Too often, those in the technology sector think of books simply as paper databases that primitively store small amounts of knowledge in a handy form. And, mostly, this is true. Once in a while, though, a book falls into your hands that is something much more compelling, something that combines knowledge with a tradition of craftsmanship that long defined the work of the best publishing houses. One of these examples of the bookseller’s art is the volume Radiola: The Golden Age of RCA, 1919�1929, by Eric P. Wenaas (2007, Sonoran Publishing, US $65).
In terms of book design and production, Radiola is a gem, featuring some of the finest reproductions of images from the early days of radio you will ever find. Yet, that merely describes the format. More important, Wenaas has a compelling story to tell, and he does a first-rate job of telling it. The subtitle of the book alludes to the creation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the introduction of a product line that defined the public’s fascination with the new technology of broadcasting in the 1920s. While Radiola may be too detailed for the average reader, those who are enamored of radioana (all things related to old-time radios) will find the book a little museum of the mind. Wenaas has scrupulously hunted down seemingly every source of information on the classic radio receiver of the era and he presents them almost exhaustively—complete with nine appendixes, two indexes, and a selected bibliography.
In his text, Wenaas offers an insightful account of the rise of wireless telegraphy and telephony into a scientific art form that heralded the rise of electronic mass communications. He begins with the formation of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America, the first major radio firm in the United States. His section on this early period, running from 1899 to 1919, concentrates on the business strategy employed by the British managers of Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless company in founding a U.S. franchise: becoming a worldwide monopoly. At the time, this devious strategy was hardly uncommon. Magnates of other economic sectors in western countries had practiced monopolistic practices for decades—in areas such as shipping, railroads, petroleum, and precious minerals. The big problem for Marconi’s principals, though, was that they were literally the last of the ambitious plutocrats to jump into the monopoly game.
From the start, the management of American Marconi found itself trading jabs with the U.S. government. Wenaas notes that their drive to horde all wireless advances to themselves could not have come at a worse time. The Sherman Antitrust Act had become law only a few years earlier and the executive branch was finally prepared to enforce it vigorously. This 20-year battle between American Marconi and its competitors, monitored stringently by government officials is, by far, the most intriguing portion of Radiola . When Marconi’s method for sending signals wirelessly first came on the scene, its earliest adopters were the navies of the world, looking to secure the same advantages that armies had achieved with the telegraph 50 years earlier. So the U.S. Navy was determined at the beginning of the 20th century to see the development of wireless technology open to all competition to produce the best signal service possible. (In fact, Wenaas points out, Navy engineers were so keen to perfect the emerging medium that they coined their own name for it: radio.) This difference of opinion with American Marconi on how wireless, or radio, should be forged eventually brought the two into an all-out confrontation.
Nonetheless, using patent litigation, lobbying, and exclusive leasing arrangements (even with the Navy), American Marconi was able to keep its stranglehold on radio usage a highly lucrative concern for a good many years. However, with America’s entry into the First World War, that situation changed dramatically. Under federal law, radio patents were confiscated by the government for national security reasons, and strict usage guidelines for operators became the order of the day. With the end of hostilities in 1918, the U.S. had become, ironically, the very thing American Marconi had long tried to become: a two-ocean wireless monopoly. Still angry about the British radio subsidiary’s hardball tactics of the past, the Navy struck back. It urged the government to sanction an American firm to create a new concern to purchase the rights to all the primary patents that had been seized—and it solicited General Electric in 1919 to do the honors.
”Both American and British Marconi, understanding their options were very limited, entered into negotiations with GE,” Wenaas writes. ”It is notable that GE acted to form a new company without any enabling legislation to charter a monopoly.” This passage alone should indicate just how upset the Navy and the federal government had ultimately become with the leaders of American Marconi. To this day, it is still considered to be one of the greatest examples of poor judgment in the annals of business management.
Of course, the recipients of all this good fortune were the backers of the newly formed RCA, which officially bought out American Marconi in April 1920. RCA then went into a frenzy of marketing activity to establish its brand and clear any confusion over who was the new master of the wireless era. Trademarks such as the vintage ”World Wide Wireless” logo became prominent, to indicate that RCA was in the business of transoceanic and overland communications. It expanded the war-delayed operations of American Marconi and accelerated the introduction of new equipment to transmit and receive signals, partnering with GE and, later, Westinghouse Electric Corp. And it investigated a new portion of the spectrum called ”short wave” to identify any potential business applications it might offer.
One of the first trademarks RCA registered was a brand identity for its new line of receivers, Radiola. In the fall of 1920, Westinghouse, which had missed out on most of the profitable pieces of the radiotelephony action RCA inherited, decided to fund an experiment in its hometown of Pittsburgh—to transmit audio transmissions to those who owned amateur reception sets that monitored short-wave signals. Granted the call letters KDKA, the new station was soon broadcasting regularly scheduled programming to any users who could monitor its transmission. A local department store noticed the development and began offering low-end receivers at cut-rate prices. The public caught the lure and the store was mobbed with radio customers. They could now listen to phonograph ”concerts” and live news and weather reports over the airwaves—for free. Within weeks, a national craze was in full bloom. Demand for low-cost receivers skyrocketed across the nation. And the single biggest technology boom of the 1920s was under way. Making money from using transmitters to broadcast audio content to sell incredible numbers of receivers was the most prosperous enterprise of the decade. It was practically a license to print currency.
So RCA shifted its business model on a veritable dime. The person who recommended the new approach to his superiors was named David Sarnoff, the company’s commercial manager, and he set out to make the name Radiola synonymous with tuning in to broadcasting. While RCA started out behind Westinghouse in the race to cash in on receiver sales, it roared from behind in a hurry, through product innovation and marketing, to overcome the first mover. This is where Wenaas’s book becomes a saga. Little that transpired from 1922, when RCA became a serious player in the broadcast radio arena, to 1929, when the first rumblings of a collapsing U.S. economy threatened to disrupt the ravenous appetite of Americans for newer and better radio sets (many of which were now elegant appliances), escapes the author’s notice.
Wenaas covers the territory in such comprehensive detail that the casual reader will be excused from doing more than scanning the introductions and summaries of chapters (and, of course, admiring the period illustrations) and leaving to the hardcore enthusiast the serious slogging through descriptions of new Radiola models and accessories. He includes a valuable afterword, in which he contributes a succinct account of how RCA managed to weather the Great Depression years, most notably by reorganizing its operations and removing itself, with the help of federal antitrust regulation as fate would provide, from the corporate parents that had come to dominate its interests, notably GE, Westinghouse, and AT&T. Beyond this, RCA’s progress under the leadership of an ascendant David Sarnoff is a story that most of the general public will know from history lessons or childhood memories.
Obviously, Wenaas has poured his heart into this work. Radiola is a masterpiece in a magnifying glass, like an old-fashioned form of artwork that emphasized exacting precision to produce a landscape of wonderful detail. On the dust jacket, he mentions that he ”has been interested in collecting antique radios and crystal sets since his youth when he experimented with radio devices and repaired radios and televisions as a hobby.” Now retired, after a long career in electrical engineering pursuits in the defense sector, Wenaas states that his avocation has returned to understanding the history of the first marvels of engineering produced in the Age of Radio.
This handsome coffee-table book is a fine testament to how seriously the author took that assignment. If you’re a true radiophile too, you'll want to have a copy of it.
To Probe Further
For more information on Wenaas and Radiola , see https://www.antiqueradio.com/Aug07_Wenaas_Writing.html.