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Vintage Radio

Atwater Kent Radios - quality with mass market appeal

By Kevin Poulter

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The Atwater Kent Model E speaker (circa 1928) had a timber-veneer cone.

Arthur Atwater Kent was born in 1873 and his career choice was probably influenced by his father being a machinist, before he became a doctor. Atwater, as he became known, studied mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1895. Not keen on study, Atwater was already running a small business called the Kent Electric Manufacturing Company in the back room of his father’s machine shop.

Kent was making and selling electrical items like small motors, generators and fans. By 1906, this included automobile ignitions, with the Uni-Sparker ignition system becoming an industry standard. In 1921, Atwater Kent improved his ignition system further and patented it.

Entertainment radio was saturating the media hype of the early 20s, so in 1921, Kent produced his first radio components, with do-it-yourself kits for “breadboard” assembly by early radio enthusiasts. The Model 3925 (or Model 1) was introduced late in 1922, as a tuner, detector, and one-stage amplifier without the middle variometer installed, in order to avoid Edwin Armstrong’s regenerative circuit patent fees.

The variometer was sold separately (frequently being featured in the same advertisement as the radio, although its real function was not mentioned). When this “missing” component was installed by the user, it provided additional RF signal boost through regeneration.

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The Model 53 was a mains-powered consolette, circa 1929. This is the model shown in the photo of the press stamping out cabinets and is often referred to as the "stove model", for obvious reasons.

During 1923, his firm produced complete radio sets, with the Model 10 ready for Christmas that year. This was followed by the Model 9 and more breadboard sets. According to an employee, Mr Kent had already decided to close his plant in 1923 and was winding down his operations. However the increasing sales of radios apparently changed his mind and he expanded instead.

In 1924, the company moved to a new $2 million plant in North Philadelphia. This plant, constructed in sections, would eventually cover 32 acres (13 hectares). The Atwater Kent brand became known as a leader in quality radios and despite high prices, people recognised they were one of the very best money could buy. He spent a staggering half million dollars on advertising alone during 1924.

By 1925, Atwater Kent was the largest manufacturer of radios in the USA. The company also sponsored the popular “Atwater Kent Hour”, a top-rated radio concert music program broadcast across the country from 1926-1934. Sponsoring this show cost $7000 a week in 1926-7 and his printed advertising outlay was three to four million dollars!

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