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.

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