Today, a story about altruism and Muzak. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
When I was assigned to work
on communications equipment at Fort Monmouth's
Squire Lab in 1954, I vaguely wondered who Squire
was. Now, 44 years later, I open Invention and
Technology magazine and find a 1925 photo of
General George Squire, with a bowler hat, celluloid
collar, and pince-nez, glowering at the
photographer. Squire, it seems, was frowning over a
long legal battle with AT&T.
Squire was born in 1865. He went to West Point,
then devoted his life to science, engineering and
the Signal Corps. He worked on electric tracking of
projectiles and was an early proponent of flight.
He was almost alone in supporting Goddard's rocket
experiments. Squire was far more interested in
science than war. A 1905 War Department memo said
he seemed to have "no relish for line duties." Of
his personal life we know next to nothing. Indeed,
he worked with such intensity we wonder if he
had a personal life.
For forty years he pioneered communication systems,
especially wire-wireless systems. That meant
superimposing high-frequency radio signals on
low-frequency telegraph lines. That way, radio
signals could be sent out without being
broadcast to local receivers. The wires,
unlike telephone wires, didn't have to be
insulated. And the high frequency didn't interfere
with telegraph signals. It was an important and
revolutionary idea that's used in many ways today.
Squire did a surprising thing with his patent. The
1883 patent law let him assign it to the government
so that any American citizen who wanted to could
use it. When he did that, he misjudged the forces
of avarice. His patent was immediately put to use
Then, to gain exclusive control, AT&T claimed
Squire had infringed on their earlier patents.
Squire had tried to share his discovery, and now he
found it monopolized. He took AT&T to court
(hence that grim 1925 photo). It was a legal battle
he couldn't win, but as it ground on he found a new
use for the technology:
In 1915 Edison had tried putting a phonograph in a
cigar factory to improve production (I wonder if he
played Carmen!) It seemed to work, and
in 1922 Squire found that he could send radio music
over power lines. He formed a company called Wired
Radio and began selling canned music to businesses
-- especially hotels and restaurants. He
arbitrarily combined the words music and
Kodak to get the catchy word Muzak.
But AT&T also liked that idea, and they
eventually gained control of it as well.
In the end, Squire retired to a large Michigan
farm, which he freely opened up to the public for
hunting, golf, and fishing. He took in 60,000
visitors a year. His generosity, which was beaten
in the courts, finally found expression in this odd
Of course Muzak on elevators is hard to love. We
listen to Public Radio because we want better.
Still, Muzak is emblematic of Squire's recurring
impulse to give something away to all of us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds