THE ULTIMATE entrepreneur.
Today we toss the word "entrepreneur" around to describe everybody from young software giants to hotel developers and ice cream tycoons. But more than 60 years ago, a man lived in Sarasota who could have invented-and still defines-the word. Powel Crosley Jr. spent his life pioneering and developing new products and ideas, and his legacy lives on, in the planned "Museum of the Entrepreneur" at his Sarasota-Manatee estate, Seagate.
So a new Internet Web site designer is front page news? Look at what Crosley did: He was responsible for the first car radio, the first push-button radio, the most powerful broadcast station in the world, the first soap opera, the patent for refrigerator door shelves, the first portable freezer, the first lights on a major league baseball field (he owned his hometown Cincinnati Reds, who played at Crosley Field), and, most important to thousands of car enthusiasts and collectors everywhere, the first mass-produced economy car, the Crosley. Oh, and one of Crosley's companies was also responsible for work on the top-secret proximity fuse in World War II, considered one of three projects pivotal to the Allied victory, right after the A-bomb and radar.
"He was an idea man," says his grandson Lew Crosley, who still lives in Sarasota, in a bit of an understatement. "He was always thinking, and he was sharp as a tack. He knew how to take other people's ideas and make them work. And he always felt he could produce a unique product less expensively than other people."
"He was a classic entrepreneur," says Larry White of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, who first presented to the Manatee County Commission the idea of purchasing Crosley's estate along Sarasota Bay for restoration, community use, and eventually, a museum devoted to the entrepreneurial spirit. "That's why this estate is so perfect for the museum. Besides housing items Crosley's companies produced, we envision meetings once a year with a select set of entrepreneurs and honoring with an Entrepreneur's Hall of Fame those whose contributions have altered the way people live their lives."
Crosley's contributions certainly did that. Born in Cincinnati in 1886, the son of a prominent lawyer, Crosley grew up fascinated by that new toy, the automobile. At 16, he bet his father $10 he could build a car and drive it from the Presbyterian church to the post office in downtown Cincinnati. He borrowed $8 from his brother Lewis (who would work with him side by side for years after, executing Powel's ideas), bought the parts, won the bet, and repaid his brother-coming out $2 ahead of the game.
Crosley's career was not always filled with such successes. In 1907, a young Crosley organized a company that planned to manufacture an inexpensive six-cylinder automobile. The proposed Marathon Six would be sold for $1,700--a steal compared to other car prices--but the financial panic of 1907 made it too difficult to secure more money for the project and it failed, leaving him to work for other people's auto and advertising businesses for eight years. (Another Crosley attempt at a six-cylinder model was halted by World War I.)
Crosley was undaunted. In 1916 he saw the chance to get into the automobile accessory mail order business--another startlingly new idea for the time. Within two years he had made his first million.
Crosley did not rest on those laurels. When his nine-year-old son began asking for a radio, he set off on a new direction. He was a born tinkerer, and after he learned that radio sets cost more than $100, far out of the reach of most people at that time, he bought a pamphlet called "ABC of Radio," which inspired him to buy the parts of a crystal set and make his own radio at home. The development of the Harko Jr. crystal radio and eventually the Crosley Model X vacuum tube radio led to his Crosley Radio Manufacturing Corporation, which became the largest radio manufacturer in the world by 1922. Soon Powel Crosley was known around the country as "the Henry Ford of Radio."
If you manufactured radios, it made sense to own a radio station. Crosley's WLW radio station in Cincinnati started off by broadcasting records from his 78-rpm collection over a 20-watt transmitter in his house. By 1934 it beamed up to 500,000 watts "'round the world"--and no longer from his house. (Listeners swore you could pick it up through barbed wire fences and gold fillings in teeth.) WLW introduced the world to the concept of the radio soap opera, and it also brought to the airwaves such "new" entertainers as Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Fats Wailer and the Mills Brothers. During World War II, the mega-station was used for Voice of America broadcasts to Europe.
Like his Sarasota neighbors John and Mable Ringling, the tall, brown-eyed Crosley (who towers over his compact cars in publicity photos) knew nor only how to make money but also how to live in style. Crosley owned several impressive homes around the world, was never without a yacht or two, and was especially fascinated by airplanes--he nor only flew them but built them, including a bi-wing model. An avid sportsman, he once caught a 102-pound tarpon off Siesta Key's Point of Rocks--and wrote a vivid description of the event, which was broadcast over WLW from his specially rigged floating radio station in the Gulf waters.
Visiting the Ringlings in the late 1920s, Crosley was attracted by the stretch of land along the bay just to the north of the Ringlings' estate, Ca d'Zan. He and his wife Gwendolyn decided to build yet another home, this one for wintering in sunny Sarasota. Completed in 1929 in the record time of 135 days, the 11,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home cost $350,000 and was designed by New York architect George Albree Freeman Jr. It featured 21 rooms (including 10 bathrooms), along with a yacht basin, swimming pool and a dock to land Crosley's seaplane.
Young Lew Crosley often stayed with his grandparents while his mother Page (Crosley's daughter) was away. He remembers Seagate as a special place (he was, in fact, born there in 1933) and his grandfather as a great friend. "We got along famously," says Lew. "I spent a lot of time traveling with him. And I can vividly remember his chauffeur trying to teach me to ride a two-wheeler on that long drive that leads up to the house. Since my grandfather was friends with the Ringlings, we used to go to the circus headquarters here a lot, too, and naturally I was fascinated.".
While Seagate was a family home, it was also designed for entertaining. A tour through the restored mansion today starts with the great room, site of lively Charleston parties decades ago. Stone fireplaces, curving staircases, wrought iron balcony railings, stained-glass windows, guest bedrooms equipped with private baths, a library with a pool table, and the famous "ship room" with its circular design, porthole windows and compass distinguished the two-and-one-half story mansion. An adjacent carriage house (still being restored) housed three automobiles and additional servant quarters.
For both Powel Crosley and his grandson, however, the good times at Seagate ended in 1939, when Gwendolyn Crosley suddenly died there. Unable to face the memories, Powel never lived at his Sarasota home again. He remarried three times, but was twice divorced and again widowed.
Perhaps the happiest days of his personal life were over, but Crosley's professional life continued in an unabated search for the new. Lew Crosley and a friend are planning a biography of his grandfather, and Crosley says their research has uncovered aspects of his grandfather's businesses he never knew before.
"He never brought his work home," says Lew, "and never discussed it with me. But in working on this biography I've learned a lot about one project that was really top secret--the proximity fuse."
Prior to World War II, two main types of fuses were used in detonating explosives: a timed fuse, set to explode at a predetermined time after firing, and a contact fuse, which exploded on contact with an object. Neither was effective against the new, highly maneuverable airplanes used in World War II. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University began developing and overseeing the production of a fuse that would work on proximity to the target. Each fuse contained a miniature radio transmitter-receiver that sent out a signal. When the signal reflected back from the target reached a certain frequency, which was caused by the proximity of the target, a circuit in the fuse closed, firing a small charge that would detonate the projectile.
The theory was simple enough, but they encountered many problems in development. The fuse's components, including tiny glass vacuum tubes, had to be able to withstand being fired from a gun. Safety features were needed to protect those handling the ammunition in transit and aboard ship. And a self-destruct feature had to be added to prevent duds from falling into enemy hands.
With its radio background, the Crosley Company was a natural for manufacturing the fuses. The first acceptable fuses came from Crosley's production line in September 1942; and on Jan. 5, 1943, a Japanese dive-bomber near Gudalcanal was brought down by an American lieutenant aboard the light cruiser Helena--the first kill of enemy aircraft with the new fuse. Crosley ended up producing almost 25 percent of the more than 22 million proximity fuses manufactured during the war.
The postwar years found Crosley back at work on his first love--the car. The first production postwar American sportscar, in fact, his "Hot Shot," came out in 1949--five years ahead of the Corvette. His company also built the first sport utility vehicle in late 1947--sold for a modest price of $799. His postwar Crosley, patterned after the small, lightweight cars of Europe, sold for $850 and used between 30 and 50 miles a gallon.
Unfortunately for Crosley's long-cherished dream, the 1950s were a time of prosperity and cheap oil, when flashy gas guzzlers ruled the automotive roost. Even his gift for promotion couldn't buck the tide. Life magazine could write of him, "When as his own test driver, he jackknifes his six-foot-three, 205-pound frame through the 45-inch door of a Crosley fresh off the assembly line and uncoils under the steering wheel, he comes into new focus, a man at peace with his convictions and pleased with his handiwork." But he was 30 years ahead of automotive tastes and economic realities. Crosley sold only 75,000 cars before closing down his operation in 1952--a failure his brother Lewis said broke Powel's heart. Powel Crosley Jr. died in 1961 at the age of 74--six months too early to see his beloved Cincinnati Reds win the National League pennant.
Ironically, the Crosley cars of yesteryear have become quite a collector's item today. The Crosley Automobile Club, founded in 1969, brings together, both over the Internet and in person, collectors of all things Crosley--not just cars, but airplanes, motorcycles, refrigerators, scalp massagers, washing machines and, of course, radios. Those collectors are a prime resource for Larry White in his efforts to assemble items for the Powel Crosley Museum of the Entrepreneur to display. (The museum, which will be built in a few years, will be across the boat basin from the Crosley mansion, which already hosts dozens of events a year ranging from weddings to arts and crafts shows. A retrospective on Crosley featuring items from a Cincinnati museum will take place in the mansion here in the winter of 2001.)
It's also White's hope that the museum will draw some of today's best and brightest entrepreneurial minds to serve as trustees and to participate in public seminars and talks that illuminate their own business success stories. But however prominent those trustees and impressive their stories, it's hard to imagine that any will ever top Powel Crosley's entrepreneurial energy and achievements.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2000|
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