The Story of the James Millen Manufacturing
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
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
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.