Last month we looked at the RCA Radiola 46, a lavish high end radio that went into production in the spring of 1929, about 6 months before the October market crash that began the Great Depression. This month will be the first half of a two part article in which we will look at how radio faired in those difficult times and how RCA in particular changed its business philosophy to survive.
Last month we looked at radio cabinetry. This month we take a look at one of its examples, a 1929 RCA Radiola 46 in a high boy console. David Sarnoff (*1), a Belarusian born immigrant, led the Radio Corporation of America for an incredible span of 51 years, from 1919 until his retirement in 1970. He passed away a year later at age 80. By 1929 RCA, under Sarnoff's leadership, had established itself as a giant of the radio industry. It’s chief (and at this time larger) competitor was the Atwater Kent company, named after its owner. (*2), Atwater Kent was a privately held corporation whose radio factory covered more than 15 acres. I’ll spend more time on Atwater Kent and his company in the future.
The RCA Model 46 was a prime example of where radio was prior to the market crash of 1929 and the great depression that followed. This radio was grand, it was a reflection of the times. It represents a high end set that featured new technology and an elaborate cabinet. It sold for $179 (*3) which is the equivalent of $2,430 in 2014 dollars. (*4). For the upper class, primarily business owners and those invested in the stock market, it was a time of affluence. The average per capita income nationally however was $750 per year, with that of rural and farm income being $273 per year (*5), so this radio would have been out of reach for most. It should be noted though, that when compared to high end sets made between 1925 and 1929, that the average selling price of radios was dropping. As with almost all technology, this was due to higher volumes, and better manufacturing techniques. The upcoming economic depression would force this trend to a whole new level.
As the popularity of radio increased, the household radio evolved into more than just a technological wonder. It became a part of day to day life. It was company for the housewife as she did her day to day chores, a gathering place for the family at the end of the day, and an opportunity to listen to sports events as the happened. Radio brought music and culture into the average home. It also brought something new to society, the potential for near immediate dissemination of global news events as they happened. The radio sets themselves were evolving into something that was part of the home décor. By the end of the 1920s, the radio was considered to be not only a technological device, but a necessary piece of furniture. Manufacturers now competed not only to have the latest technology, but also the most visually pleasing way to present it.
The rare 1923 National Browning Drake "Regenaformer" table top radio is rich in the history of the early art, a story of collaboration, litigation, competition and excitement. This particular radio is built in an all glass case which is what makes it so rare. I’ll get into the reasons behind the glass case shortly, but first, who was the National Browning Drake company and what is a Regenaformer?
If you are a long time radio enthusiast or an amateur radio operator all three of those names are probably familiar, but they are not usually thought of together.
The National Company began as Stone and Webster Engineering Inc., a supplier of sheet metal materials to the growing power plant industry at the turn of the century. Looking for an additional source of income and already having shops capable of turning out sheet metal products, Warren Hopkins, president of Stone and Webster, along with associates Walter Balke and Rosewell Douglass, incorporated the National Toy Company in October of 1914. They landed their first order with retail giant Woolworth’s and soon secured a patent for the manufacture of talking toys. By 1916 the company was highly successful, supplying toys to F.A.O. Schwarz, Gimbels and others. By the early 1920 the company added radio components to its product line. Tuning capacitors in particular, are made from plates stamped from aluminum or brass sheet metal. Soon after, the company dropped the word “Toy” from its name and became “The National Company”. (*1) The company was located in Cambridge Massachusetts.
In the early 1920s, Fred H. Drake and Glenn Browning, both Harvard engineering graduates, were conducting research at the university on methods to improve the efficiency of radio frequency transformers (note 1), then typically only 20 to 30 percent efficient. Mr. Drake suggested (and I quote from his own paper) that they should use “a mathematical treatment of a tuned radio frequency transformer, in order to determine the proper constants necessary for maximum amplification”. The results when built and tested in the lab proved to work better than he and Mr. Browning had hoped for. (*2)
Television as we now know it, an electronically scanned and reproduced image, was a development of the 1930s. I’ll spend more time discussing electronic TV at a later date. For now though, let’s take a look at what came first, something called electro-mechanical TV. Although it is not my intent to write this series as a chronological history of radio, we have started out by exploring the beginnings of the art, and many readers may find it surprising to learn that the concept behind television came about long before radio itself.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. Despite the limited technology of the day, there were those who believed that if it was possible to send sound over wires, why not pictures?
The photoconductive properties of the element selenium had been discovered in 1873 by Willoughby Smith (*1), an English electrical engineer. Mr. Smith had already achieved wealth and success derived from his development of high quality wire for the telegraph industry. Selenium's electrical conductivity varies with the amount of light that it receives, making it ideal for converting varying amounts of light into an electrical signal. The more light that it receives, the more electricity it conducts. Mr. Smith thought that he could use this characteristic to send images over wires. He attempted to focus an image on a number of selenium cells, each cell connected to a corresponding light bulb. The bulbs would in theory reproduce the image that fell on the selenium cells. This is comparable in concept to each cell and bulb representing a single pixel of a modern digital screen, only much bigger. In theory this should work, except that the cells and the bulbs of the day were far too large to produce any resolution. It would have also required at least one wire for each cell and bulb, requiring an impractical number of wires to send such an image over any appreciable distance. Mr. Smith eventually discontinued his attempts to develop the system.