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The rise of elevator Muzak began with this Michigan inventor

Sep 13, 2017

Major General George Owen Squier. The name may not be familiar, but his work in the fields of aeronautics and radio communications rivaled that of better-known contemporaries like Alexander Bell and the Wright Brothers.

Squier, a native of Dryden, Michigan, was the first military officer to fly, in a plane piloted by Orville Wright. Today, his hometown hopes to build a statue in his honor.

But among Squier’s many accomplishments there is one that stands out for its impact, not on our nation’s military history or technological capabilities, but on our ears. In short, Squier is responsible for this:

Mark Harvey of the Michigan History Center joined Stateside to discuss Squier’s career. He said that Squier initially developed elevator music, also known as Muzak, as a novel way of transmitting music directly into homes through electrical wires.

But soon a new technology – radio – forced a change of direction.

“Radio just got rolling and sort of wiped out their business plan,” Harvey told us. “But instead of just folding up their tent, they pitched it to businesses as this prepackaged set of music.”

Soon Muzak had made its way into factories, malls, elevators, and even the White House.

In other words, despite the competition from radio, there turned out to be an abundance of customers willing to pay for this type of piped-in, inoffensive music.

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Even today, a descendant of the company Squier started continues to distribute background noise to businesses across the country.

“They’ve really adapted with the times,” Harvey said. “They now license regular Top 40 musicians and other genres of music, so they’re not just doing the instrumentals. But they’ve updated their toolkit.”

Listen above to our full interview with Matt Harvey of the Michigan History Center.

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.

Michigan Radio originally broadcast this story on May 10, 2017.