The Story of the James Millen Manufacturing Company, Inc.
By Alan Douglas


This paper originally appeared in the AWA Old Timers Bulletin, June 1981. 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. William Fizette, AWA President and Mr. Marc Ellis, OTB Editor for their support and assistance.

The story of Jim Millen, his work with National and later his own company, has been covered before (CQ, July 1967, pp.26-31) but it would take a dozen such articles to do justice to the subject.

In 13 years he transformed the old National Toy Company into the country's foremost ham and commercial radio manufacturer, but when National's backers tried to freeze Jim out of the profits (by paying themselves high salaries to reduce profits to be split) he knew it was time to form his own company. To guard against similar problems in the future, he became a banker himself, and indeed is still active in that profession.

It was a good time to be in electronics; the industry was small enough so that many engineers and executives knew each other personally. As an illustration of how the industry was run, among those who played the game like sportsmen, Jim tells of a request from RCA for his company to build their service oscilloscopes.

He needed a $100,000 loan to set up production lines, which was out of the question through formal channels. But RCA arranged to sell CRT's to Millen who would install them in the scopes and sell them back to RCA at the same price. Millen's invoice to RCA was paid within ten days, but RCA allowed six months to pay their invoices. Result: a $100,000 interest free loan!

Similar arrangements could be made for an RCA license, which 'formally' cost $100,000, far too much for a small company to pay. But Millen could license RCA to use some of his lesser patents for $90,000, and pay them their $100,000, in effect getting the license for $10,000.

In May 1938, QST carried a notice of the new James Millen Company, and in October their first ad and catalog appeared. Succeeding catalogs featured a rapidly-expanding line of mechanical components, all soundly engineered - some have survived unchanged for forty years - but this was just the tip of the iceberg.

What really paid the company bills was the subcontracting work for firms such as RCA and GE. They found it far cheaper to have Millen make equipment than to set up their own production lines. It might be service scopes for RCA, two-way police radios for GE, wartime gear for MIT's Radiation Lab, or marine radar for Raytheon.

Sometimes the products were fully engineered and ready for production; more often Millen would receive an electrical prototype and would do all the mechanical design themselves. As new components were designed and tooled up, they would appear in the catalog. Subcontract work accounted for perhaps three-quarters of Millen's total output, and kept the amateur activities afloat.

Millen's approach to ham equipment was to take electrical designs originated by others, and to adapt them mechanically for commercial production. Their first venture was a tunable heterodyne filter, used in the headphone line outboard of a receiver, adapted from a September 1939 QST article and made under license (given gratis) by its author Dr. Ray Woodward. In January 1941 QST published a description of Henry Rice's clever VFO called the "Variarm", and shortly Millen had a commercial model going.

Jim Millen had intended from the beginning, to make an amateur receiver, but not until the war's end was he in the position to do so. He had an elaborate design ready, a receiver incorporating every feature a ham could want: direct frequency readout, ten ham- and general-coverage bands, motor-assisted tuning, motor-driven bandswitching, etc etc.

It appeared in the early 1947 catalog, as a "custom-built" model, but it must have been apparent, some time before, that it was not a profitable venture: no ham could afford it. Only one prototype was ever finished.

A "cheaper" model was under design at the same time, using a more traditional approach, with sliding coil catacomb (like the Millen-designed pre-war National models) and band-set-bandspread tuning condensors. This model DFP-201 is absolutely typical of Millen's design philosophy, that a sound mechanical design was the foundation on which the electrical design would be built.

Millen unveiled the DFP201 (and the 501) at a Chicago trade show in May 1947, and put it in his catalog, but it was soon obvious that even this "cheaper" model could never be sold; their no-compromise design philosophy made it far to expensive. The few prototypes that were completed were said to have cost $2100 apiece to build. Both models were immediately withdrawn, and revised catalogs printed.

Through the 1950's and 60's new ham equipment appeared in Millen catalogs, side by side with mechanical components.

After 38 years it was time to pull the plug. Their antiquated factory building was in the path of urban renewal, and massive renovations would have been needed to meet new OSHA safety regulations. Jim suffered a heart attack and had to reduce his activities, so in May 1977 the factory was closed. Jim retired to his farm and his banking interests. He feels lucky to have been in the electronics business when there was room for individual effort, and certainly the rest of us are lucky to have benefitted from his contributions.

My thanks to (naturally) Jim Millen, his production superintendent Gene Williams and 30-year employee Mel Dunbrack, and to Tom Rutherford who salvaged from the factory much of the equipment that otherwise would have been scrapped.

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