Chicago’s 8-Track Story, part 1

March 13th, 2014by Jill AustinFiled under: Collections, Exhibitions, Stories

The 8-track, a plastic cartridge containing an endless loop of magnetic tape, revolutionized how and where people could listen to music. While browsing through the Museum’s artifact storage, I found myself fascinated by a recordable 8-track deck. Depending on your personal aesthetics, its design isn’t much to look at. But, in this case, function far outweighs the form.

Montgomery Ward Airline brand recordable 8-track
tape deck, c. 1975

Chicago History Museum purchase, ICHi-68420

In conversation, the 8-track conjures much emotion, derision, even a sense of mystery. Is there a more often maligned example of music technology from American pop culture history? We love to hate it, love to love it, love to be curious about it. While I grew up within the 8-track generation, I confess I never had a player of my own (the coveted relic from my childhood is the Disco Barbie record player). But I remember listening to a Gloria Gaynor 8-track at my neighbor’s house and knowing when 8-tracks went out of fashion in the early 1980s.

In preparing for this installation of Unexpected Chicago, I found that Chicagoans’ opinions of the 8-track are almost always accompanied by an imitation of the “chunk” sound of the track change, as well as deep memories of music, their first 8-track, and the who/what/where of how they experienced it. These memories are rooted in different places—at home, the park, school, in the car—all because of the mobile nature of this technology.

Not only is the history of the 8-track fun to chat about, the foundations of the technology are part of Chicago history. Its development is quite complex and reads like a six degrees of invention. Here’s the gist:

In Chicago in the late 1920s, radio pioneers Paul Galvin of Motorola fame and William Lear, the future founder of Lear Jet, began a decades-long exploration of how to make communications technology more accessible. At the time, the men ran their respective companies out of the same building on West Harrison Street. Lear bought into Motorola, and for it he developed the first commercial car radio. In the postwar years, he perfected and patented the recordable 8-track, working in part from research he conducted at the Armour Research Institute (IIT) as a corporate licensee.

With a car radio 8-track deck, a soundtrack of your own choosing could set the perfect romantic tone.
Click the image to read a larger version.
Chicago History Museum collection, Montgomery Ward fall/winter catalog, 1967–68

Fast forward to the 1960s. After Galvin’s death in 1959, Motorola and Lear partnered with Ford Motor Company to option stereo 8-tracks in all of its 1966 models. For the first time, people could listen to music of their choosing, rather than the radio DJ, while in the car. Home decks capable of recording 8-tracks soon followed, and Chicagoans could now record their favorite vinyl to play on the go.

Nothing but static on Route 66, that great American road trip that embarked from Chicago? No longer a problem with your own playlist. So, however and wherever you stream your music today, don’t hate the 8-track. Say thank you to this technology and to what I like to think of as the “proto mixtape.”

Nothing says Chicago like a self-recorded bootleg Cheap Trick 8-track paired with a copy of classics from the Impressions.
Courtesy of Neil Keller, Let’s Boogie Records

Track list for Cheap Trick at Budokan bootleg, c. 1978
Courtesy of Neil Keller, Let’s Boogie Records

Stay tuned for more blog posts about the 8-track. There’s so much to talk about.

The Montgomery Ward Airline brand recordable 8-track tape deck is now on display in the Museum’s Kolver Family Lobby. Stop in to see it through April 2014.

> Listen to the classic 8-track “chunk” on this site of sound effects

> Explore the Unexpected Chicago archive

> Support the Museum’s collection

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