Posted Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, at 1:30 PM
Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese-American sculptor and designer whose coffee tables and other furniture are a staple of mid-century modern décor, designed this “Radio Nurse” for Zenith Radio Corporation in 1937.
Baby monitors, now so common as to be unremarkable, were unheard of in the early 1930s. The 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby out of the family’s nursery apparently struck a chord with Zenith’s president, Eugene F. McDonald Jr., who experimented with a cobbled-together system that would allow him to hear what was going on in his daughter’s room.
McDonald asked Zenith’s engineers to come up with a more streamlined system for the market. They returned with a two-part set: the “Guardian Ear” transmitter, which you plugged in by the child’s crib, and the “Radio Nurse” receiver, to be located alongside the listening caregivers. (You can see a PDF of the original schematic and user manual here.)
Noguchi, still at the beginning of his career, designed the “Radio Nurse” component in Bakelite, an early plastic. As Marc Greuther, Chief Curator at The Henry Ford, points out, the receiver was “an impressive abstract form that managed to capture the essence of a benign, yet no-nonsense, nurse.”
The Radio Nurse never quite caught on commercially—perhaps because the unit also picked up random broadcasts—but the baby monitor was displayed in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s annual sculpture exhibition that year.