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The 'Like' Button That Came Before Facebook

This one was actually a real button, too.
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Illustration from the July 1934 issue of Radio-Craft magazine. (Photo: Novak Archive)

Illustration from the July 1934 issue of Radio-Craft magazine. (Photo: Novak Archive)

Talking back to our broadcast media seems to be an integral part of the early 21st century experience. Hulu is constantly asking me if a particular ad is relevant to my interests. Major news networks like CNN want me to give my opinion on breaking news stories to them via Twitter. Even here at Pacific Standard we encourage you to leave comments on stories.

In the parlance of advertisers, this two-way street of media communication is called "engagement." It might seem like something that's just started popping into conversations recently, but the idea is as old as broadcasting itself.

In 1934, a New York research engineer named Dr. Nevil Monroe Hopkins thought that adding in a bit of interaction was the future of radio. Hopkins proposed a three-button box that would be installed with each home radio set. Press one button for "no," another for "yes," and a third for "present."

Back then, the Detroit Free Press seemed to be in favor of this proposed device:

Millions of people have been longing for years for a chance to let certain perpetrators of jazz and alleged humor, and likewise a crooner or two know how 'rotten' their stuff is. And multitudes of fingers long have been itching to get at certain raucous-voiced ballyhooists, if not in one way then in another.

The paper explained that this new tool opened up new ways for the listening public to express their discontent with everything from advertisers to politicians:

Handy buttons as a part of the standard equipment of receiving sets should put many a counterfeit statesmen and professional hot air artist in his place; and, of course, they should be equally valuable as registers of sober, thoughtful public opinion.

Will the public care for that sort of thing? Will they bother to use Dr. Hopkins' device if they get a chance, do you ask? Don't you like to tell 'em where to head in and get off?

Hopkins was granted two patents in 1937 (one filed in 1933, the other in 1936) for his radio voting devices. By 1937, Hopkins had formed a company (National Electric Ballots); had come up with a snappy name for his device (the Radiovoter); and, perhaps most importantly, had a more serious-minded vision for its use: direct democracy.

From June 10, 1937, in Iowa's Laurens Sun:

A tiny electrical gadget, called the Radiovoter, may speed the time when a 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 question may be: "Do you want war?" or: "Shall we build more battleships?" Or: "Do you favor a larger appropriation for relief?" Whatever the question, every listener by means of the Radiovoter on the receiving set could flash an answer back.

Hopkins' device was never widely implemented, but judging from the tenor of the more raucous discussions online (*cough* YouTube *cough*) you can be sure that the Detroit Free Press was at least correct in assuming that people would be pleased to tell content creators "where to head in" and "where to get off."