Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Current and Past Perceptions of the RCA BP-10 Radio

It’s been seventy five years since RCA introduced the BP-10 radio.  At the time some at RCA thought that the radio would not go over with the public.  It was expensive and would only run from a unique high voltage battery.  On top of that, the BP-10 sensitivity and audio performance were not up to the standards of console radios.

RCA had invested a lot in the design and manufacture of the BP-10 and was not about to waste what RCA upper management believed was a great product.  So, they promoted the BP-10 radio in every media available.  Media outlets from Broadway plays to newspaper columnist were awash with continuous mention of the “new personal radio”.  And the public responded.  During 1940 and 1941 more than a quarter of a million BP-10 radios were made and sold. 

With its ties to RKO Pictures, RCA was able to get many celebrity endorsements for the new personal portable.

RCA went so far as to stage demonstration of the BP-10 at various public locations.

When radio production resumed after WWII the BP-10 personal portable concept was again promoted not only by RCA, but Emerson, Motorola, and many other manufactures.  Unfortunately, the public interest was no longer on radios.  It was on television.  Portable radios were still selling, but not like the before the war.   Not until transistor radios hit the market in late 1954 would the public again be fascinated with the small personal portable radio concept.  And technology kept the pace up, introducing portable AM/FM radios, tape players, then CD players, followed by digital players.  Today it’s smart phones.  By the early twenty first century the BP-10 was technological ancient history.

Looking back at the last seventy five years, a lot has happened in portable technology, entertainment, and communications.  When the BP-10 is viewed in its place in that history it’s obvious that the BP-10 was a seminal force in the social imperative toward personal electronics of all types.   In the 1940’s it wasn’t apparent that the public infatuation with the BP-10 and other personal radios would lead to an ever expanding list of personnel electronics. 

 Today, the BP-10 is respected by the radio collecting community as one of the first personal radios.  Here are a few aspects of the BP-10 acknowledged by radio historians:
-          The first truly personal radio.
-     A radio envisioned and commissioned by RCA 
-     RCA’s first commercial use of its new miniature tubes. 
-     Introduced at the legendary 1939 New York World’s Fair
-     An excellent example of art deco styling
-     The only radio placed in the cornerstone of the RCA R & D Center.
-      A radio in use prior to WWII and carried to war postings by many servicemen
-      Appeared in several plays and films

New radio collectors and people unfamiliar with radio history rarely heard of the RCA BP-10.  But if they research the history of portable radios, they eventually rediscover the BP-10.  Despite the technological pace since 1940, the appearance and performance of the BP-10 radio still surprises people.

Some of the comments of this new generation of BP-10 rediscoverers can be found on the web.  The Antique Radio Forum started a new topic on May 2, 2015 entitled “RCA Victor BP10”.  It can be found at: 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Variants of the RCA Personal Portable Radio (BP-10)

     The 1940 RCA BP-10 Personal Portable radio is well known to most radio collectors.  When introduced in June of that year, there was nothing like it on the market.  As the first truly personal radio, it set the standard for all small portable radios that followed.  Several hundred thousand were sold.  As a consequence, many BP-10 radios are available (eBay) and at low prices.  The radio represents an historic first in the history of personal electronics.  Sadly, historic value doesn’t seem to mean much to most collectors. 

This is a late version of the PB-10.  Production ran through 1941 and probably into 1942.  After WWII an almost identical radio (BP-10A) was available in Canada, but not in the U.S.  By that time RCA was on to newer designs.

     The 1954 Regency TR-1 transistor radio is also well known to radio collectors.  It is considered extremely collectable with good examples bringing very high prices.  What is the main difference between the Regency TR-1 and the RCA BP-10 that explains the discrepancy in pricing?  A lot of seems to be due to modern esthetics and the number of known variants.

The Regency TR-1 was introduced in time for the Christmas buying season of 1954.  It was an instant hit.

     For starters, the Regency TR-1 came in many colors.  Thanks to the magic of plastic, Regency could offer the TR-1 in colors to suit the taste of the public and then some.  So, some of the colors are very rare, possibly due to misjudgment on the part of Regency as to what colors the public really wanted.  Today, the rare colored TR-1s are much more expensive to the collector than the rather common red and white.   The very rare marbled TR-1s seem to raise the most interest. 

Five Regency TR-1 colors are shown here.  But, many more colors were available during the production run of the TR-1 through 1955.

     Although the BP-10 had a high “wow” factor in 1940, its style was unchanged during its two year production run.  The BP-10 does have some subtle variants, but they don’t do much for the appearance of the radio.  The esthetics of the radio enclosure beat history every time.  When you combine history with color you get a very desirable radio.  The Regency TR-1 has both. 

     Now, the BP-10 radio was and is a handsome example of art deco styling.  The black and chrome motif are very striking and quite leading edge for 1940.   But, the variants are very subtle and for the most part, not obvious to the casual collector.  For starters, there were three manufacturers of the basic RCA BP-10 radio.  Westinghouse and General Electric of Canada produced identical radios with the only differences between them and the RCA BP-10 was the logo on the face of the radio and the style of the grill cloth.  It’s probable that RCA licensed the Westinghouse and General Electric production to keep up with the demand for the radio. 

The Westinghouse and RCA versions of the BP-10 are shown side by side.  To the casual radio collector these two radios would seem to be identical.

The Canadian General Electric version shown here looks no different than the RCA or Westinghouse versions.

     Other BP-10 differences are very minor.  During the BP-10’s RCA production (1940-1942) there were six known variants.  About the only way to identify them is to look at the main label.  Printed in the lower right hand corner of the label is the number 27987 followed by a dash and a number ranging from 1 to 6.  Radios with the label number 27987-1 were the earliest production BP-10s.  They were made in Camden, NJ starting in the summer of 1940.  A typical label is shown below.  Note that the serial number does not have a prefix.  Many, but not all, were stamped with a date.

 This is a typical main label from a BP-10.  Note the September 6, 1940 date.  Many early sets were stamped with dates that are probably the date of assembly.

     The radios with the label numbers 27987-2 and 27987-3 are very rare.   They probably represent minor variations in the mechanical layout of the radio, such as an oval rather than round speaker (not detectable from the exterior), additional patents, or a cover stop (keeps cover vertically open).  Some were assembled in Camden, New Jersey others were assembled in Bloomington, Indiana.  A letter “B” was often stamped on the Bloomington radios.  Serial number prefixes on these radios range are unknown. 

     What’s really distressing to the collector is that many BP-10 main labels are damaged to the point where the numbers aren’t legible.  The lower right corner of the label is often missing.   Without the label data it’s hard to verify what variant of the BP-10 is actually a “rare” variant.  Externally they all look the same! 

These are typical of the other three common BP-10 labels.  As mentioned, the -2 and -3 labels seem to be extremely rare.



     Things might have been different for the BP-10 as a collectable if a key recommendation of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency had been followed.  Lord & Thomas was a prestigious advertising agency used by RCA and many others during the 1940s.  In March of 1940 they delivered a Merchandising and Advertising Plan for the RCA Personal Radio.  At the time the radio had not been released, but most likely RCA had completed the design.  Apparently Lord & Thomas was not aware that design changes would not be welcome at that point.  Nevertheless, they suggested that RCA produce a version of the BP-10, “…that is covered with processed canvas instead of the leather, and bearing a picture of Nipper (RCA mascot) as its pattern.”  Needless to say, that version or some like it would have made the BP-10 much more collectable, especially if the versions were produced in a limited number.  Sadly, it was not to be.  RCA released the BP-10 in June of 1940 with almost none of the changes suggested by Lord & Thomas.    

     The marketing ideas were good, but a little late for the BP-10.  By April 1942 all civilian radio production ceased for the duration of WWII.  When production resumed in 1946 colorful plastics were beginning to appear in radio design.  Within a few years portable radios as well as most small radios were made in a variety of shapes, colors, and features not possible before the war.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Radio History and the BP-10 Personal Radio

Although personal radios have a significant historical place in the overall history of radio, few radio collectors seem interested in collecting or restoring them.  The majority of radio collectors are either after unique appearance (great cabinetry, fancy plastic, esoteric dials, etc.), or unique electronics (special circuits, sophisticated audio, short wave bands, etc.).  Radio history doesn’t seem to be a concern for most radio collectors, and there might be a good reason. 

The history of many radio manufacturers and the radio models they produced is lost for the most part.  In the heyday of radio (1920’s to 1940s) little in depth information about the individual radios was available to the public.  The exceptions were cost, appearance, and general description information available in advertisements.   This information had little to do with how the radio was accepted by the public, how it was used, who designed the radio, what the manufacture’s reason for introducing the model and any other information not pertaining to how the radio looked or functioned.  When the many radio manufacturers of radio’s heyday went out of business most of their documentation disappeared.  So today’s radio collectors can be forgiven for not appreciating the history of their radios, since most of the history is gone! 

An exception is the RCA model BP-10 Personal Radio.  This portable was extensively advertized, promoted, documented, and discussed at the time of its introduction in June 1940.  So much so, that today the information about the BP-10 is available from many sources.  RCA went on an advertizing blitz for the BP-10 that included nation wide newspaper, magazine, and movie personality endorsements.  The Personal Radio was the "brain child” of none other than David Sarnoff the CEO of RCA from the 1920s until the 1970s.   Before commercial radio was even possible David Sarnoff had a vision of a personal portable radio.  As head of RCA, he made a great effort to bring the idea to fruition.  Before about 1939 it wasn’t technically possible.  But, as soon as all the critical components needed for the radio were available RCA promoted it in a big way.

The following news clips give some sense of the importance of the BP-10 to both the public and RCA.  It’s strange that with all the publicity at such a historic time in world history (WWII) that the BP-10 has been largely forgotten by all but the most astute radio collectors.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Personal Radios go off to War

By the number of page views this blog has seen recently, there seems to be a lot of interest in WWII and the part RCA radios played in it.   RCA was a big electronics contractor to the military during the war, but up until civilian radio production was halted in 1942 they sold their commercial radios as rapidly as they could build them.  The BP-10 personal radio was one product the public couldn’t seem to get enough of. 

The RCA personal radio (BP-10) had a special place in RCA’s preparation for the U.S. entry into the war.  The military draft was initiated in October of 1940.  By the end of the month the folks in the RCA Advertising Department were setting their sights on sales to draftees and new servicemen. 

The following is a text excerpt from an internal RCA Contact Report obtained from the Hagley Museum*.

Advertising Department Contact Report
Divison  INSTRUMENT                                              Date of Meeting October 31, 1940

Those Present   Messrs: Milling, Elliot, Finn Edgar, Ray, Bundle, Baggs

Subject Discussed  PERSONAL RADIO

Date of this Report  November 1, 1940

At a special meeting held in Mr. Finn’s office, special deals covering the Personal Radio (BP-10) for January (1941) were discussed.  The principal discussion centered around a possible package deal directed primarily at the draftee or other Arm or Navy personnel.  It was decided, after considerable discussion, to have a kit which would include the following.

(1)    Five silver gift boxes with a silver eagle insignia on the face of the box.**
(2)    An envelope which would include ten stickers of various branches of the Service, such as the Army, Navy, Marine and Air Corps which is given to the purchaser to stick over the eagle insignia on the gift box if he so desires.
(3)    A Window Streamer, featuring the decalcomanias and the insignia for the sets and calling attention to the fact that here is the ideal gift to send the boy, or sweetheart, who is going to the camp.
(4)    A second envelope in which would be included four embossed insignia which could be cemented on the face of the Pers9onal Radio set itself: 1 would designate the Army; 2 the Air Corp; 3 the Marine Corp; and 4 the Navy.
(5)    In order to attract attention to the possibility of the instrument as a gift for the military service man, a large display card would be prepared with the eagle insignia and suitable copy.
(6)    Five dial card inserts which will be prepared to fit inside the lid of the Personal Radio set will also be included in this kit.

This kit will be given away free to distributors ordering certain quantities of the instrument which the Sales Department will set.  A total of 5,000 kits are being ordered for this promotion as well as 5,000 additional gift boxes which we will sell to the dealers upon demand.

The decalcomanias or stickers as mentioned above, as Item 2, will also be made available for use with portable phonographs and portable radios.

* The former RCA Laboratory in central New Jersey, now called the David Sarnoff Center, for many years maintained a collection of RCA artifacts and records from decades of research, called the "David Sarnoff Library".  In 2009, some 3,000 boxes of the David Sarnoff library, RCA archives and records were moved to the Hagley Museum.  The Hagley Museum and Library, is a nonprofit organization, which collects, preserves, and interprets the history of American enterprise.

 **A few years ago, (as mentioned in the above contact report) one of the special gift boxes with the silver eagle on the cover was offered on eBay along with a BP-10 radio.  It definitely was a rare find for someone.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The RCA Personal Radio and WWII

War Changes Radio

World War Two changed how people used radio.  Radio portability was not too important until Herr Hitler started absorbing his neighbors.  Then everyone began listening to radio news to see who might be absorbed next.  The interest in the news sparked a desire to have a radio on hand at all times.  That meant portability.  Once the war started in earnest the demand for portable radios took a huge leap.  This was especially so in the UK.  In 1937 Pye Radio Works Ltd., a British company, sold a radio called the Baby Q. It was portable in that it had a handle and was powered by batteries.  It was not initially a great seller.  When the war began portable radios like the Baby Q were in short supply in UK, but were then definitely in demand. 

In the U.S. demand for portable radios developed a little slower.  The War news from Europe was not as big a draw for radio listeners until Herr Hitler seemed to be winning everywhere.  That occurred sometime in 1940.  Then the public wanted to listen to the radio almost every waking minute.  Portable radios quickly became very popular.   Although the suitcase size “picnic portables” were selling well by 1940, the public apparently wanted something more convenient.  That need was addressed by the small personal portable radios.  The RCA BP-10 was the first.  When introduced by in the summer of 1940 they were an instant success.

In 1940 there were about seven manufacturers of personal portable radios: RCA, Lafayette, Allied, Automatic, Sears, Sonora, and Westinghouse.  In 1941 the number ballooned to more than twenty.  Almost every major radio manufacturer offered a personal size portable radio.  Thanks to RCA’s miniature tubes (introduced in 1939), some radios were almost small enough to carry in a large pocket.  The Emerson model 432 and RCA model BP-10 were in this category.  Both were introduced in 1940.

Although the public started buying battery portable radios in a big way, many were reluctant to buy a radio that provided just fair performance even if the radio was cheap.  The 1941Consumers’ Research Bulletin, (forerunner of Consumers’ Report magazine) stated that, “The tone quality of all these sets is very poor, and other differences between the various models are slight, so that personal taste in the matter of appearance, the reception achieved, size, etc., is the basis almost as good as any for making a purchase.”   Apparently the rating agency did not consider easy portability and instant accessibility as important to the public.

Many radio manufacturers also didn’t get the point of a personal portable radio.  Some manufacturers made their portable radios smaller than table model sets, but didn’t try to reduce the size or weight to make their radios convenient to carry.  Some, like the 1940 Emerson model 379, did include a shoulder strap to ease the load.  Still, most of the portables of the late 1930s  and early 1940s were still just portable from place to place.  Despite some advertisements showing people carrying working portables, none were really designed to operate that way for very long (see ).

            A few manufactures did see the promise of personal portables and strived to make sets small enough to be carried in a purse or a rather large pocket.  Just before WWII Emerson, RCA, Motorola, and a few others were offering personal portables small enough to be carried and used just about anywhere.  The Emerson model 432, at just 80 cubic inches, was about the smallest full feature portable radio available prior to the war. 

The prewar personal portable radios were the true forerunners of today’s portable electronic revolution.  Sadly, not many survive.  Below is a photo of a typical BP-10 interior.  Note the rust.  Battery corrosion, humidity, and time have taken their toll.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

RCA BP-10 online resources

Although the RCA BP-10 is considered to be a pivotal item in the history of electronics, not much is in print regarding the history of the radio.  But, there are a few sources online. For example, there’s a lot of useful information regarding the RCA BP-10 on the Antique Radio Forum.  There are several posts to the forum discussing the BP-10.  One of the most informative seems to be at:

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The New (1940) RCA Personal Radio

Marketing the RCA Personal Radio

At the time of its introduction RCA didn’t realize the eventual impact of the BP-10 personal radio.  Although David Sarnoff (RCA CEO) was behind it, most within the company thought that the radio was of no importance to the radio industry nor would gain much public acceptance.  Apparently, they were wrong David Sarnoff was right, but not necessarily for RCA.

The following is an excerpt from an article entitled “Adventures in Marketing” which appeared on page 28 of the October 1945 issue of Radio Age magazine.  Radio Age was a quarterly magazine produced by RCA for RCA personnel as a source of information about activities within the company.

“A New Exploit in Marketing”

One of the greatest marketing exploits in radio occurred in 1940, when a group of RCA Victor merchandising men decided to ignore the results of a survey and market analysis. 

As early as 1922, David Sarnoff had instructed the RCA research staff to keep in mind the development of an individual portable radio receiver—one small enough to be carried like a camera. In 1940, the creation of miniature vacuum tubes and batteries, made this possible. Our engineers and designers came up with what is now universally known as the "Personal Radio". Merely lifting the lid causes it to operate; its tone quality is excellent.

But the marketing of this camera type radio receiver presented new problems. We had to sell at least 25,000 units to amortize the costs of plant tooling, and we had to price the set at approximately $20 retail.

No comparable radio product had ever been sold, so it was decided to run a market survey among dealers.  The results were almost completely negative. Dealers agreed that the set was smartly styled, but they said that it didn't look like $20," and that the public "wouldn't pay that much for it." It had only four tubes, whereas a five-tube table model receiver could be bought for as low as $9.95. As a result of the survey, we were led to believe that most radio dealers, being unaccustomed to this type of product, might not be the best outlets or it.

Merchandisers Held Faith

But the merchandising group at RCA Victor did not lose faith. Here is the way they looked at the "Personal Radio".
- It was new and novel.
- A demonstration created the desire to own one.
- It had a new and smart style, and could be featured in the most fashionable stores. Name personalities would be proud to own and use one, and their name or initials could be engraved upon its jewel box case.
- As a gift item, it was a natural.
- It appealed to the impulse buyer.
- It was easy to use, convenient to carry.

So the enthusiasm of our merchandising group won! A comprehensive program of manufacturer, distributor and dealer activity was developed to cover all phases of merchandising with intensive advertising, sales promotion, publicity and initial exploitation in the metropolitan New York market. A careful distribution of sets to radio artists, columnists, and leading stage and screen personalities resulted in an exceptionally fine reception. Lucky owners found themselves demonstrating the sets to their friends and acquaintances at home and in fashionable meeting places. Such ideas as the use of this set in the musical, "Walk with Music", playing on Broadway, resulted in extensive interest and comment. Magazine pictures revealed that one was on the President's desk in Washington.

Backed by a generous advertising budget, including full page advertisement in several New York papers, the sales campaign featured a broad scale tie-up at the New York World's Fair. Remarkably enough, less than half of the original advertising budget allocated for this campaign was used, yet the first 25,000 radios were sold out in the first thirty days. Retailers, who originally turned down the opportunity to buy jumped on the band-wagon and the rush was on. With such acceptance, the question arose as to the next market to be opened. It appeared that the one additional major field where we could fully capitalize on the initial momentum generated by the New York campaign was Hollywood.

By that time, the early enthusiasm had generated into company wide interest. RCA Victor executives were photographed in shirt sleeves loading the first freight cars for the Coast. The "red carpet" was out when the sets arrived in the West, and an intensive promotion campaign had been organized, in the best Hollywood manner. With the cooperation of the National Broadcasting Company and Warner Brothers, an exploitation campaign was started with practically every star on the Warner lot using this "Personal Radio" in still photographs for advertising and sales promotion. 

Instead of selling only 25,000 "Personal Radios" during two summer months, we sold more than 225,000 in six months. Faith in the product, backed by the imagination and drive engendered by faith, turned the trick.