For many years during the 1920s and 1930s, the name Atwater Kent stood for a superior class of radio receiver. While manufacturers such as Philco, RCA, Crosley, and Zenith sold a full range of receivers, the Atwater Kent company emphasized quality over quantity. It marketed only a few select models each year, preferring to concentrate on exquisite cabinets and handcrafted circuitry. Owners of Atwater Kent radios tended to “trade-up” each year, as improved models were released.
Arthur Atwater Kent founded the Kent Electrical Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia in 1895. The company’s first products were motors and small fans. Kent had a special interest in automobiles, particularly in ignition systems. His most famous automotive product was the Contactor, a device that permitted the use of a single coil in the ignition system. The success of his automotive and electrical business ventures enabled him to indulge his other interest, radio. With a full manufacturing facility and service network already in place, in 1921 the Atwater Kent Company entered the radio receiver business.
The company’s first offerings, models 1 through 10, were simple tuned-radio-frequency (TRF) receivers. The components of these radios were assembled externally on mahogany boards (so-called “breadboard” construction). The radios had a pleasing appearance, and their performance was adequate.
The success of these models led to newer models, now encased in metal cabinets. These included model 30, a small tabletop receiver that was the first model to feature single control tuning; and model 40, one of Atwater Kent’s first to use the new AC tubes. These radios had a sleek, professional appearance, with the Atwater Kent gold medallion on the top of the cabinet.
Model 55, introduced in 1927, was the company’s first receiver to feature the new screen-grid UY-224A tubes. These tubes gave improved performance over the triode tubes used in previous models, and sales reflected the public’s acceptance of this model.
Around 1928, the company released model 70. This was one of Atwater Kent’s first receivers to use the superheterodyne circuit. It was available in a tabletop metal cabinet; or, it could be installed in any one of the luxurious wooden cabinets produced by the Pooley Cabinet Company. Model 70 was an excellent performer and greatly enhanced Atwater Kent's reputation. The improved model 85 would replace it, a few years later.
Kent, never averse to publicity, became almost as well known as his company’s receivers. His name appeared often in New York society columns, and he was involved in a number of philanthropic endeavors. He founded the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia, which exists today and houses many examples of the company’s products. Also, Atwater Kent Hall (completed 1907), at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, is named for him.
A CHANGING MARKET
As the United States entered the Great Depression, in the early 1930s, the radio market began to respond to the changing economic circumstances. The public had less money to spend on radio receivers, and most receiver manufacturers adapted by producing less costly models. Atwater Kent continued to introduce new models each year while maintaining its quality standards.
The company broadened its offerings, with models 165Q and 525Q, battery operated receivers for households without AC power; and models, such as the 135Z and 305Z, for use on 32-volt direct current lighting systems.
Harking back to its involvement in automotive systems, Atwater Kent also produced a line of receivers for installation in automobiles.
Though the company continued to do well, Kent never completely accepted the notion that to survive, his company would have to sell cheaper receivers. Not wishing to compromise his reputation, he decided to leave the radio business entirely, and closed the entire production down in 1936.
Kent relocated to Hollywood, California, and began his retirement. He died, after a short illness, in 1949. Today, surviving Atwater Kent receivers have lost none of their famous reputation. They remain a favorite among antique radio collectors and a tribute to their creator.
Rider, John F. Perpetual Troubleshooter’s Manual, Volume 6
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Warner, Vane. "Atwater Kent Radios". Atwater Kent Radios
. < http://web2.iadfw.net/vanew/> (29 December 2002)