June 22, 2010

Cutting Through The Static On Isamu Noguchi's Radio Nurse Baby Monitor


What was the real story of the 1937 Zenith Radio Nurse & Guardian Ear? I've been looking at this thing, the first baby monitor, for close to 20 years now, and it's about time I found out.

How did Isamu Noguchi come to design it? Was it really inspired by the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping? Are they really rare because they were destroyed en masse during WWII by people were taking out their anti-Japanese sentiment against Noguchi's signature on the back?

According to the Noguchi Museum, the sculptor was commissioned to design the case for the Radio Nurse by the head of the Zenith Radio Corporation himself, Commander Eugene F. McDonald, Jr.

Who also happened to have been the inventor of the Radio Nurse, according to a 1938 article in Modern Plastics magazine. He needed it in order to listen in on his daughter's room aboard his yacht.


Because the McDonalds, it turns out, lived aboard a 185-foot yacht, the Mizpah [above, via], one of the biggest private vessels in the Great Lakes. From McDonald's swinging single days in the 1920s, the Mizpah was famous in Chicago as a party barge. [Waitaminnit, that was during Prohibition. Was the Mizpah's appeal linked to its ability to head into Canadian waters for a drink?]

And even after settling down--and after the relegalization of alcohol--the McDonalds stayed living on the boat, which the Commander used for business entertaining and as a floating Zenith R&D lab. Apparently, the first of McDonald's two children was actually born on the Mizpah. I guess it was her intercom McDonald brought Noguchi in to turn into "a device which will be simple, beautiful and at the same time distinctively different from any inter-communicating set or radio now in use."

And as a high-profile guy in a mobbed up town with a new kid, it's possible that McDonald's personal concerns over celebrity kidnappings was an inspiration, but it's also likely that the serial entrepreneur saw lingering Lindberghian anxiety as a nice marketing hook. [The kidnapping happened in 1932. The sensational trial was in 1934. The perp was executed in 1936. The Radio Nurse design is dated 1937, but the product only hit the market in March 1938.] Or not. The Zenith promotional images gathered by Codex99 not only don't mention a kidnapping; they don't even show a baby, just a grandma.


The WWII Jap hysteria story is circulated regularly, but I have yet to see a contemporary citation. Noguchi was known, but not revered, for decades. His work, especially his design work, was not hotly collected.


Maybe Radio Nurses are rare because they were an expensive flop, and didn't work. Codex99 reports "Radio Nurse suffered from distortion, RF interference and rougue broadcast pickup." [Bonus link: a PDF of the original schematic and owners manual]

The prices, too, are all over the map.

When it was Antiques Roadshow in 2004, the Radio Nurse was given an appraised value of $2000-2500.

By 2008, the ur-baby monitor market was white-hot, and an example sold for a whopping $22,000 against a $3,000 estimate.

Last week, Wright sold a Radio Nurse for $13,750. Its conservative estimate of $5-7,000 was probably based on the January sale of a scruffier example for a mere $3,750.


Hi, I was just wondering if you have any idea of the Radio Nurse's current value. I only have the "Nurse" minus the transitor, but do have the original box that it was purchased in. Any help you could provide would be greatly apperciated, we are currently struggling, and came across the "Radio Nurse" doing a work related trash out. Thank you for your time, Sincerly, Tony Correa

I'd guess $2-5K? Condition matters a lot. The box is good, the missing transmitter is not. But check with LAModern, wright20 and Rago auction houses; any one of them could move it for you. Or you could take a chance on eBay.

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