Saturday, January 5, 2013

RCA and the BP-10 Personal Radio

By TinkerTom
The Beginning
Before there were iPods, Game Boys, or even transistor radios the dream of personal portable entertainment was just that, a dream, until 1940.  That was the year the Radio Corporation of America, better known as RCA, introduced the first mass produced personal portable radio. Yes, there were “portable radios” as far back as the early 1920s.  But, most were as large as a suitcase, heavy, and only nominally portable.   There were portable phonographs too.  But, they were only designed to be carried from place to place.  No one had figured out how to reliably spin a record while walking along.1

Since the 1920s many attempts had been made to produce and sell a truly portable radio.   Although there was obviously a demand for portable entertainment, the early “portable radios” didn’t satisfy it.   Most attempts failed in the market place because the necessary technology simply didn’t exist.  Consequently, by 1937 not a single major radio manufacturer offered a battery powered portable radio. 2

One missing technological item to make a hand held portable radio practical was a set of compact low power vacuum tubes.  In 1938 the RCA began the development of low power miniature tubes with the specific intention of producing a truly personal portable radio.3  The result was the RCA BP-10.  The BP-10 radio was introduced nationally in the summer of 1940 and was produced continuously until civilian radio production ceased for the duration of WWII (April 1942).4  The radio was a runaway sensation with over 200,000 sold.5   Few radio models were as well received by the public and as well documented by the manufacturer.

Figure 1. The 1940 RCA BP-10 Personal Radio

In 1940 and 1941 other radio manufacturers produced portable radios using RCA’s new miniature tubes.  Sonora Inc., a small radio manufacturer, introduced their “Candid” miniature tube radio in April 1940.6 Sonora also supplied an identical radio to Allied Radio, which sold it under their Knight brand as the B10506.  Sonora’s Candid is often credited with beating RCA’s introduction of the RCA BP-10 radio by a few months even though Sonora’s miniature tubes came from RCA.7   But RCA had years to work with their new tubes on the BP-10 design prior to the Sonora introduction.  It’s apparent from a Lord & Thomas merchandising plan that the BP-10 was in existence by at least March 14, 1940.8   RCA was simply taking some time to develop a block buster merchandising campaign that Sonora couldn’t hope to match.

Figure 2. The Knight Model B10506 Essentially Identical to the Sonora Candid Radio

 Actually, the BP-10 radio was ready for test marketing very early in 1940.  Many months prior to the Sonora radio introduction a prototype BP-10 was publicly demonstrated at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair.9  Fair goers were enthusiastic about the radio, but formal introduction was delayed until June 1940.10  It’s possible, that because of Fair goer enthusiasm, RCA delayed introduction to allow increased production in anticipation of higher demand.

Even if Sonora can be credited with beating RCA to the market with their miniature tube radio, Sonora cannot be credited with producing a truly personal radio.  Although the Sonora Candid radio used the RCA miniature tubes, Sonora made little effort to reduce the size to much less than radios using full size tubes.11 The BP-10 was the first truly personal portable radio designed to be carried by one person in a coat pocket or purse, but definitely a large pocket or purse.12 It was only a quarter pound lighter than the Sonora Candid, but much smaller overall.  The BP-10 was also much more compact than the bulky suit case size portable radio RCA sold in 1939 (see Figure 3.)  In addition to its small size it had a novel feature that enhanced its ability to be carried in a pocket or purse.   When not in use, the combination antenna/cover closed to protect the speaker, controls and front panel.  

Figure 3.  RCA 1939 “Pick me Up” Portable on the left and the 1940 RCA “Personal Portable” on the right

Table 1.  Some Pre-war Personal Size Portable Radios using Miniature Tubes
Weight (pounds)
volume (in3 )
BP-10 “Personal”
June 1940
KG-80 “Candid”
April 1940
45 “Commuter”
Late 1940
Series 33
G. M.
A1 “Playboy”
~ 4.0
4K600 “Poketradio”
~ 4.0
432 “Power Mite”
General Electric
JB-410 “Carryabout”
October 1940

Although RCA produced the first personal portable radio in 1940, this idea was fairly common many years before.  Even as early as 1904 the eccentric inventor, Nikola Tesla flirted with the idea of a pocket carried radio receiver.13   But it was really, David Sarnoff, chief executive and for many years the driving force behind RCA, who believed that there was a strong market for a small portable radio.  He wanted a radio that could be carried and enjoyed by one person, i.e., a personal portable radio or a “radio music box” as he called it in a 1922 letter.14  And, as chief executive of RCA he was in a position to make his “radio music box” happen. 

As mentioned, RCA engineers designed the BP-10 and introduced it to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair.  According to an RCA radio demonstrator at the fair, the BP-10 prototype “enthralled the public”.15  Unfortunately, its introduction was overshadowed by the premier of RCA’s all electronic television at the Fair.  RCA’s David Sarnoff opened the RCA pavilion on April 20, 1939 with an address specifically touting television as adding sight to sound.  Fair goers flocked to the RCA pavilion to see and be seen on television.   With all the television excitement, the BP-10 radio introduction was largely forgotten.  

The huge research effort to develop electronic television encouraged RCA to create a permanent research facility, and when World War II threatened, RCA had an extra incentive to do so.   On November 15, 1941, a dedication ceremony was held for RCA’s new Research Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey.  This time the BP-10 radio was not forgotten.  Photos at the time showed the RCA Victor Model BP-10 as one of the items and the only radio encapsulated in the RCA Research Center cornerstone16.  

The Marketing
Because of RCA’s extensive marketing the history of the BP-10 radio is probably one of the best documented of all radios ever produced.  In early 1940, RCA asked the prestigious advertising firm of Lord & Thomas to prepare a preliminary merchandising and advertising plan for the BP-10.   As part of the plan Lord & Thomas asked a number of people to select a name for the BP-10 radio from a list of 115 possible names suggested by the firm.  Although Lord & Thomas referred to the BP-10 in their plan as the “Pockette Radio”, no consensus was reached on a name.  Consequently, RCA did not assign a name to the radio in their advertisements other than “Personal Radio”.17

Although other radio manufacturers used the phrase “personal radio” in their 1930s advertisements, it was RCA who popularized the phrase.   Several small AC radios made by RCA were advertised as “personal radios” as early as 1933, but the BP-10 advertising of 1940 used the phrase extensively.   RCA even offered placement of the owner’s initials on the front of the BP-10 to really “personalize” the radio.   The BP-10 was the height of portable personal entertainment, as David Sarnoff had intended.

In 1940 the usual procedure for a new product prior to national advertising was to perform test acceptance in a trial marketing area.  New products were typically introduced into key market areas, then the markets expanded as the product met public acceptance.  The BP-10 was first advertised in the New York market during June 1940.  Its introductory advertising was through newspapers ads and tie-ins to the 1939 New York Worlds Fair.  It was quite a hit. The initial acceptance was described in an internal RCA memo as being “….the most enthusiastic buyer’s rush in radio history”.  An initial 25,000 BP-10s were sold in the first thirty days of sale.18  

Movie stars, such as Pat O’Brien, Jane Wyman, Andy Devine, and Fred McMurray were photographed together with a BP-10 radio.  Walter Winchell mentioned it in his newspaper column. Advertisements for the BP-10 appeared in Life, Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, Time, New Yorker, Red Book, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and many other magazines. Advertisements also appeared in all the major national newspapers.  Major outlets other than radio shops featured the radio including Bloomingdales, Abercrombie & Fitch, and lots more.20

 The intense public interest in portable radios during 1939 and 1940 was motivated somewhat by the outbreak of war in Europe.  The portable radio allowed a radio listener to monitor the war news no matter where he or she was.  For example, a BP-10 radio was even photographed on President Franklin Roosevelt’s desk.  FDR undoubtedly was one of those very interested in monitoring the war news.21

Due to the threat of war, the military draft began in October 1940.  By the early summer of 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the U.S. Congress to extend the term of duty for the draftees beyond twelve months.  As one of the most easily carried pre-war radios, many BP-10s were given as gifts to newly inducted servicemen.  And, RCA made a concerted effort to interest the servicemen in the BP-10.  In January 1941, BP-10 radios were offered in special silver boxes with an eagle on the face of the box and a set of decals, one for each branch of the service.22

The BP-10 radio was powered only by batteries.   This might have been a reason not to take the radio to their military posts due to the war time battery shortage.   Consequently, many left behind BP-10s survived in dresser draws and closets.  On the other hand, those servicemen who took their personal radio with them were inclined to save them as mementos of their war service.  So, some of those radios survived as well.    But, time has taken its toll.  Many of the BP-10s were stored with the batteries still in place.  Prewar carbon zinc batteries eventually split and oozed acid into the radio.  The acid often destroyed the thin steel chassis as well as wiring and other components.  Most BP-10s turn up with some sort of battery damage. 

The Radio
Stylistically the BP-10 is a true example of art deco design.  The chrome face horizontal lines, black plastic cover, and leather like veneer gave it the appearance of a camera of that era.  In fact it was sometimes referred to as a “camera construction” portable radio23.  

Figure 4.  Early Version BP-10 with the cover closed shown with a D cell for scale

Electrically the BP-10 is rather conventional.  The only significant innovations of note are the use of small ferrite loaded IF transformers and a 67.5 Volt battery developed specifically for the BP-10 radio.  The BP-10 has four miniature tubes in a superheterodyne circuit driving a small (three inch) speaker.  The speaker was initially a conventional round speaker, but later versions utilized a novel oval speaker.  The oval speaker seems to have better tonal qualities.   The BP-10’s performance is good for a radio of this vintage, but not spectacular.  

The true innovations were primarily mechanical.  The use of miniature tubes allowed the RCA designers the ability to reduce the size of the radio so that it could be easily held in one hand. 
Because 1940 plastic was not up to much physical abuse the radio body was steel.  The antenna could not be placed inside the steel body, so styrene plastic was used as a cover for the speaker and front panel.  This allowed a loop antenna to be sandwiched within the plastic cover.  To ensure that the lid was moved away from the metal body when playing, the cover was hinged.  When the hinged plastic cover was opened the radio was activated similar to a music box.  This music box configuration didn’t allow operation of the radio with the cover closed.  But, it did insure that the plastic cover was flush with the body, thus minimizing the chance of damage to the speaker or controls.  When the cover was closed, it guaranteed that the radio was truly turned off which also helped conserve battery life. The music box design became so popular that many other radio manufacturers adopted it and sold portable radios of this type up through the early 1950s.  

The plastic of the early 1940’s was not the wonderful stuff we have today.  It was easily damaged.  As a result, BP-10s are often found with some damage to the plastic cover.  The most prevalent damage is at the cover hinges.  RCA initially introduced the initial BP-10s without a hinge stop.  The result was cracked covers near the hinges.  By February 1941 the BP-10 was shown in advertisements with a hinge stop on the left hand side of the cover.  These models seem to have BA or BD as a prefix to the serial number.

Figure 5.  The Hinge Stop added some time in late 1940

There appears to be several versions of the BP-10 radio.  The earliest version had no hinge stop to hold the cover open and used a standard 3 inch round speaker.  Their serial numbers had no alphabetic prefix.  The second version, beginning around January 1941, had a hinge stop.  Their serial numbers began with BA- followed by a sequential serial number.   The third version had both a hinge stop and an oval three inch speaker in place of the original round speaker.  Their serial numbers began with BD- followed by a sequential serial number.   

Figure 6.  Two BP-10 Chassis showing early round (bottom) and late oval (top) speaker openings

The BP-10 was assembled at RCA’s Camden plant and their Bloomington, Indiana plant.24 Although not confirmed, those assembled at the Bloomington had the letter “B” stamped or written near the serial number.  During 1940 and 1941 exactly 200,042 BP-10s were produced, with 9,842 following in 1942.25  How many were produced at each plant is unknown.

Figure 7.  A Bottom BP-10 cover showing early Camden, NJ labels
The Significance

The functions of today’s portable personal electronic devices can basically be placed in three categories: communicating, entertaining, and data processing.  An argument for a fourth category can be made for medicating, which might include hearing aids, pacemakers, etc.  Of course, the BP-10 can be considered the starting point for just about every personal portable entertainment device.  Even CD players, hand-held games, and IPods owe their lineage to the BP-10.
Other portable personal electronic devices quickly followed the introduction of the BP-10.  The famous WWII handie-talkie was arguably the first personal portable communications device.  It was developed by the company that became Motorola and was designed around essentially the same RCA tubes as in the BP-10.  In their 1995 cellular telephone advertisement Motorola recognized the handie-talkie (BC-611) as the “grandfather” of the personal cellular telephone.

Personal portable data processing devices took a bit longer to reach the market.  It wasn’t until the invention of integrated circuits that a portable four function calculator could be offered to the public.  That didn’t occur until 1965.  By the late 1970’s many personal portable entertainment, communication, and data processing devices were readily available.  Over time the devices have become smaller, less expensive, and multifunctional.   Today, it’s possible to buy a personal portable device like the Apple iPhone that combines entertainment, communication, data processing in a single package.  The iPhone package is so small that it readily fits in a shirt pocket or tiny purse.  And all this started with Mr. Sarnoff’s BP-10 radio.

Figure 8.  A WWII Handie-Talkie in use26

Unlike thousands of radios offered in the 1930s and 40s, the history of the RCA BP-10 is well documented.  The BP-10 is a historically significant radio and can be considered one of the most technically influential electronic products of the 20th century.  It exemplified the concept of a portable entertainment device optimized for use by a single person.  As mentioned, it was even designed so that the owner’s initial could be added to the front panel.  Many surviving examples are so initialed.   
Transistor radio collectors are very familiar with the Regency TR-1, the first commercial transistor radio.  But, few collectors remember that personal portable electronics really started with the BP-10 radio.   Although the Regency TR-1 transistor radio was a personal sized radio, it was not the first mass produced personal radio.  RCA’s BP-10 holds that distinction outselling the TR-1 two to one.   
The following points recap some of the reasons why the RCA BP-10 Personal Radio can be considered a historically significant product:
·         It was the first hand held portable radio capable of performance comparable to a table model radio.
·         It was the first radio designed specifically to be personalized and carried in a coat pocket. 
·         It was a radio initially envisioned and commissioned by David Sarnoff as head of RCA. 
·          It was introduced to the public at the legendary 1939 New York World’s Fair (Theme: "Building the World of Tomorrow"). 
·         It was an excellent example of art deco styling.
·         In 1942 it was the only radio RCA placed in the cornerstone of the new RCA Research and Development Center.
·         It was a very popular radio in general use prior to WWII and was carried to war postings by many newly minted servicemen.
·         It appeared in several plays and films such as the 1940 Broadway play as “I walk with Music” and Ken Burn’s 2007 film WWII documentary “The War.”27  

1   Warnagiris, T., “Radio Wherever I go”, Antique Radio Classified, February 2011, Vol. 28, No. 2,   p11
2        Schiffer, Michael Brian, The Portable Radio in America, 1991, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson & London, 83 & 111
3        “Miniature Radio Tubes”, Radio Age, Radio Corporation of America, New York, NY, April 1945, 19
4        “BP-10”, Hagley Museum, folder in box 7/5 of the RCA collection, received Oct. 2010
5        “BP-10”, Hagley Museum,  RCA collection box 7/5
6        Arnold, Richard, “Sonora's First Plastic Portable Radios The Sensational Candid”, Antique Radio Classified,  July 2008,
7        Arnold, Richard, “Sonora's First Plastic Portable Radios The Sensational Candid”
8        Merchandising and Advertising Plans for RCA Victor “Pockette” Radio, Lord & Thomas Inc, March 14, 1940, Chicago, IL, 2
9        Nauck, Kurt, “The RCA 1939 Portable Prototype”, Antique Radio Classified, December 1990, 12
10    “New RCA Personal Radio Achieves National Sales” RCA New Release, Nov. 1940, Hagley Museum,  folder in box 10/22 of the RCA collection, received Oct. 2010
11    Arnold, Richard, “Sonora's First Plastic Portable Radios The Sensational Candid”
12    RCA Victor Personal Radio Model PB-10 advertisement, 1940, Hagley Museum,  folder in box 10/22 of the RCA collection, received Oct. 2010
13    Lyons, Eugene, David Sarnoff a Biography, 1966, Harper and Row, New York, NY. 71
14    Lyons, Eugene, 123
15    Nauck, Kurt, 12
16    Magoun, Alexander B., David Sarnoff Research Center: RCA Labs to Sarnoff Corporation, 1981. Arcadia Publishing, 14
17    Merchandising and Advertising Plans for RCA Victor “Pockette” Radio, Lord & Thomas Inc, March 14, 1940, Chicago, IL, 3
18    Schiffer, Michael Brian, 103
19    RCA Victor Personal Radio Model PB-10 advertisement, Life magazine, May 12, 1941, 81 and Hagley Museum,  folder in box 10/22
20    Hagley Museum,  RCA collection, folder in box 10/22
21    “A New Exploit in Marketing”, Radio Age, Radio Corporation of America, New York, NY, January 1948, p. 28
22    Advertising Department Contact Report, Nov 1, 1940, RCA Personal Radio meeting minutes, Meeting date: October 31, 1940, Hagley Museum,  RCA collection folder in box 10/22
23     RCA Victor Personal Radio Model BP-10 advertisement, 1940, Hagley Museum, 
24    “New RCA Personal Radio Achieves National Sales” RCA News Release, Nov. 1940
25    “BP-10”, Hagley Museum,  RCA collection box 7/5
26    TM11-235, War Department Technical Manual, Radio Sets SCR-536, A, B, C, D, and F, War Department, May 1945, 18
27    Burns, Ken,  2007 film documentary, “The War”  Episode 1

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