Poly (formerly Plantronics) has a rich history linked with one of the greatest achievements of mankind. On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, I’m honored to share our story.
In the early 1960s, jet aircraft were rapidly replacing their propeller-driven predecessors. The ever-increasing speeds of the new jets required that, among other things, the airlines improve pilot efficiency. Pilots were, at the time, using palm microphones or headsets for radio communication. These devices were heavy and cumbersome, and pilots were clamoring for improvements.
At that same time, Mr. Keith Larkin was working in Santa Cruz at Plane-Aids, a small company he owned. Among the products he offered were imported sunglasses with a miniature AM transistor radio installed into their bows. Mr. Courtney Graham, a friend of Mr. Larkin and a pilot for United Airlines, thought that the radio-equipped sunglasses were a great idea and he managed to get them showcased in several of the United Airlines company pilot shops.
In 1961, United Airlines was actively seeking lightweight and more comfortable alternatives for the headsets their pilots were using. An engineer working for United Airlines saw the radio-sunglasses and asked Mr. Graham about them. “Could they be configured as a communication device rather than an AM radio?”
Mr. Larkin and Mr. Graham immediately went to work. Their idea was to embed two small transducers (commonly being used as speakers inside of hearing aids) into the bows of the glasses. One transducer was used as a microphone and an acoustic voice tube was connected to it. The other transducer was connected to a small ear tip that piped the receiver audio into the pilot’s ear.
They built several prototypes and submitted their design to United Airlines. This initial design was rejected, though, because many pilots did not wear glasses while flying.
Mr. Larkin and Mr. Graham quickly concluded that their design would be more practical if the transducers were located inside a small module that would mount onto a headband. The headset Model MS50 was born!
United Airlines accepted this headset concept which, in turn, motivated Mr. Graham and Mr. Larkin to start a company which they named Pacific Plantronics, Inc.
Plantronics’ timeline of our legacy with space travel:
May 18th, 1961: Plantronics was founded.
May 25th, 1961: President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress and stated, “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
1961: Plantronics’ first headset, the Model MS50, was developed; Samples were delivered to United Airlines.
July 21st, 1961: NASA launched Mercury Redstone 4 Sub-Orbital Spaceflight w/ Astronaut Gus Grissom aboard. This was the second manned space flight and it lasted about 15 minutes. After splashing down in the ocean, the hatch on the capsule prematurely blew open. Water poured into the capsule and, as it flooded, the electronics short circuited. When this happened, all power was lost inside of the capsule. Nothing worked, including the radios, and Astronaut Grissom lost communications with the rescue team. He nearly drowned, and the capsule sank.
1961 & 1962: After Mercury Redstone 4, NASA contracted with Kellogg Electronics (A division ITT- International Telephone and Telegraph) for the development of a portable radio transceiver that was small and lightweight. It fit into a pocket of the Astronaut’s spacesuit and, in the event of a power loss inside the Capsule, could be deployed to facilitate communication with the rescue team. Plantronics VP of Sales, Mr. Steve Spragens, heard about the Kellogg/ITT program through one of his professional contacts in the aerospace industry. Mr. Spragens provided MS50 headsets to Kellogg/ITT and they were delivered to NASA as part of the emergency radio solution.
July 5th, 1962: A “first” for Plantronics occurred when the FAA formally approved the MS50 headset for use by pilots flying commercial aircraft. (The MS50 remains in production and the generation-4 version is currently being sold.)
1962: The headsets used by the Astronauts on the first 4 Mercury missions were heavy and cumbersome. Astronaut Wally Schirra really disliked them because, as the missions increased in duration, they were becoming increasing uncomfortable. Astronaut Schirra saw the Kellogg/ITT radio transceiver at Cape Canaveral and asked NASA to investigate using the MS50 headset inside of his helmet for his upcoming space flight.
Summer, 1962: NASA Engineering in Houston contacted Plantronics. Mr. Spragens immediately flew to Houston with sample MS50s and, while he was there, met Astronauts Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper. They loved the MS50 with its light weight and slim voice tube. NASA gave Mr. Spragens one of Wally Schirra’s helmets and specifications requesting that he have Plantronics modify the MS50s and optimize them for use under the helmets.
September 1962: 11 Working Days after the NASA meeting Mr. Spragens was back with working MS50s that had been modified to fit under the helmet. After using them in the Capsule Simulator at Cape Canaveral, Astronaut Schirra requested that NASA deploy them on future missions… including his. The launch of Astronaut Schirra on Mercury Atlas 8 was only a month away!
October 3rd, 1962: Plantronics had delivered, and versions of the MS50 had been installed in Astronaut Schirra’s Communications Carrier (aka The Snoopy Cap) when he launched on October 3rd, 1962. Mercury Atlas 8 orbited the earth 6 times. During this effort, the Plantronics SPENCOM Division (SPace ENvironmental COMmunications) was created.
November 1962: Mr. Spragens moved to Cape Canaveral and spent most of the next year there. He was the liaison between NASA and Plantronics Engineering teams as they worked on headsets for use in future launches. This effort quickly spread to include both the “Shirt Sleeve Headset” for longer duration space flights as well as headsets for use within the Mission Control and Tracking areas that are located all over the world.
1963: Plantronics achieves numerous milestones:
- United Airlines began to deploy Model MS50 headsets to their pilots.
- Plantronics introduced versions of the Model MS50 for use by FAA Controllers as well as private pilots flying light/private airplanes.
- The MS30 Headset is introduced, as are versions of the MS50 for use by telephone switchboard operator.
May 13th, 1963: NASA launched Mercury Atlas 9 with Astronaut Gordon Cooper aboard. This was the final flight of the Mercury program and a Plantronics headset was used.
1964: Net Sales from Plantronics Annual Report totaled $1,440,442.
March 23rd, 1965 through November 11th, 1966: NASA launches the series of ten Gemini flights. Each Gemini capsule was crewed by two astronauts and they all used Plantronics headsets.
May 18th, 1965: Patent No. 3,184,556 issued to Plantronics for “miniaturized headset.”
1968: The StarSet Headset is designed. (The StarSet remains in production and the generation-4 version is currently being sold.) Plantronics also expands headset use to include secretaries and receptionists.
1968: Net Sales from Plantronics Annual Report totaled $6,765,961.
October 11th, 1968 through December 7th, 1972: NASA launches the series of eleven Apollo flights. Each Apollo capsule was crewed by three astronauts and they all used Plantronics headsets.
Landing on the moon
On July 16th, 1969, Apollo 11 launched from Cape Canaveral (Now Cape Kennedy). On July 20th, 1969, at 3:17PM EST, the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle touched down on the surface of the Moon. Buzz Aldrin transmitted “Contact light, OK. Engine Stop.” Neil Armstrong then transmitted “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
About six hours later, Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon. He transmitted “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” as he did so. Buzz Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later. They spent 21.5 hours on the Lunar surface before launching and rejoining Columbia, the Command Module, which was orbiting the Moon and being piloted by Astronaut Michael Collins. The three astronauts returned to Earth aboard Columbia. On July 24th, 1969, they successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
Plantronics had gone to the Moon… 238,900 miles each way… and returned!
Plantronics went back to the Moon onboard the missions of Apollo 12, Apollo 14, Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17.
April 13th, 1970: The mission was Apollo 13, and Astronaut Jack Swigert said “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” These words were also spoken over a Plantronics headset. (NOTE: The actual words and who said them were changed in the script of the movie Apollo 13 and the movie is not accurate.)
1971: ATT/Bell Labs formally approves the Starset Headset.
1973: NASA launches three Sky Lab missions (predecessor to the Space Station). All flights used Plantronics headsets.
July, 1973: Plantronics ships its one millionth headset.
I find it incredible that, exactly one week after the incorporation of Plantronics in 1961, President Kennedy announced that we should go to the Moon. The ideas of our founders coupled with the timing of the space program were an alignment of the stars (pun intended) for Plantronics. There are many more exciting chapters in the rich history of Plantronics, and we have always looked to the future while having these touchstones from the past.
Poly… The Power Of Many!
Authored by Mike Erbe, with input from Kevin Larkin, Bob Bernardi, and Steve Spragens.