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History Happenings: Cedar Rapids company led the way on microphones

In 1950, the Turner Company manufactured 80,000 microphones that were sold in 43 countries. Shown here (left to right) a
In 1950, the Turner Company manufactured 80,000 microphones that were sold in 43 countries. Shown here (left to right) are Turner models (22X, 211, 34X, 99, 25D, 33D and Plus 2. In front (on its side) is a 603H, a model introduced in 1970s. (Joe Coffey/The History Center)
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What is now Mount Mercy University’s Rinderknecht Administrative Building, at 909 17th St. NE, was once one of the quietest places on Earth, literally.

The Turner Co. was there from 1936 to 1977, making microphones and pressurized embalming pumps.

The microphone division utilized an anechoic chamber for testing. Built as part of an expansion in 1962, the acoustic chamber was 20-by-20 feet and supported by a 24-spring suspension system. The floor, ceiling and walls were lined with pointy fiberglass baffles, 5 feet deep and 2 feet wide. Wire mesh served as a functional floor.

It was so unnaturally quiet that anyone inside it could become disoriented from the lack of natural sound reverberations. An alarm system was installed so anyone trapped in it could call for help.

Funereal Beginning

The idea for the Turner Co. was hatched in the mid-1920s when David Turner II realized it was hard to hear the minister during funeral services at Turner Mortuary, which had just moved into the former Douglas and Sinclair residence at 800 Second Ave. SE (now The History Center).

Everett Foster, an electrician installing sound systems for “talking pictures” in local theaters, was hired to install a sound system in the funeral home. He tweaked it to work efficiently in the smaller space.

Turner was asked to demonstrate the system at a national meeting of morticians in 1930. His peers loved it and placed orders. The Turner Co. opened for business at 700 Third Ave. SE the next year, selling public address systems and doing radio repairs to keep the company afloat.

Operating out of a third-floor closet at the funeral home, Foster started making his own microphones. Mics were high-margin products their public-address competitors would buy if they stopped making their own public address systems.

Later, Turner tackled another mortuary problem: slow embalming machines. He discovered that a pressurized embalming pump worked faster. This led to another division of the Turner Co.

Sound Trends

The Turner company moved to the 17th Street NE location in 1936, making waves with a dazzling lineup of microphones for public address, ham radio and broadcast use. The mics it made are among the best examples of art deco design that can be found.

Pressurized Turner embalming machines quickly became the industry standard in the mortuary business.

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During World War II, Turner shifted to making military equipment full-time, going from 60 to 210 employees. Additional space at 1443 First Ave. SE (later the Music Loft building) helped fill orders.

The Turner family loved art so it’s no surprise the company became known for displaying paintings by Marvin Cone and Grant Wood in the factory. The company also played popular music during lunch, breaktimes and a late afternoon hour when the day’s precision work had been finished. The artful approach was to said to have increased productivity while boosting workplace morale.

Competition

More mics with new features followed after the war as the company became one of the largest mic manufacturers in the United States. Unfortunately, a commitment to art deco design held the brand back — competitors gained market share with models featuring emerging functionalism designs that allowed for better sound capture.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Turner stayed afloat by making mics and mic components for Collins Radio and other companies, then thrived again with the rise of two-way communications and tape recorders.

Company Sold

The company was sold to New York-based Conrac in 1968, and Conrac sold the embalming division to the Embalming Supply Co., ESCO, in 1975.

Citizens band radio exploded in the ’70s, and Conrac’s Turner division added a second Cedar Rapids operation at 716 Oakland Rd. NE and a third one at 107 N. Garnavillo St. in Anamosa. The company peaked at 1,200 employees and $35 million in sales in 1977 — or more than $150 million in today’s dollars.

That same year, an FCC ruling prevented U.S. manufacturers from selling new expanded (40-channel) radio gear over the Christmas shopping season. That happened just as cheaper, foreign electronics flooded the U.S. market.

Debt-heavy American manufacturers were overinvested in new product lines they couldn’t sell. The market crashed, leading to layoffs and a labor strike at Turner.

Conrac sold the Turner division to Minnesota-based Telex in 1978. Cedar Rapids production ceased in 1979 and the brand was eventually shut down.

Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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