A Brief History of the
National Company, Inc.
By John J. Nagle, K4KJ

This paper originally appeared in AWA Review, Volume 1. Permission to present it here has been granted by the Antique Wireless Association, and they retain all rights to its distribution and reproduction. Only not-for-profit personnal use is authorized for any hardcopy printouts of this page. I want to thank Mr. Bill Fizette, AWA President, for his support of the Millen Page project.

The Early Years

The story of how a small manufacturer of power plant specialty items, and later toys and household items, became one of the leading manufacturers of amateur, commercial and military short-wave communications equipment is interesting and fascinating. As we will see, it was not planned that way; it just happened!

In 1879 Edison invented the electric light bulb. This created a large demand for electrical energy. Charles Steinmetz and George Westinghouse solved the mysteries of alternating current which permitted large amounts of electrical energy to be transmitted over long distances. This, in turn, created a need for large power generating stations. By the early 1900's the design and construction of power generating stations was, in today's terminology, an emerging industry.

At the turn of the century, one of the leading power plant construction companies was, and still is, the Stone and Webster Co. who then had their headquarters in the Boston, Massachusetts area.

Power plants required many hardware specialty items which were new and unique and for which no regular suppliers had yet established themselves. Three mechanical engineers from Stone and Webster recognized this market and set up a company on a part-time basis to design and manufacture these hardware items.

A material called transite was widely used at that time to make switching and transformer vaults for power plants. Transite is sheet material, similar to plywood except that the base material is asbestos which is noncombustable and a nonconductor of electricity.

The power plant specialty business had one serious drawback; while the market with Stone and Webster was quaranteed, it was sporadic. Stone and Webster did not receive new construction contracts every day and there were long gaps between contracts when there was no demand for the specialty items A search was therefore made for products which they could manufacture using the production tools they has for which a steady demand existed.

One of the three knew a toy buyer for the F.W. Woolworth Company; so they went into the toy business.

I have not been able to pinpoint the date when the three actually began manufacturing power plant items or when they began manufacturing toys but it was in the 1910-14 period. On October 23, 1914 they incorporated in Massachusetts as the National Toy Company. The initial capitalization was $1000; $700 in cash and $300, which was the evaluation placed on a patent for "talking machine toys." The incorporators were Warren Hopkins, Walter Balke, and Rosewell Douglass. Hopkins had the most money and the controlling interest in the company and always "called the shots" until his death in the early 1940's, even though he retained his position at Stone and Webster; in fact, Hopkins later became president of Stone and Webster Engineering Co. In the early toy days the company was run by Roswell Douglass; he died in the late 'teens and William Ready became the chief operating officer. He also took Douglass' place as a stock holder.

The toy business was highly successful; in June 1916, sixteen months after incorporating, the company had grossed over $33,000 and paid over $8,000 to Balke, Hopkins and Douglass. This is better than a ten-to-one return on their $700 cash investment is sixteen months and would be considered good even today, but these were pre-WWI dollars. The toys were sold through such wellknown stores as F.A.O. Schwarz, Jordan Marsh, Wm. Filene, John Wanamaker, and Gimbels Bros., as well as through Victor and Columbia Talking Machine dealers. Over 8,800 of these toys were sold between January and June of 1916 and the company planned to make 16,000 more during the remainder of 1916. The early talking machine (phonograph) toys were designed by Walter Balke, who was very ingenious mechanically; the toys were attached to the turntable of a phonograph and were activated by the record being played on the phonograph. For example, 'REX the Magnetic Dog' was controlled by a resonant reed. When this reed was activated by the proper note on the record, REX would jump out of his kennel. 'The Magnetic Dancers' were small figures of dancers with steel bases that would glide on an opaque glass plate over aspecial record on the phonograph containing small cobalt magnetics. These would cause the dancers to glide around the 'dance floor.' Another series were the 'Wireless Pups' which I have not seen described. There was also an entire family of 'Ragtime Rastus' dancers including Boxers and Uncle Sam and Mex. These were loose jointed wooden figures that would dance or box on top of a revolving turntable. By choosing a record with the proper beat, a very entertaining effect could be obtained.

This Success apparently created the need for additional working capital and it was proposed to issue $5,000 worth of preferred stock to be purchased by the present stock holders. The reasons for this are interesting:

"New things are constantly being brought to us, many of them specialties not in the toy line (for instance a mattress for children's cribs and hospitals which can be readily taken apart, washed and aired, as well as other household specialties). In order that we may take up the manufacture of any profitable specialty, we shall probably when increasing the capital stock change the name to The National Company or other suitable name that will not limit us to toys."

I have not been able to determine when that was written or when the name was actually changed but I believe it was in lat 1916. On February 16, 1932 the corporation charter was further amended to formally change the company name to the National Company, Inc. by which name the company is generally remembered. Note that the word "Company" is part of the name and should be spelled out as is the word National. The expression National Co., Inc. is incorrect.

When the United Sates entered World War Im the company made airplane parts and thread gauges for the war effort. At the conclusion of the war National went back to making power plant items, toys and as an added line, household items.

By the end of March 1923 the National inventory included fourteen items: T.M. Toys, Magnetic Dancers, Robert Mixers, DMB Covers, Victrolene, Wall Rack and Plan Holders, Radio Components, S. Santry, Holophane, Thompson Spa, Portalite, H. Electric Lt, Co. Doble and Miscellaneous. I can only identify about three of them.


Entering Radio - The Early Years


In the early 1920's several radio stations began regularly scheduled broadcasting and the public craze was to build radio receivers. The leading variable capacitor (condensor in those days) manufacturer at the time was Allen D. Cardwell, and Cardwell was not able to keep up with the demand. Cardwell's representative in the Boston area - George Q. Hill - was unhappy since he worked on commission and his income was limited by Cardwell's deliveries. Hill recognized the demand for variable capacitors and looked around for alternate sources. The management of National was always interested in new products and were eager to profit from the new radio craze. In 1922 they began supplying variable capacitors to Hill who sold them as fast as National could make them. When National later entered the radio business, Hill became the sales manager for radio products.

In 1924, two engineers from Harvard University, Fred H. Drake and Glenn Browning, developed the Browning Drake tuner which was "guaranteed" to improve radio reception; Browning and Drake approached National to manufacture the tuner. The radio editor of the Christian Science Monitor, Vulney Hurd, liked the Browning Drake tuner and gave it extensive publicity in his weekly newspaper column, so that the tuner soon became a very popular item. The National Company decided to make the design, manufacture and sales of radio equipment and components their principal line of business, and began looking around for someone knowledgeable in the fledging radio field to join the company and lead them.

In 1924 Hopkins, Ready and Balke were on a business trip to Garden City, Long Island where they were introduced to James Millen. Millen's father had recently died while the younger Millen was a mechanical engineering student at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. In order to finish college, Millen began writing magazine articles on radio topics. For example, a "Dear Abbey" type column on radio topics regularly appeared in Doubleday's Radio Broadcast magazine in which Millen answered questions from readers on their radio problems.

Millen had begun writing at an early age. He had his first item published when he was 15 in the October 1916 issue of Popular Science Monthly; it showed how any home work shop could have a small anvil. Staple an old fashioned flat-iron upside down to the edge of the work bench. It sounds like a good idea, even today, if you can find an old fashioned flat iron!

Because of his writing, Millen had aquired a considerable reputation in radio and had built up an extensive consulting practice which included CECO in Providance, R.I. and the Spencer brothers in the Boston area who had just established the American Appliance Co., which was later to become Raytheon. When Millen graduated in 1926 he began working for National on a consulting basis and in 1927 dropped his other consulting contracts and began working for them full time as Chief Engineer and General Manager. His goal was to firmly establish the National Company in the radio business.

In 1926 the National Company needed to expand its manufacturing facilities and acquired the factory building at 61 Sherman Street, Malden, Massachusetts, formerly owned by the Cub Knitting Mills. Cub had gone bankrupt and their factory had been put on the auction block. The attorney who was suppose to appear at the auction to set the minimum acceptable bid did not show up so the building went to National for about ten cents on the dollar.

National's first offering under Millen's guidance included a Type L-3 two-stage audio power amplifier and battery eliminator which was developed in collaboration with Arthur Lynch, a Model E-1 single stage audio amplifier and battery eliminator, and a Model M battery eliminator. These were announced late in 1927.

In 1929, in collaboration with Glenn Browning, National announced the MB-29 broadcast band tuner which consisted of three stages of rf amplification and bandpass tuning. In 1930 an improved model, the MB-30, consisting of four stages of rf amplification, was advertised. These were both TRF models.


The Regenerative Receivers


National's first short wave receiver was the SW-2 (stands for Short-Wave, 2 tubes) consisting of an intuned rf amplifer and a regenerative detector. The basic design was obtained from the RCA Communications Laboratory, then located at Van Cordtland Park, New York City. Several of Millen's college classmates had gone to work for RCA and he had extensive contacts there. The SW-2 was based on a receiver design RCA developed for an "export receiver" sold by the General Electric Co. in South America. This receiver became known as the SW-4 when it was later manufactured by National.

The SW-2 was the only receiver National made without sheet metal or production tooling; for example, all holes were laid out by hand instead of using fixtures. The SW-2 was extensively advertised as a TV receiver and Millen wrote an article in the November 1928 issue of Radio News describing his TV experiments. The SW-2 appeared in late 1927 or early 1928. A three-tube version of the SW-2 appeared in 1929; the third tube was an voltage amplifier and apparently was added to provide additional amplification for TV work.

In 1929 the company produced the four-tube SW-4, the fourth tube being an audio power output tube. A sheet metal cabinet was also provided.

As new and improved vacuum tubes were devloped, National improved its receivers. In 1930 Millen and Kruse, who was a former technical editor of QST, designed the SW-5 receiver. The fifth tube was added to provide a push-pull output stage for loud speaker operation. This was one of the first short-wave receivers specifically designed for operation from AC power lines. The receiver was completely hum-free and had no dead spots which was quite an accomplishment at that time. A "high fidelity" version of the same receiver - the SW-45 - was also sold which used type 45 tubes for the audio output stage instead of the type 27 used in the SW-5.

As the country was in the midst of the great depression, a low-cost version of the SW-5 was soon developed - the now venerable SW-3. The push-pull audio output stage of the SW-5 was eliminated - which meant headphone operation only - and a wrap-around sheet metal cabinet was substituted to further reduce costs. Both AC and battery powered models of the SW-3 were marketed and two upgrades made; the last right after WWII to use octal tubes. This receiver was in production almost 15 years, from 1933 to 1948, the longest production run of any receiver except the HRO which was in production for almost 30 years. The SW-3 has become a "must" for any collector of early short-wave receivers.

One last regenerative receiver deserves mention, the SW-58C. This receiver was designed as a companion receiver for the AGS superheterodyne receiver to cover the 200 to 400 Khz frequency range used by the airlines that the AGS receiver would not cover. The receiver is basically the SW-58 except for the plug-in coils. These coils look like the coils used for the AGS/FB-7 receivers but they are longer and smaller in diameter. They are NOT interchangeable with the AGS/FB-7 coils. The SW-58C has a National type N dial, as did the AGS; the SW-58C is generally seen in AGS advertisments as the 'other' receiver in the relay rack.


The Early Superheterodynes


In 1932 the General Electric Co. was awarded a contract by the recently established Civil Aeronautics Authority (known as the FAA today) to provide short-wave (HF in today's terminology) transmitters and receivers to the Government for air safety use in the fledgling airline industry. GE had developed a transmitter but they did not have a receiever. The Western Electric Company had a receiver, but for competitive reasons GE did not want to team with Western Electric and instead approached Millen to have National design and manufacture a suitable receiver. The result was the AGS (for Aeronautical Ground Station). This was the first high performance short-wave receiver made by National and one of the first high performance receivers commerically available. Most of the receivers were sold to the CAA through General Electric Co. A few went into the amateur market along with amateur band-spread coils.

Again the depression reared its head and in order to make the receiver more marketable a reduced version was made available; this was called the FB-7. The rf preselector was eliminated and a more economical wrap-around sheet metal cabinet was provided; only one set of coils was included so that the cost was reduced to where many amateurs could afford what was probably the first medium performance amateur superhet receiver. The receiver became very popular among amateurs and is among collector, too.


The HRO and its Descendents


After the introduction of the AGS by the Government, the airline industry itself began to recognize the importance of reliable radio communication and urged National to develop a receiver for their use. Herbert Hoover, Jr was then in charge of radio communications for Western Airlines (which later became part of TWA); he acted as an informal spokesman for the airlines. The main airline requirements were that if plug-in coils were necessary to obtain the desired performance, then all coils must be plugged in simultaneously. A second requirement was two stages of preselection. As these requirements, plus a crystal filter, closely matched those desired by the amateur community for their dream receiver, the two markets could be combined into one receiver which became known as the HRO. By the way, HRO stands for Helluva Rush Order, honestly! How it got that name is part of the HRO story which is too long to include here.

The HRO was first announced in the October 1934 issue of QST and delivery was promissed for December 1934 in time for the Christmas trade. The photograph shown in that announcement is the prototype model which did not go into production. However, technical problems delayed deliveries until March 1935; the photograph shown in the January issue of QST is that of the first production model. The same basic receiver stayed in continuous production almost thirty years until October 1964 when the HRO-500 was announced. This is a remarkable life span for any piece of electronic equipment, especially one that was designed so early in the electronics age.

In February 1936 National announced the HRO Jr., a scaled down version of the HRO, at a cost of just under $100. The advertised economics were effected by removing the crystal filter, the S-meter and by supplying only one coil set, without bandspread, to cover any two contiguous amateur bands. One further economy was not advertised; with the HRO Sr. each coil set was aligned in the receiver with which it was sold. This of course, gave an exact alignment of each coil set for each receiver. The complete alignment of an HRO Sr. required about four hours. With the HRO Jr. the coils were aligned to an average receiver and the receivers were aligned with an average coil set so that one did not have the precision alignment that was obtained with the more expensive receiver.

In August 1936, Millen announced a new receiver designed for both amateurs and short-wave listeners, the NC-100X. This basic design would be carried through in many more receiver designs, the 100XA, the NC-101 series, the NC-200 family that came out just before WWII, to mention a few. Unfortunately, time and space do not permit a detailed examination of these and many other receivers that National engineers developed. Suffice to say, that by the middle 1930's the design of high performance receivers had advanced from an art to a science and National built up a very competent engineering staff that kept National products up to date and in high demand.


Millen Leaves National


In 1939 lightning struck! The June 1939 issue of QST carried an announcement that as of May first, 1939, James Millen had "completely withdrawn from the National Company......" What had happened to end such a successful collaboration of almost 15 years?

The immediate reason occurred early in 1939. According to Millen, Warren Hopkins, who held the controlling interest in National, told Millen that he (Hopkins) wanted Millen to switch the emphasis of the company from making short-wave radios for a very limited sector of the country to making broadcast type radios to be marketed by the retail giants as Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward and the many large and well known department stores around the country. The purpose of the drastic change was to make the National Company a "household name" in the radio business.

Millen was flabbergasted!

National had been highly successful in designing and manufacturing short-wave radios; in fact, they were the recognized leader in the receiver field and more recently in transmitter and accessory items, too. Equally important, the company was profitable!

Why? Hopkins would give no definite reasons, saying only that he wanted to change the direction of the company, and the company needed products where it would have more exposure.

Millen wanted no part of it; he was dedicated to building the best receivers that he could build regardless of price. The consumer radio business was completely alien to him. So he left National and formed his own business.

From a historical point of view it is interesting to pause a moment and look back and examine what Millen had contributed to the National Company, Inc. in it transformation from a toy maker to a leadership role in short-wave communications receivers.

First, I have heard it said by people who were closely associated with National, but not employed by National, that, in the 1930's National was run by Jim Millen and his secretary Frances Bearse. Miss Bearse held the formal title of Office Manager but was apparently more of Millen's right-hand "man."

Second, Millen traveled extensively in those days visiting suppliers, dealers and most important, individual amateurs and amateurs radio clubs throughout the country. When he returned to Malden, he knew what new materials and components were available. He would sit down with his designers and sketch out new products. In short, Millen was an "idea man."

The third role Millen played was as a publicist. As noted earlier, Millen had a flair for writing and he used this ability well. He usually wrote a magazine article describing each new product, but more than that, he would explain in simple technical terms why it was built the way it was. By the end of the article most readers would agree that the way National designed the equipment was the "only way" to do it and nobody could improve upon it.

In the march 1934 issue of QST Millen inaugurated what is probably the longest running and most successful series of technical advertisments. These were always the first advertising page in QST and consisted of a single page write-up on some technical topic of interest at the time: a description of a new receiver, a new circuit or component of something similar. This page was known as "page 73" at National regardless of the magazine page on which it was printed. This series continued through number 243 which appeared in the July 1954 QST, a run of over 20 years.

In retrospect, Millen believes Warren Hopkins' desire to change direction was based on another consideration; Hopkins died of cancer in the early 1940's and Millen feels that Hopkins was told he had cancer in early 1939 and had only a few years to live. Hopkins wanted to convert his assets into the maximum amount of cash possible. This would be a natural reaction for any business man in Hopkins' situation. National had a good reputation in amateur and Government circles but was virtually unknown by the general public or, equally important, by the financial community which would ultimately set the value of his holdings. This lack of recognization would tend to hold down the price of National stock.

As it turned out, Hopkins got his wish of increased value for his stock but from an entirely different direction.

In the summer of 1939 war broke out in Europe; representatives of Allied governments, particularly the Royal Navy, visited National and ordered large numbers of receivers, particularly HRO's. When the United States entered the war some two years later, the word was "Start building HROs; we'll tell you when to stop."

Needless to say, National began producing for the war effort. The number of employees went from the 200-300 range to about 2500 during the war. The war effort brought increased recognition and profits to National and after the war, in the late forties, National went public.


National's Post-War Years


National built extensively on its war-time expansion and devlopment an impressive array of military, industrial, and consumer as well as amateur products and appeared to have a very promising future.

Effective June 1, 1953 William A. Ready retired, after almost forty years as president of National, and Charles C. Hornbostel became president. Hornbostel graduated from the Harvard School of Business specializing in accounting.

William A. Ready is remembered as a kindly person by his fellow employees at National. He knew most employees on a first name basis as well as their wife's and children's names. He was always available and often stopped to talk with employees on his tours through the plant. No special introductions were needed.

Ready began the tradition of holding employee Christmas parties. Former National employees still gather at Christmas to renew old friendships and memories. I have been priviledged to attend several of these reunions and have found the employees treasure their memories there. National must have been an interesting place to work!

After the company went public, a controlling interest was acquired by Louis C. Learner, an investment company, and the Learner interests took control. Legal technicalities tend to obscure the facts and I have not been able to dtermine all the details to my satisfaction.

The new management apparently set up a second company called National Radio Company, Inc.; all Government work continued to be charged to the National Company, but now all commercial and amateur work was charged to the National Radio Company. Press releases were made detailing plans for rejuvination of the company and the price of the stock went up. At that point the Learner interests sold their stock. Several component productlines were sold to Japanese interests as was the production machinery and the name National Company, Inc. The National Radio Company went into bankruptcy and that name was sold to the bankrupt's principal creditor, who in turn sold it to the FAN-WEL Corp., who purchased the remaining assets as well. In June 1974, FAN-WEL changed its name to National Radio Company, Inc. and is still doing business under that name.

The Japanese-held National Company, Inc. makes consumer type radios but, to the best of my knowledge, they are not sold in this country. Warren Hopkins had his wish come true after all.


Acknowledgements


I would like to acknowledge the extensive help I have received from many sources. First, James Millen has spent many hours reviewing the early days of National with me as well as the early history of the radio industry in which he played an important part. He has provided me with many technical data sheets and magazine tear sheets on the early equipment built by National and copies of his own extensive writings. I must also recognize the cooperation of the former employees of National who welcomed me into their group; particularly Vincent and Edith Messina, Conrad Espinola, Jack Ivers and Gene Simms. It has been a real pleasure meeting these people. I would like to also thank the management and employees of the present National Radio Company for letting me browse through their files of the old Nation Company.

Last, but certainly not least, my wife Martha has spent a lot of time correcting and revising my manuscripts and turned it into something readable.

I can not conceive that this document is free of errors, although it is based on the best evidence available to me. I will be happy to hear from anyone having more accurate information.

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