Monthly Archives: July 2015

Mary Philbin’s Radiola Superhet

In an earlier post, we showed one silent movie star, Hope Hampton, soldering together a crystal set. A couple of years later, we see here another silent film star listening to the best set on the market.  In this picture,  Mary Philbin is listening to her RCA Radiola Superheterodyne model AR-812, which came out in 1924.

Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera.  Wikipedia photo.

Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. Wikipedia photo.

Miss Philbin, who was about 22 years old when this photo was taken, was most famous for starring aside Lon Chaney in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera.

The radio, the RCA Radola Superheterodyne model AR-812, was the first home superhet on the market when it came out in 1924.  This was a very advanced receiver for the day, and carried a hefty price tag of $269. (When converting prices to today’s dollars, I always remember that the 1920’s price would be paid with 269 silver dollars, which would be worth about $4000 today.) The set had six tubes, although most of them did double duty through the “reflex” principle. The oscillator tube also served as the detector, a scheme that initially caused problems for inventor Edwin Armstrong. Since the oscillator and the incoming signal were so close in frequency (the set had an IF of 40 kHz), they kept hopelessly interfering with one another. The problem was solved by mixing the incoming signal with the second harmonic of the local oscillator. This kept the two signals far enough apart so that the the same tube could at the same time oscillate at one frequency and detect at another.

The set used six UV-199 tubes and was battery powered. The batteries were housed behind the doors on either side of the front panel. The set had a built-in loop antenna, but it appears that Miss Philbin was intent on pulling in more distant stations with the external loop. As seen in the picture, the set drove a loudspeaker, which appears to be a Radiola UZ1320.  As can be seen in the picture, the set sported a carrying handle.  Since it was fully self-contained, it was a true portable, albeit a bit on the bulky side.

Armstrong and RCA jealously guarded the patents for the superheterodyne circuit. The nameplate on the front warns that it was “licensed only for amateur, experimental, and entertainment use, and only to extent indicated in attached notice.” Most of the electronics, including the transformers, were encased in wax to protect the components from moisture, and also to add an extra level of protection for the intellectual property concealed inside.

Mary Philbin came from a middle-class family in Chicago.  She went to Hollywood in about 1920 after winning a beauty contest sponsored by Universal Pictures.  In addition to Phantom of the Opera, she starred in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs.

Like many other silent actors and actresses, she wasn’t successful after the transition to sound and had only a few roles early in the sound era, including dubbing her own voice in a talkie re-release of Phantom of the Opera. She was twice engaged, but never married. She made few public appearances after he departure from the screen, presumably preferring to stay home and listen to the radio.  She died in California in 1993 at the age of 90 (New York Times Obituary).

The entire 1925 Phantom of the Opera, as well as other films featuring Mary Philbin, can be viewed at YouTube:


I would like to thank Tom McKee of the Inland Marine Radio History Archive for allowing me to use the photo from the Archive’s website.  That site, which will undoubtedly be the inspiration for future posts, contains a wealth of historical information about marine radio on the Great Lakes and inland waterways.  I’m unsure of the origin of the photo, although it’s believed to be in the public domain.

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Les Paul’s Radio Station, 1940



75 years ago, 25-year-old Les Paul had his own radio station in the basement of his New York apartment building, as shown here in the July 1940 issue of Popular Science.  Paul had moved to New York in 1938, performing with Chet Atkins‘ older brother on Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians radio program.

The building was equipped with an antenna and ground wire that had never been used, and Paul took advantage of it by installing his station’s studio in a soundproof room near the furnace.  A control room was located in his second-floor apartment.  On Friday and Sunday evenings, they transmitted to the other tenants in the building.  Occasionally, big-name guest musicians and announcers would drop by to take their turn at the mike.

The next year, Paul nearly electrocuted himself while experimenting in his apartment.  He relocated to California where he recuperated.  In 1943, he was drafted and served as a performer on the Armed Forces Radio Network.


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1945 Lifeboat Radio


Seventy years ago, the cover of Radio Craft magazine, July 1945, featured this new radio designed for use in lifeboats. The lifeboats of passenger ships were required to be equipped with radio, and when the U.S. entered the war, this requirement was extended to cargo ships as well. The early sets were battery operated on 500 kHz and had limited range and transmitting time. The Germans were the first to develop a lifeboat radio similar to this one, the Notsender NS2. It was powered with a hand crank, and designed to be held between the operator’s legs. In addition to powering the unit, the crank keyed the transmitter, sending SOS, alternating with long dashes to facilitate direction finding. It also had provision to be keyed manually. It operated on the distress frequency of 500 kHz, and utilized a wire antenna held aloft either by a hydrogen balloon or kite.

American BC-778 "Gibson Girl."  Photo by ArnoldReinhold via Wikipedia, file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

American BC-778 “Gibson Girl.” Photo by ArnoldReinhold via Wikipedia, file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The British soon captured a few examples, and duplicated them as transmitter type T1333. In 1941, the British, recognizing that they didn’t have the industrial capacity to manufacture the sets in quantity, sought a North American builder. The U.S., recognizing the value of the unit, proceeded with the project jointly, resulting in the BC-778, later upgraded to the AN/CRT-3, which became known as the “Gibson Girl” transmitter. The earlier version, the BC-778, operated on 500 kHz exclusively. Later models also operated on 8280 or 8364 kHz. The American version could also use the generator to power a signal light.

All of the wartime units included a hydrogen generator to fill the balloon, as well as a box kite which could be used to hoist the antenna.

The accompanying article was written by an executive of the manufacturer, Radiomarine Corporation of America, and touted the advantages of the new set. It operated on both 500 kHz and on 8280 kHz, and the primary means of hoisting the antenna was with a balloon, but one filled with a helium cannister. But it had two notable differences. First of all, it was capable of transmitting radiotelephone signals as well as radiotelegraph. But it also included a receiver capable of tuning 8100 – 8600 kHz. Thus, it would allow the occupants of the lifeboat to communicate with rescuers, and also with neighboring lifeboats.

While it was not used during the war, it appears that sets similar to the one shown in the article did go into production. The model ET-8053 appears to have most of the same features, albeit in a more portable set. The model ET-8030 appears to be very similar to the one shown.


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1935 Two Tube Receiver

1935TwoTubePortableEighty years ago, the July 1935 issue of Popular Mechanics
showed how to make this little two-tube broadcast receiver. It uses two dual tubes, a 6F7 and 12A7. The dynamic speaker is likely unobtanium, but a similar design with a PM speaker could probably be done, although it would require a separate filter choke in the power supply. An exact duplication of the design might be a bad idea, though. Not only does the set use a “curtain burner” cord to drop the filament voltage, but one side of the power cord is hooked directly to the chassis, meaning that there’s a 50% chance that it has 120 volts on it.

According to the article, the little set pulled in stations as well as a 4 or 5 tube model, and the small size made it ideal for the traveling man, tourist, or summer home.

The chassis and case were made of heavy cardboard with a coating of shellac. The parts were mounted on a piece of aluminum which served as the actual (hot) chassis.


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1937 Radio Refrigerator

RefrigeratorRadioHere’s an idea from 1937 that for some reason never caught on. As shown in the July 1937 issue of Popular Mechanics, this single kitchen appliance combines a radio and refrigerator.  Actually, as the magazine concedes, the radio is in the removable top of the refrigerator, and tops without a radio were also available.  The article doesn’t mention the manufacturer, but a handwritten note in the margin reveals that it was Crosley, who made both radios and refrigerators.  It was billed as just the thing for the housewife who wanted to listen to a recipe on the radio, or simply listen to music while working in the kitchen.

I’ve never seen any evidence of a surviving example, or even an advertisement.  So it’s unlikely that this idea got much past the trial balloon stage.

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Trinity A-Bomb Test, 1945

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test, the world’s first nuclear explosion, shown here 16 milliseconds after detonation.  The possibility of a fizzle led the team to construct a containment vessel dubbed “Jumbo,” a steel vessel measuring 25 by 10 feet, with steel walls 14 inches thick, capable of handling pressures of 50,000 PSI.  Brought from Ohio, it was the largest object ever transported by rail.

The blast was seen and felt in an area extending from El Paso, Silver City, Gallup, Socorro, and Albeuquerque.  One news article  quoted a blind woman 150 miles  away who asked, “what’s that brilliant light?”


The army issued a press release that a “remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine was negligible. Weather conditions affecting the content of gas shells exploded by the blast may make it desirable for the Army to evacuate temporarily a few civilians from their homes.”

Other versions of the press release had been prepared noting fatalities.  The author of the press release realized that he might have been writing his obituary.


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1945 Kids Radio-Phono Combo

1945PMradiophonoThe young man shown here is presumably the son of Popular Mechanics author Arthur I. Rattray, and is shown next to the radio-phonograph assembled by his father, as described in the July 1945 issue of the magazine.

In the article, he notes that perhaps readers might have a small boy or girl who would like to play records and listen to the radio with a phono-radio combination of their very own. He notes that such units would undoubtedly be plentiful after the war, “but that does not solve the immediate problem.” Therefore, he decided to put one together himself. He did so by combining an old midget radio (probably similar to the $7.95 set featured in an earlier post) with an old table phonograph. He housed them in the legs and braces from a discarded radio console.

He ran the phono cartridge directly to the radio’s audio output tube. He noted that this hookup “does not permit full volume, which is an assset rather than a liability,” but that the volume was sufficient for both radio and phono.

I doubt if anyone is going to recreate this particular project. But one warning is in order. One side of the phono cartridge (and probably the metal tone arm) is connected directly to the radio chasis. Depending on the set, there’s a 50/50 chance that this is hooked directly to the hot side of the AC line cord.

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1950 Poolside Television


65 years ago, the young women shown here were enjoying the Hoffman Model 947 television poolside at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. The accompanying article in the July 1950 issue of Radio News notes that until recently, such activity would have been impossible, since full enjoyment of the program necessitated darkness or semi-darkness, not to mention what to do with the unwieldy line going to the antenna.

But that was all in the past, since black-faced picture tubes and improved circuit designs had resulted in greater brightness and better receiver sensitivity. A prominent motion picture star had been discussing the problem with the president of the set’s manufacturer, and had been enjoying programs poolside for quite some time. The idea soon spread, not only to the Hollywood elite, but to the area hotels.

At the Beverly-Wilshire, every warm day would find a group of swimming and sunbathing guests clustered around the set that had been wheeled out for their viewing pleasure.

And if the set ever needed servicing, the same issue advertised, for only $6.95, a high voltage probe rated at 30,000 volts, just the thing the serviceman would need if some unfortunate guest splashed a little too much water on it.

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Fire at Barnum’s American Museum, 1865


On this day 150 years ago, July 13, 1865, Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground.  Located at Broadway and Ann Street in Lower Manhattan,

The museum had been owned by showman P.T. Barnum since 1841 and featured wholesome family entertainment, including a zoo, museum, lecture hall, theater, and freak show. Most of the animals, including the beluga whales in a second-floor tank, perished in the fire, but a few survived. The popular Ned the learned seal, was among the survivors, as was a bear that was lowered to safety by a fireman and rope.

The museum was open as much as fifteen hours a day, six days a week, and drew up to 15,000 visitors a day to pay the 25 cent admission fee.

The fire was among the most spectacular in New York history. A virtual museum supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, recreates many of the spectacles of Barnum’s original version.

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Sackville and Dixon Transmitters, 1945

Control room of Dixon shortwave transmitters.

Control room of Dixon shortwave transmitters.

Seventy years ago, two famous RCA transmitter installations were featured in the company’s quarterly journal, Radio Age, July 1945.

The first was Canada’s shortwave transmitter at Sackville, New Brunswick, which opened on February 25, 1945. What was then referred to as “Canada’s Loudest Voice” featured two 50,000 watt RCA transmitters. The 213-acre site had been selected due to the lack of unfavorable magnetic conditions and because the moist earth was conducive to radio transmission.

Main control console at Sackville.

Main control console at Sackville.

While Canada had a number of commercial shortwave broadcasters, the intent of the station was to provide a voice comparable to that of the United States and England, in order to communicate news and entertainment to soldiers, placing the Canadian point of view before Allied nations, and to “join their fighting allies in telling the enemy the real uncolored truth about the war’s progress.”

V-E Day eliminated the need for some types of programs, but the article notes that other features would continue to expand.

Sackville transmitter site.

Sackville transmitter site.

The station, operating with the rarely stated call letters CKCX, continued in operation until 2012. In addition to CBC programs, it served as a relay for a number of other broadcasters, including Radio Japan, China Radio International, Voice of Vietnam, BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Korea. In addition to international programming, it broadcast CBC Northern Service programs in English, French, and Innuit.

The other RCA transmitter featured in the issue was that of the station that later became the Voice of America relay station in Dixon, California. Under contract with the Office of War Information, both CBS and NBC were contracted to construct shortwave transmitters on the West Coast to provide a strong signal to the Far East. The CBS effort resulted in what later became the VOA relay station in Delano, California. And the NBC station with its RCA transmitters featured in the RCA publication, became the VOA station in Dixon, California. That location was on a great circle that included both Asia and Latin America. Therefore, by reversing the direction of the antenna, it could cover two target areas. By beaming North, the station could provide a signal to Asia. And by beaming South, the same booming signal would carry the American message to Latin America.

The Dixon station was operated by NBC until 1963, with call letters KNBA, KNBC, KNBI, and KNBX In 1963, the federal government assumed control until the station was shut down in 1979. The installation was mothballed, and resumed operation in 1983, at which time its primary function was to transmit Spanish programming to Central America until 1988. The site was sold by the federal government in 1993, and has been used by Globe Wireless since then as KFS, providing wireless HF e-mail service to maritime interests.

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