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Two Wooden Boxes–How Fast Technology Can Run When It’s New!

Here are two wooden boxes (missing their leather handles). 

 They are both portable radios marketed by RCA in the 1920s.  Each contained up to date technology at the time it was made.  They are only separated by two and a half years.  If those two and a half years occurred sometime in the late 1930s the radios could be very similar.  However two and a half years were a technological lifetime when these radios were made. 

 When a consumer technology is new it will usually improve and become cheaper on a near logarithmic curve.  Anyone doubting this only needs to look at cell phones seen in two year old TV reruns.  As I’m writing this the original Tom Cruise Mission Impossible is playing on a cable channel.  All the new tech in that movie looks absolutely nostalgic.

 But back to our two wooden boxes.  They provide a good example of the technological leap-frog that goes on when a tech is new.   The older is the Radiola II, manufactured for RCA by General Electric. 

 It hit the market in late 1922 for just under $100.  Although more advanced radios were certainly available, the Radiola II was a pretty sweet deal.  According to Eric Wenaas (RADIOLA: THE GOLDEN AGE OF RCA) RCA didn’t start advertising the II until early in 1923 for fear dealers wouldn’t be able to clear the previous year’s radios out of the warehouse.

 Two ads for the Radiola II from Popular Science—


The Radiola II was a regenerative receiver like many of its time.  It had two vacuum tubes which were enough to drive headphones while receiving many stations.  It could drive a loud speaker if you were close to strong stations.  The II used very new tubes that could get by on relatively small and light batteries.  Instead of needing filament batteries the size and weight of a modern car battery, the Radiola II could hold the needed batteries inside its case.  That was pretty cool for the time. 

The two new-tech tubes in shock-absorbing mounts, variometers, an audio transformer, as well as compact batteries–


In 1922 nearly no radios had an internal speaker.  You either hooked up headphones, or used a horn speaker with a bell the size of a French horn.  The Radiola II didn’t do any better in that category, but the headphones fit inside the case as well as the batteries.  Not bad at all when compared to radios RCA marketed the year before.  Yes, you did have to connect an external antenna wire and perhaps a ground, but you had to do that for just about every radio of the time.  Antenna aside, the Radiola II was self-contained.  That was a big deal.

 Let’s compare the Radiola II to our second box, the Radiola 26.  The Radiola 26 was introduced in mid 1925.  Instead of a two tube regenerative circuit, the Radiola 26 was a six tube superheterodyne—incidentally still using the same tubes found in the Radiola II.  The superhet circuit is still used today in modern radios. 


The Radiola 26 was a far better radio than its older brother with much improved sensitivity as well as selectivity.  In fact these improvements lead to two features that put it head-and-shoulders above the II (remember a technological lifetime separated them).  The 26 was sensitive enough that the antenna was contained inside the radio (inside that swinging door).  You didn’t need 100 feet of wire suspended between two trees to get some music.  Just as special, the 26 had enough power to drive a speaker—and the speaker was inside the radio.  Now that’s pretty cool.  And yes, the 26 also held its batteries internally, making it much more self contained than our earlier box. 

There are those six tubes—a high tech radio for its time–


Inside the 26.  Most of the components are still unseen inside a sealed box–

 Behind the grill.  The folded horn speaker–

Not only do we see a substantial technological jump between our wood boxes, but we can also see changes in design philosophy.  When GE created the Radiola II for RCA they designed an electrical instrument not unlike the high quality laboratory meters GE had been making for decades.  The case was made of solid mahogany boards ½ inch thick.  The front panel is thick, heavy brass stock, rather than a cheaper material with a thin metal shield attached to the back. 

I don’t know who speced out the headphone jacks, but their contacts look good for 15 amps to me—not your typical ¼ inch jacks.  Clearly this radio was built with the same bullet-proof quality as GE’s lab meters.  Although such solid materials and fine design are a delight for collectors like me, maybe a different formula was called for in the competitive world of consumer electronics.

The Radiola 26 (built by Westinghouse for RCA) is a different animal.  Although it is a beautifully appointed walnut box, it uses veneers throughout.  To the consumer, it looks like the same quality woodwork, but cabinet costs are lowered so Westinghouse could spend more on the technology inside.  The controls were decorative rather than techie. 

The cold brass instrument panel was replaced with a warm-but-thin walnut veneer over a light aluminum sheet. 

In fact, a good bit of aluminum was used in the 26 to compensate for the rather heavy superhet guts RCA marketed at the time. 

So these radios indicate that two evolutionary paths were in play.  Not only were radios becoming increasingly sophisticated throughout the early 1920s, but they were becoming more aesthetically appealing as well.  The typical radio made in the early 1920s would not be a welcome addition to the living room any more than an office copying machine would be welcome today.  By the mid and late twenties consumers expected radios to be attractive as well as functional. 

We find that most consumer technologies follow similar trajectories.  When new, the technology costs a lot.  Very little money is left over to make it aesthetically appealing to most folks.  The maker has to rely on the whiz-bang of being the new thing.  After a couple of years the cost of the tech comes down, broadening the available market.  The increased revenue from more sales leaves some cash to dress things up a bit, further broadening the market. Those can be heady times for the manufacturers as well as the consumers waiting to get that shiny new toy. 

So whether old or new, we see the same technological and economic formulas playing out.  Now if they will just lower the price on LED 3-D televisions!

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