Sure, we talk a big game about high-falutin’ techno-logical mumbo jumbo around these parts, but now it’s time to flex those flabby brain-bags and see what you know about old-school manufacturing tech. Ready? Go.

RADIO NURSE.THE BACKSTORY:

In the 1937 “Radio Nurse,” was possibly the first (and most horrifying) baby monitor design and was housed in a two-part Bakelite clam-shell construction. ‘Bakelite’ is the trade-name for an early thermoset polymer (‘polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride’… no kidding) first patented by Leo Baekeland in 1907.

By the Thirties, the technology for the home radio was a cheap commodity, and nearly everyone already owned one. To stay in business, manufacturers designed radios for the every room and in every color. Soon, houses were chock-full of radios, and companies struggled to find new reasons for consumers to buy more of them.

After the Lindbergh Kidnapping media frenzy, the public was worried about the safety of their children. Purportedly, the president of Zenith Radio Corp., came up with the idea of a baby monitor so that he could verify the safety of his daughter from his private yacht. It would seem a mere side-note that the industry was searching desperately for new reasons to sell radios, and that fear for the safety of one’s children is an impressively effective sales motivator.

The sculptural form conceived by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was the artist’s first industrial commission, and its forms are intended to evoke something like a nurse’s cap and the face of a Japanese fencing (Kendo) mask, symbolizing a loving, watchful eye, and a bodyguard combined. (Like a baby monitor and Darth Vader in one!)

THE QUESTION:

What processes were used in tooling and manufacturing the housings for this bad boy, given that it was manufactured long before CNC or EDM? Keep in mind we have to cut both core and cavity tools for each half, with tight enough tolerances for the parts to fit together nicely. We think we have a general idea (see below), but I’m really interested in the specifics of the process.

ADAM’S BEST GUESS:

I figured Noguchi, being a traditional sculptor, not a trained industrial designer, probably sculpted using whatever medium was comfortable for him (clay, wax, plaster, etc), and would have then passed the design along to a pattern-maker to develop master design template, which would then–by some magical powers unknown me–have been used to machine the tool.

I shot a note over to our friend @joemoak of formlovesfunction, and he reminded me about the good ol’ Pantograph, and sent along a nice video of a simple garage-shop approximation of the process.

But I’m not satisfied. How did this process work?

  • How did the pattern-maker measure and precisely duplicate the designer’s model?
  • How was the pattern made?
  • How was the pattern used?
  • How could tolerances be maintained such that the ribs and bosses aligned perfectly between parts?
  • Sure, something like this might work for machining the cavity, but what about the core?

Image: MetMuseaum.org

Author

Adam O'Hern is an industrial designer, designing products ranging from laptops to power tools, classroom toys to bathroom fixtures, and pro audio gear to guitar tuners. In 2008 he founded cadjunkie.com, and in 2010 co-founded EvD Media with Josh Mings of SolidSmack.com, and the two collaborate on the EngineerVsDesigner.com podcast.