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.