How Shure Developed the Vagabond “88” as its First Wireless Microphone
In his latest installment from the Shure archives, company Historian MICHAEL PETTERSEN takes us back to the release of the VAGABOND “88” Wireless Microphone System in the 1950s. Learn all about the innovative cable-free mic Shure created when wireless still seemed like wizardry.
Solid facts surrounding the genesis of wireless microphone systems remain hazy. This is likely true: Audio engineers began tinkering with radio mic systems in the 1940s.
Hobbyist kits that transmitted the mic signal into a nearby AM radio were available through mail order. The earliest documented commercial applications of wireless microphones mention a British holiday ice show in 1947 and a major league baseball game in 1951. These early explorations led others to advance the technology.
An Idea Takes Shape
At Shure, Elmer Carlson, a development engineer, foresaw the potential for wireless microphone systems and begin to design the necessary circuitry in March 1947. His boss, Ben Bauer, penned a memo to patent consultant Hugh S. Knowles outlining the creation of an all-in-one microphone element and wireless transmitter. Early demonstrations of the wireless microphone were received with little enthusiasm by the Sales Department or from Mr. Shure. Undiscouraged Carlson pressed on, and opinions began to change as the wireless system’s performance improved.
Shure Introduces the Vagabond “88”
The year was 1953, the place, the Electronic Parts Show at the Conrad Hilton in Chicago. Retailing at $700 (a steep $8,100 in today’s dollars), the Vagabond system included a microphone/transmitter, receiver, stand adapter, batteries (one 30-volt and one 1.3-volt), lavalier cord, and antenna wire. Advertising touted its revolutionary advancements: “…the first practical wireless microphone system ever developed – no cables! ...no body wiring! ...no station license needed!”
These were the days of fanciful names for Shure microphones. The “Vagabond” moniker implied it was “a microphone that makes the entertainer foot-loose and fancy free.” Where the “88” came from, no one knows, though there was a popular car at the time, the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, and Mr. Shure was loyal Oldsmobile owner.
The Vagabond “88” was designed for “clergymen, businessmen, entertainers, educators, and sports announcers, who need freedom of movement.” Since the system was limited to range of 500-1,000 square feet, the antenna wire was installed at the perimeter of the stage. For optimal performance, the mic user was advised to remain within inside the ‘antenna circle’.
The Operating Principle
The Vagabond “88” Installation and Service Manual states, ”The operating principle of the Vagabond System is simple. The transmitting unit is essentially a small hand-carried radio transmitter which is battery-operated. This transmitter is inductively coupled to the receiving antenna which is connected to the receiver. The receiver amplifies and converts this signal to an audio signal. This audio signal (like the signal from an ordinary microphone and preamplifier) can be fed into a public-address system, a tape recorder or any Radio or TV Station audio facility.”
A Design for the Future
The Vagabond transmitter, featuring an omnidirectional end-fire ceramic mic, was an industry first. It operated in the 2 MHz band, weighed one pound, measured 1.4’’/33mm in diameter and 12”/350mm in length, had five sub-miniature vacuum tubes, and ran up to 12 hours using two batteries originally designed for hearing aids.
Then, as now, there were operational restrictions: “The ‘88’ will operate at a maximum efficiency in an area free of electrical disturbances. In areas having higher electrical noise-levels, the operating area will be significantly reduced.”
While hailed as a “engineering marvel” at its introduction, production of the Vagabond “88” ended around 1960. Demand was low, the price point was high, and the transmitter’s vacuum tubes proved fragile. In addition, it required training and regular adjustments to function well. Its “fancy-free” advantages did not outweigh these obstacles. At the time, Mr. Shure remarked that when the company could offer a wireless mic as reliable as a wired one, it would re-enter the wireless market.
In the 1970s, concert performances on big Las Vegas stages and globe-trotting music acts ushered in the modern era of wireless microphone systems. By the 1980s, there were a handful of audio companies selling systems, most offering product with Shure SM58® heads. Spotting an opportunity, Shure launched development of its own modern line of wireless microphones with the introduction of a VHF system in 1987.
Today, the benefits touted in Shure advertising of the 1950s are amplified in frequency-agile, 100+ channel, digital wireless mic systems. The Shure Axient Digital System, introduced in 2017, is considered the most advanced microphone system available.
A Place in History
In the Shure archivalcollection, there are six Vagabond transmitters, one receiver, and multiple documents
No one can say for certain how many were sold between 1953 and 1960. But we know this: The Vagabond “88” can claim a place in audio engineering history as the world’s first wireless microphone system with a handheld transmitter that was designed specifically for live performance.