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Last updated 13th March 2003
Background And History
Tuesday 14th November 1922 - a voice crackles across the ether to the 18,000 listeners tuned into the medium waveband..."This is London" intones a stentorian plumminess as we witness the birth of organised public radio...
It may be argued that the 'true story of radio' began with the creation of the British Broadcasting Company on 18th October 1922. With their transmitter, the famous '2LO', broadcasting from studios by the Aldwych in London, they began the entertainment revolution made possible some 26 years earlier by an Italian immigrant named Guglielmo Marconi.
But there are many other characters involved in the process of the development of Marconi's spark generating apparatus into the practical superheterodyne circuit still in use today, and which gave birth to the sets and companies featured within.
The first practical demonstration of Marconi's apparatus that showed its potential for long-distance communication took place in December 1901 at Poldhu, Cornwall. He successfully transmitted the letter 'S' in morse code to St Johns, Newfoundland, some 1800 miles away and, with this victory, set up the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company to manufacture commercial installations to his design for the armed forces and merchant marine.
Other wireless companies soon entered this market throughout the Edwardian era and began to attract the attention of the interested amateur. Several companies made small spark-gap transmitter unit to send morse up to a 200 feet range for such experimenters.
In 1906, Reginald Fessenden achieved the transmission of speech and music from Brant Rock, Massachusetts but this was not considered commercially viable (or feasible) due to the limitations of the technology. It was not until Fleming, and later De Forest, introduced thermionic valves - based on the current flow effect Edison had observed years before - that sufficient amplification could be developed.
But around 1912, the brilliant Edwin Armstrong developed the regenerative amplification circuit to fully utilise a new technology that was developing rapidly. Armstrong's greatest contribution, however, to this emerging field came late in 1918 and it was the idea that made all subsequent developments in radio possible - the supersonic heterodyne circuit. The superhet (as it came to be known) was slow to be accepted due to the expense of the extra valves it required. But throughout the 1920's, larger and more powerful radio transmitters came on line in the USA. These required more selective, more sensitive radio receivers to properly enjoy them. The old-style TRF (tuned radio frequency) with their multitudinous adjustments and wandering quality could not compete with the 'one-knob-easy-to-use' superhets.
Enter the battery driven radio. In the early days this used wet lead-acid cells that had to be recharged every few days - thus providing a business opportunity in many small community - and were used to power the 'Farm' set (so called as they were often found on rural farms where there was no mains power grid) via a vibrator driven PSU that took the 12v from the battery (probably the same battery that ran the Model T Ford or John Deere tractor parked outside) and converted it to the DC high voltage required... practical but still not very portable. The battery manufacturers probably realised that an opportunity existed to produce and market radio sets on their own account but this was not acted upon any great scale.
The take-up of the superhet principle in England was (as always) a little slower. Reith was given a royal charter to form the British Broadcasting Corporation - a public body - in 1927 and began to expand the BBC's network of regional transmitters. The national transmitter, 5XX, had begun broadcasting in 1925 on 1600m and was later joined (in 1932) by the Empire Service transmitters - the forerunner of the present day BBC World Service. However, the superhet receiver led to a surge in receiver sales and this, coupled with the spread of the nationalised electricity distribution network, led to the establishment of the wooden-cased, mains driven tabletop (or floor console) set.
After World War II, in the late 1940's, special low power tubes were developed combined with high voltage 'dry' cells that put an end to the mess and potential danger of lead-acid combinations and the high current consumption of the standard octal based valve. The B7G series valve with its miniature 7-pin base brought forth a whole range of sets.
But these new designs were still strangely conservative in their appearance. Cases were usually rexine-covered wooden boxes, despite the opportunities for the eye-catching gaudiness that bakelite, catalin and other phenol-resin plastics offered. At the time little attempt was made to appeal to various market sectors, perhaps because the 'art' of marketing was not accepted as such in the UK.Whatever the underlying reason, the fact that it was a time of austerity in Britain cannot excuse the dowdiness of some of the product designs of those times. Over the other side of the 'big pond', the radio industry was producing some wonderful portable sets. RCA and Zenith were doing for radio what Cadillac did for cars - eye-catching design that reflected the people's confidence in their future. Yet, here in the UK radio manufacturers were continuing to produce 'suitcase' portables fashioned after ladies handbags - even after the introduction of the transistor - that only were as daring as muted two-tone colour schemes of burgundy and cream or slate and cream would allow. There were a few notable exceptions (such as the Ever Ready Model C, the Pye P55MBQ and the Murphy B229).
This theme is given a slightly fuller treatment in my piece Some Thoughts On Radio Case Design
Unfortunately (for the tube industry), Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen at the Bell Laboratories had already invented the device that would kill the tube almost completely and this certainly hastened the demise of the battery tube portable. From 1948, the days of the tube were numbered for anything aimed at the mass market. Transistors were lighter, produced no heat, were tougher and used less power.
The newly emerging teenage markets of the late 1950's and early 1960's also contributed to the death of the battery tube portable and their obvious bulk. Although the designs were hard to give-up and, eventually, British radio manufacture shifted to contract production in the far-east. The battery tube portable died a lingering death after enjoying just 13 years - from 1947 and the widespread use of B7G tubes to 1960 and the mass marketing of transistor sets.
So, we have the two principal firms in the business of producing battery portable radio sets in the UK, Vidor and Ever-Ready, both being better known for the one product line that enabled these sets to be useable and popular - although often being three times the size of their later transistorised equivalents. Similar products were produced by the mainstream radio manufacturers such as Pye, Bush, E.K.Cole (Ekco), Cossor, Marconiphone, Ferranti and Murphy Radio but Vidor and Ever Ready stand out as being the only two companies that produced products - the radio and the batteries to power them - in such a symbiotic relationship.
EVER READY - Batteries To Radios
At the start of the twentieth century, Britain's leading battery manufacturer was The Ever Ready Company. It had sought growth by acquisition and expansion to maintain its position and, in 1929, acquired controlling interest in The Lissen Company.
Lissen was a well established producer of batteries and complete radio sets, as well as marketing a full range of radio components - valves, capacitors, resistors, tuning-coils, loudspeakers and cabinets. This acquisition marked Ever Ready's entry into radio production and they kept the Lissen brand name alive until around 1933 and the formation of The Ever Ready Radio Company.
Production was continued at the Lissen works in Islington, North London until it was destroyed by air-raid bombing in 1941. The need for new premises was urgent as Ever Ready had several government contracts to produce radio sets, including the Armed Forces 'Comfort Set'. Temporary premises were found in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but another move in 1942 for further expansion was required to the firm's main battery works at Park Lane, Wolverhampton in the heart of England's 'black country'.
Although the radio division was now based at Ever Ready's largest dry battery production works it retained full autonomy and, after the end of WWII, was responsible for a range of unique radio receiver designs.It is said that the senior management were very 'hands-on' in their approach to the staff and in order to assist the company's objective of selling more batteries there were two design criteria for the radios: can an old lady with arthritis use it?; will it work after falling of the back of a truck? If she could and it did then the design went into production, otherwise....
The range of radio receivers manufactured by Ever Ready were uniquely theirs, with the notable exception of the B Type personal portable (1947), manufactured on contract by The Plessey Co. Ltd. In 1945 the Forces Comfort Sets were face lifted to become the civilian Model A, a ponderous 4-valve superhet radio in a wooden cabinet with crackle paint finish and carrying handle on top, powered by a B103 battery. A very heavy portable radio by any standards.
The elegant Type 'C' followed, equally heavy but easier to carry and, with its rounded contours, the forerunner of a whole range of valve radio receivers. The Type 'C' had wooden side panels and a perspex front panel that was internally painted to give the radio its body-colour. The early models used octal-based valves, but in the later revised version the low-powered battery valve, an all glass B7G based sub-minature type, was used.
The appearance of the 'J' Type or 'Saucepan Special' as it came to be known, was unique. Designed to a brief of the Foreign and Colonial Office the prototype submitted to them was, indeed, housed in a 10 inch diameter aluminium saucepan (with handle removed). It was a great success and sold through The Company's subsidiary in South Africa, The British Ever Ready Export Company [BEREC].
With the changing in fashion, brought about by rising prosperity in the 1950's, Ever Ready attempted to keep up with new designs. Although wooden case receivers do not lend themselves well to being described as 'svelte' the Sky Casket - introduced in 1956 - was an example of this approach. However, the writing was on the wall for the the valve and although Ever Ready scored some early success with transistorised models they could not compete with the Far East and radio production ceased in the early 1960's
At peak production Ever Ready produced around 5,000 receivers per week and cumulative production was in excess of 1 million.
POST 1945 PRODUCTS
VIDOR - Radios For A 'King'
Vidor was another English battery manufacturer that went into the radio production business. The company history is sketchy as Vidor Radio of Erith, Kent was connected with Vidor Battery of Dundee, Scotland - but there are also connections to the Burndept company as well as Vidor's later battery ventures with the Hawker-Siddeley-Crompton group. For now, here is a partial model listing for some of the CN series suitcase portables. Why, exactly, though, there were models named after stately-sounding ladies may remain a mystery although I suspect that the female market was being targeted with such non-agressive names as 'Sky Baby', 'Lady Catherine', 'Marquisa' and 'Sky Queen'.
And The Others....
Other firms were in the business of producing battery portable radios. Marconiphone designs were of the 'suitcase' style and used - like all their sets - Marconi Osram Valves (MOV) which had 7.5v heaters.
Pye also produced similar models but seemed a little braver at the use of bolder designs even though some were of the ubiquitous suitcase type (the heavy use of chrome seemed to be favoured) whilst Bush and Ekco preferred the standard square box with controls mounted on the top or a sloping front face. Again, these were all conservative designs using rexine-covered wooden cases and broke no new ground in terms of style or technology. The standard of 4 valves and two wavebands prevailed.