Before There Was the Like Button, There Was ... the 'Radiovota'

In the 1930s, an engineer tried to bring two-way communication to mass media.
More
Radio-Craft magazine via Gizmodo

The Like button is older than you think. Well, sort of. 

Back in the 1930s, Dr. Nevil Monroe Hopkins, a research engineer at NYU, had an idea: He wanted to allow consumers of the mass medium of the time—the radio—to offer feedback about the stuff they were hearing on their newfangled machines. He wanted people to be able to do what the average user of Facebook or Pandora or Instagram takes for granted today: to express pleasure at something. Or dissatisfaction, for that matter. Hopkins was looking for a way for people to vote about the stuff on their radios. Using their radios.

And thus was born … the "radiovota." 

Gizmodo's Matt Novak discovered the ahead-of-its-time device in a 1934 issue of Radio-Craft magazine. It was essentially a primitive form of a Nielsen box—a box, literally, that you attached to your radio. Except: It didn't just passively register consumption habits. It allowed people to vote—actively, if primitively—on what they were hearing. The radiovota contained three buttons (Present, No, and Yes) with which people could register their reactions to songs. And possibly to more than just songs, the thinking went. As Novak notes, a 1937 edition of the Laurens Sun newspaper in Iowa eagerly awaited the day when the "president of the United States may step before a microphone, ask a question of his radio listeners concerning some question of public policy and receive an immediate reply from millions."

The insta-poll! For the radio! Which was a revolutionary idea at the time ... and one that was, given the technological affordances Hopkins was working with, sadly ahead of its time. The image above suggests why the thing didn't take off: Once a user pressed a button on the radiovota, it would take nearly 7 hours for that vote to register at a monitoring station. The information had too far to travel, over too complex a path. The idea was a good one; it would take a different technology, however, to make it take off. 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In