Did your father or grandfather knowingly commit a crime? It's likely he did if he bought a superheterodyne radio between 1924 and 1930 from anyone other than RCA. It's also likely that both he and the seller knew they were skirting the law.
There were a few legal superhets sold under RCA patent licenses during these years, but it appears that far more "pirate" sets were sold than most collectors realize. Magazine articles, and even books, have been written about RCA's refusal to license its superhet patent and its diligence in prosecuting anyone with the audacity to defy them. So why did so many people risk so much and expend so much effort to own a superhet radio? A quick review of radio's history provides some insight into the mind set of the average radio customer of the 1920s.
Broadcast radio's history can be said to have begun with the licensing of KDKA in 1920. Radio "sets" led the way, but as radio circuits became more complicated, the components and connecting wiring were gathered into one cabinet. Regenerative circuits were added to increase sensitivity, TRF sets were "Neutrodyned" to cut the squeals, and finally the superheterodyne set replaced them all, in a space of only a few years.
World War I had forced large and small radio manufactures to work together, but the war's end brought about the consolidation of several radio companies into one large conglomerate. By 1924 RCA, the patent-holding arm of the conglomerate, had sown up patents on most new radio technology, including the superheterodyne circuit. This left the smaller radio manufacturers with designs that were yesterday's leftovers.
The superheterodyne radio circuit that RCA patented, and others coveted, utilized a circuit that was originally designed and patented by Edwin Armstrong. This patent was then sold to RCA. Any set utilizing that circuit design had to pay a royalty of up to 7 «% to RCA, who was not at all shy about demanding that payment. The catch was that RCA was very, very reluctant to license radio manufacturers to build these sets.
RCA not only controlled radio production with their patents, they also effectively controlled the price of radio sets as well. A good example is the Brunswick-Balke-Collender company, who had somehow obtained a license to produce a superhet radio. Their model 5NC8 cost $375, while their deluxe superhet model 148 sold for $995. As expensive as these sets were, they were priced comparably to RCA's models of the same period.
These high prices looked very tempting to the small manufacturer who could easily produce and profitably sell an 8 tube superhet for less than $200. The huge price tag of the licensed radio also looked very formidable to the average consumer, who made about $1500 per year.
At first, the small radio manufacturers resorted to various ploys to circumvent the superheterodyne and its advantages. One way was to `soup up' the old standard TRF and neutrodyne circuits. Unfortunately, as more stages were added to these radios, the complexities of operating the radio increased. Various schemes were devised to simplify operation, with pulleys and belts ganging tuning caps together, and when this proved to be kludgey, others designed totally new units to be added as front ends for existing sets.
Unfortunately for the small manufacturers, the buying public had changed from being the radio nerds of the wireless era to being the Sheiks and Flappers of the Roaring 20s. The public wanted to play their radios, not play with their radios. Buyer's resentment grew as more of the public learned there was a better set to be had, if only RCA would loosen its monopolistic control of the patents. The scene was set for a buyer's revolt, and there was a way to beat the system.
There was a legal loop hole, and many small manufacturers jumped through it with little hesitation. Superhets could be legally produced and sold as kits, and very soon the term 'kit' came to mean different things to different people.
Some manufacturers, like Atwater Kent, sold kits that were basically boxes of components. They let the purchaser assemble the radio from scratch. Others, like Boulderadio, assembled the components and housed them in a sealed unit. These sealed units required little more than the connection of an antenna, a speaker and power. They could easily be ready to play within an hour after their purchase.
Such sealed kits also had the advantage of giving consistent successful results and quickly became very popular to a growing number of customers who had little knowledge of radio technology. These sets were often identified as an "8-in-line," due to their tube count, and the buying public soon realized that when they saw the advertisement for an 8-in-line kit, they were seeing an advertisement for a superhet radio kit which performed as well as a much more expensive RCA licensed radio.
Soon 8-in-line units (kits?) were being produced by several other small, or not too scrupulous, radio companies across the country. Some others simply marketed the Boulderadio 8-in-line as though it were their own product. All seemed to have one objective: cash in on the superhet's popularity, and if possible, don't pay the RCA's licensing fees. The buying public rewarded their efforts, apparently deciding the definition of a kit could be expanded to cover these sets, and undoubtably, many buyers justified their actions as a protest against RCA's licensing policy.
RCA still had one more card to play in this high stakes game. By law, RCA had to sell replacement tubes for existing legal sets and tubes to amateur radio operators, but it did not have to supply any extra tubes that could be sold to pirate manufacturers. First, they dropped any distributor who sold only tubes, then they implemented a policy of requiring an old tube for every new tube sold as a replacement.
Ironically this policy hurt both the small manufactures and RCA. Boulderadio, like most of the others, didn't last long when it came to a fight with the RCA. Most of these small manufacturers simply produced and sold radios until they were caught and then either paid up, or folded up, to reopen under a new name. But there were just too many of these small companies, and some sought help from their congressmen.
Congress finally became concerned with the absolute control exerted by RCA and their parent conglomerate and implemented new laws to regulate the radio industry. By 1930 the courts had ruled against the big conglomerate and RCA began to license its superheterodyne patents. With that, the 8-in-line kit radio era ended and a new age for radio began.
Ammon, Rick. Email Interview. September-October 1996.
Barnouw Erik. A Tower in Babel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Barnouw, Eric. The Image Empire. New York: Oxford University, 1970
Furney, Doug. Telephone Interview. September 1996
Langley, Ralph. Radio Collector's Guide. California: Vintage Radio, 1973.
Paul, Floyd. Los Angeles Radio Manufacturing. Paul: California.
Rutland, David. Behind The Front Panel. Philomath, Oregon: Wren, 1994.
"The World vs RCA: Circumventing the Superhet" IEEE Spectrum, February, 1983: 67-71.