Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Brief History of Automobile Radar Detectors

Bill Waytena, inventor and entrepreneur, Radatron Detector
Radatron 1961

Drivers unhappy with the “double nickel” speed limit also created a mass market for radar detectors.  Beginning in the early 1950s, Police effectively used Doppler-effect radar systems to keep down speeds on busy highways, and reduce alarming fatality rates.[1] The American Automobile Association denounced the use of these devices, and drivers first tried to scramble signals by putting tin foil and steel marbles in their hubcaps, only to be charged with obstruction of justice if caught.
            In 1955 more than 20% of all speeding arrests were achieved by radar, with conviction rates between 90-100%. Radar detectors were soon built by electronic hobbyists, perhaps the most famous being John Davis Williams, a RAND Corporation scientist who had expertise in statistical radar detection for military applications. In 1958 the amateur radio magazine CQ published an article entitled “Radio Speedmeter Receiver.”  The technology for that device was ingeniously modified to create the first commercially available radar detector, the Radar Sentry that was featured on the cover of the September, 1961 issue of Popular Electronics.[2]  The Radatron remained in the marketplace until the early 1970s. but was replaced by a host of competitors with names like Fuzzbuster, Bearfinder, Road Patrol, Wawassee Alley Cat, Snooper, and Whistler.[3] The best perhaps, was the Electrolert  Fuzzbuster, developed by Dale T. Smith. Smith, a Harvard educated scientist working at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.  Smith was so incensed over a speeding ticket that he designed, and then promoted the best radar detector of that day. Further, he proved to be an effect lobbyist for the devices given government’s attempts to limit their use, arguing that American citizens have a right to know when they are being watched electronically, even as they drive. It is not known whether the radar detector was behind the writing of the lyrics for the 1973 song “Radar Love.” The song’s reference to ”waves in the air” as a means of linking lovers is certainly suggestive. Initially released by the Dutch band Golden Earing, “Radar Love” is the quintessential road song. It was later followed by versions from U2, R.E.M., and Carlos Santana.

[1] On the early police use of radar, see “Check Speeds by Radar,” The American City, (1950), 121; ”Birmingham Checks Speeds by Radar; Electro-Matic Speed Meter,” The American City,  (1951), 147; “Big Brother is Driving,” Time, (November 23, 1953), 28; “Radar Detectors Umpire Traffic Intersections,” The American City, 69(1954), 149; Radar Really Catches Speeders,” U.S. News & World Report, (August 6, 1954), 36;”Can They Really Check Your Speed by Radar,” Changing Times ((January, 1955)34; “Highway Radar is Watching You,” Nation’s Business, 43 (September, 1955), 38-40;  “New York City Uses Radar Speed Meter Control,” The American City, (1955), 147;
[2] “Radar Speed-Trap Detector,” Popular Electronics, 15 (1961), 49-52.
[3] On the radar detector industry during the 1970s and consumer demand, see  Patrick Bedard, “If all Else Fails,” Car and Driver, (September, 1977), 62; Rich Taylor, “Getting on Top of Old Smokey,” ibid ,41-51;Rich Taylor “Your Right to Bear Radar Detectors,” ibid, 59-60.

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