Engines of Our Ingenuity


by Andrew Boyd

Today, sponsorship. The University of Houstonís College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

If youíve listened to commercial radio lately, perhaps while changing the dial to public radio, itís hard to miss all the advertising. Whatever happened to the good-old-days, when radio was free of interruption by advertisers?

Well, there never really were such days. Advertisers have always been around. But the ins and outs of advertising have definitely changed. During the golden age of radio, it was common for companies to sponsor programs. That gave them the first and last words as families gathered for the eveningís entertainment.


The Abbott and Costello program, brought to you by Camels, the cigarette thatís first to the service. Camels stay fresh, because theyíre packed to go around the world.

With a sponsorís name and money attached to a show, the line between programming and advertising wasnít always clear.


Daughter: Mother, is Maxwell House really the only coffee in the world?

Mother: Well, your father says so, and your father knows best!

Announcer: Yes, itís Father Knows Best, brought to you by Americaís favorite coffee, Maxwell House; the coffee thatís always good to the last drop.

Maxwell House logo

In the case of the chocolate drink mix Ovaltine, the companyís ad agency actually went so far as to write the scripts for the following show.


Vocalist: Ö if you could be, like Little Orphan Annie.

Announcer: Well, here it is, 5:45 again, the time when you hear Orphan Annie before drinking your Ovaltine every night. If you havenít sent for your ring yet, youíll certainly want to get busy right away. Believe me, youíre going to be thrilled when you see what a beauty it is Ö

Sometimes the very theme of a show was related to a companyís products. Borax, used in making soap, was originally hauled from dry lakebeds in eastern California by teams of mules. The makers of 20 Mule Team Borax sponsored a show whose setting and theme song became inexorably linked with the product.


Bugle playing theme song.

Announcer: Another true story of Death Valley Days is brought to you by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, who give you the miracle of borax in three convenient forms: 20 Mule Team Borax for household use, 20 Mule Team Borax soap chips for washing clothes and dishes, and the new Boraxo for toilet use.

Borax laundry booster

Sponsorship of radio programs has largely disappeared, and tight-knit links between sponsors and content providers are a thing of the past. Programming is produced independently, and advertising time sold around the programming. Itís a model that evolved as the number of stations and advertisers grew, forcing specialization. And the elaborate dance between ad agencies, station sales agents, and companies buying air time is interesting to say the least.

Of course, the world of public radio is quite different. Itís still made possible by sponsors, the many generous listeners who provide their support.

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Audio clips were taken from the Old Time Radio Fans Website: http://www.oldtimeradiofans.com/. Accessed August 16, 2011.

Borax. From the Wikipedia Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borax. Accessed August 16, 2011.

Little Orphan Annie. From the Wikipedia Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Orphan_Annie. Accessed August 16, 2011.

Special thanks to Lisa Johnson for her insights in preparing this episode.

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.

This episode was first aired on August 18th, 2011

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.