Nebulous Definition Yields Unclear Results

I forget where I saw the link to the chart at Guess What’s the Fastest-Adopted Gadget of the Last 50 Years:

When we think about the great consumer electronics technologies of our time, the cellular phone probably springs to mind. If we go farther back, perhaps we’d pick the color television or the digital camera. But none of those products were adopted as fast by the American people as the boom box.

That factoid is a sidenote in a 2011 paper that I stumbled on from the Journal of Management and Marketing Research. Author Tarique Hossain included data from the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Association on the “observed penetration rate at the end of the 7th year” for all the technologies listed above. Hossain’s data didn’t include the starting years for these seven-year periods, but I’m assuming they mark the introduction of the boom box in the mid-1970s. That would mean that by the early 1980s, more than 60 percent of American households owned some kind of portable cassette player with speakers attached to it.

That’s the guy at the Atlantic’s definition of “boom box,” not one found in the study. Here’s one from Wikipedia:

Technically a boombox is, at its simplest, two or more loudspeakers, an amplifier, a radio tuner, and a cassette and/or CD player component, all housed in a single plastic or metal case, with a handle for portability. Most units can be powered by AC or DC cables, as well as batteries.

Note some of the other things on the chart at the Atlantic: CD Player, Portable CD Player. Color Television/Stereo Color Television. But Boombox is nebulous. It could mean a radio receiver with two speakers, it could mean a cassette player with two speakers, it could mean a compact shelf system with detachable speakers. What else could it mean in the minds of respondents? Mono cassette players? Transistor radios?

It’s the only technology referred to by its slang nickname. So no doubt it did the best.

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