The road to the first automotive radar detector began when a radar engineer was stopped by traffic police for speeding
There were consumer radar detectors that preceded the one that Dale T. Smith built in 1968. Radatron Corp. is credited with marketing one in 1960 that was certainly among the first, if not the first. But Smith had several advantages when he built his. He was an electrical engineer who had experience working on radar systems for the U.S. Air Force, a fact that might explain why his radar detector worked very well. His timing for getting into the market was pretty good, as U.S. police departments then were making increasing use of radar guns to detect speeding.
Finally, Smith had a flair for marketing. The name he came up with for his detector—the Fuzzbuster—perfectly combined the product’s function with a dose of the antagonism that many motorists felt toward traffic cops. (Since the colloquialism is hardly used anymore, we’ll note that in contemporary parlance, police in those days were occasionally referred to as “the fuzz.”)
Part of the impetus for Smith building his radar detector was having been stopped for speeding himself. “I’ll never forget it,” he told the New York Times News Service in 1978. “Three cops came in from one of our local speedtraps. I checked out their system. It was 15 miles per hour out of calibration, and they had written $280,000 worth of fines. The three of them operating it—they could barely write their names.”
Smith knew what he was talking about. He’d actually helped invent the radar systems used by U.S. police to detect speeding, according to the November 1986 issue of Popular Mechanics, adding some delicious irony to the story. Details about Smith’s life are hard to find and harder to verify, however.
In 1968 in the United States, police radar guns operated in the X band, at 10.5 gigahertz (the FCC would later allocate space in the Ka and K bands). Smith started with a super heterodyne receiver that detected the signals at that frequency. He fitted it into a black box that was a little smaller than a cigar box. On the box’s front panel he installed a small light in a plastic dome. Drivers placed the Fuzzbuster on their dashboards. If the unit detected a radar signal, it activated the light.
Have Fuzzbuster, Will Travel: The Fuzzbuster II embellished on the original with simulated burled-wood veneer on the front panel. Photo: David Saunders
It couldn’t have been any easier to use. Smith, however, was fond of noting that the simplicity was deceptive. “These are more than simply little black boxes. We’re talking about the same sophistication that is in the fire control mechanism of an F-14 fighter,” he told The New York Times in a 1977 interview.
Smith said the receiving range of the Fuzzbuster was four times that of the transmitting signal. Radar detector manufacturers differed on the maximum range of their products; some claimed three miles, others four. It didn’t matter, though, because Fuzzbusters reliably gave motorists more than enough time to slow down to the speed limit before police radar guns got a return signal and provided a reading.
From the start, Smith’s Fuzzbusters sold so well that just a few years later the term “fuzzbuster” was popularly applied even to competitors’ products. Electrolert, the company that Smith formed to manufacture his radar detectors, sold them for approximately US $100 each.
A further boost to sales occurred in 1974, when the U.S. government limited the maximum highway speed to 55 miles per hour. Hundreds of thousands of people rebelled against the reduction by buying radar detectors. Millions also bought Citizens Band radios, which were used by truckers and other motorists to alert one another to speed traps.
Why the disparity in sales numbers between the two devices? Use of CBs was entirely legal, while the use of radar detectors was a matter of ongoing judicial contention. In the early 1970s, some police even got away with confiscating or smashing them on the spot when found in a motorist’s car. There’s no way to tell how often that happened. But what is certain is that as time went on, motorists began reflexively removing the device from their dashboards before driving past police officers. Driving under the speed limit wouldn’t get you ticketed, but you might get stopped anyway and lose your detector.
By the end of the 1970s, the legal limbo was lifted. In most U.S. states, radar detectors were declared illegal for professional truckers, but legal for ordinary motorists. A few states and other jurisdictions, however, outlawed the devices completely.
There seems to be no independent verification of the size of the radar-detector market at the time, but by the late 1970s, news outlets accepted manufacturers’ claims—which were quite possibly exaggerated—that the total market was approaching a million units a year. At the time, Smith claimed the Fuzzbuster had anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the market.