of households everywhere. He reinvented the world of advertising and laid the groundwork for many electronic phenomena during his lifetime. Earl would have turned 100 nine days ago. He deserves a toast in his honor. His legacy… well, it’s INSAAAAAANE!!!!!