On Thursday, February 18, the FAH Behind the Steam program examines the Westinghouse Model RC Regenerative Radio currently on display in the Marshall Steam Museum. Known as the Radiola RC when Radio Corporation of America began selling the model, this radio was a collaboration between Westinghouse Electric Company and General Electric who commercially developed the “audion” or “valves” (what we refer to as electron vacuum tubes today) used within the radio. Featured guest for Behind the Steam will be Donna Acerra, Professor of Communication at Northampton Community College, discussing the early history of radio. 

Offered between 1920 and 1923, the Radola RC consisted of the Westinghouse RA Tuner and Westinghouse DA Detector-Amplifier packaged in a single enclosure, selling for $130 ($1,800 equivalent in 2020). It is estimated that approximately 145,000 units were produced at the start of the 1920s. Station KDKA of Pittsburgh, PA, the first commercial radio station (owned by Westinghouse Electric), might have been received on the Marshall Radiola RC at the start of the 1920s. Clarence probably chose a closer AM station (commercial FM radio would not happen until 1937) with a stronger signal for listening. What local radio stations might Clarence and Esther have listened to?

It is likely the Westinghouse Radiola RC was a wedding gift to Clarence and Ester in June 1921. There were numerous privately owned amateur radio stations broadcasting during daytime hours (random schedules and times) and at night listeners might tune into distant stations in Canada, South America, and Europe depending on ‘atmospherics’ and the state of the ‘ether’. In radio’s infancy, the ether or atmosphere above the clouds, was described as medium in which radio energy traveled between transmitter and receivers. The physical condition of the atmosphere, or atmospherics, on any given day affected early radio wave transmission and determined the quality and how well distant stations might be received.

In Wilmington, in 1920, the last year of licensed amateur-only radio before licensed commercial radio, there was 3RE operated by Joseph A. Barkley, 3WF operated by Albert Briggs, 3BE operated by Frederick R. Gooding, 3KK operated by David L. Ott, Jr., 3UO operated by Robert K. Pierson, 3NP operated by Leroy H. Ryan, and 3OX operated by Joseph S. Tatnall. These stations operated between 24 and 1,000 watts of transmitting power. Starting with a ‘3’, these stations were all in the nation’s 3rd radio licensing district.

The U.S. Commerce Department began issuing commercial radio licenses in late December 1920 but it wasn’t until 1923 that several northern Delaware radio stations applied for commercial licensing. Wilmington had WHAV, WOAT, and WPAW by June 1923. WHAV and WOAT were 50-watt stations while WPAW was licensed as a 10-watt station. All three were limited-hours operations and short lived.

The closest radio stations ‘as the crow flies’ would have been those in Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ roughly 40 miles distant. These stations would have had the strongest signals (500-watt transmitters or higher) and thus been the easiest to tune in with the early vacuum tube regenerative technology. There were also stations in Baltimore and the nation’s capital which were more distant but still could be received in Yorklyn.

Four Philadelphia stations were associated with large department stores in downtown Philadelphia. Radio broadcast stations were popular with department stores as they supported the store’s radio department and could be used for store advertising. All three AM stations began operations in mid-March 1922 with two still operating today. Perhaps the best-known today is WIP Radio started by Gimbel Brothers atop their Philadelphia department store. WIP was Philadelphia’s first commercial radio broadcast station and lasted in various programming formats and frequencies until 2014 when it transitioned to being an FM broadcast station.

John Wanamaker’s WOO in Philadelphia was perhaps the most widely listened to. The first of two stations the department store chain operated; WOO offered daily programs on the world’s largest pipe organ with an orchestra. WOO is known to have been heard in South Africa, Norway, France, Germany as well as the west coast of the USA. While WOO lasted until February 1929, WWZ in Wanamaker’s New York City store operated until late 1923. Interestingly both of these AM radio stations began as American Marconi Morse Code stations (WHE in Philadelphia and WHI in New York City) in 1911 transmitting and receiving wireless telegraphy messaging of Wanamaker sales information until late 1921.

WDAR began operations in 1922 broadcasting from the Lit Brothers department store in Philadelphia and is now WJMX. The other AM station still existing today is WFI (now WFIL, a Christian based station). WFI’s license was originally granted to Strawbridge & Clothier department store.

Of the non-department store broadcast stations that operated in the Philadelphia and Camden area, one is still broadcasting in 2021. WCAU started in 1922, changed call letters on several occasions (WOGL, WGMP, WPTS) before becoming WPHT. WGL in Philadelphia operated between February 1922 and December 1924 while WRP in Camden, NJ operated from March 1922 until August 1923.

The next closest stations to Yorklyn, DE would have been those in Baltimore, MD (~75 miles distant) and in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. (~115 miles distant). WKC operated in Baltimore while nine stations were in operation in D.C. between 1921 and 1925; WDM, WDW, WEAS, WIL, WJH, WMU, and WPM. WCAO, and WEAR. Ten stations in New York City and Newark, NJ (~125 miles distant) might have been received by the Marshall Radiola RC including New York City stations WBAY, WDT, WEAF, WJX, WJZ* and WWZ along with Newark NJ stations WAAM, WBS, WDY, and WOR* (* – still operating today).

Pictured is the UV-200 Detector electron vacuum tube (right, upper) and the UV-201 Amplifier electron vacuum tube (left, lower) used in the Westinghouse Radiola Model RC Regenerative Radio. One UV-200 and two UV-201 tubes were required for the Model RC. There were numerous manufacturers licensed to produce these tubes and they went through several mechanical changes (longer pins, change of base material, etc.) during the period they were manufactured. Both tubes were functionally equivalent in internal construction except that the UV-200 had a trace amount of Argon added to improve performance. The UV-201 and its variants was the most popular tube of the 1920s.

Nearly 1,000 products manufactured between 1920 and 1926 used one or both of these first-generation commercial vacuum tube types. They found use in radio frequency detectors and amplifiers and audio frequency amplifiers. Obviously no longer available, radio collectors have constructed modern electronic equivalent circuits that perform similar to two valves. The construction of such valve equivalents, the addition of a horn speaker, outdoor antenna, batteries or DC power supplies, and a sufficient ground connection would be all that is needed to have the Westinghouse Radiola RC sounding as Clarence once heard it.