The Philco Radio and Television Corporation was one of the most prominent radio receiver manufacturers from the late 1920s through the end of the 1960s. The company was created in 1906 when the Helios Company of Pennsylvania , a maker of automotive electrical parts, decided to focus on battery manufacture only and was reorganized as the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company. The new company did quite well in the battery business, with over a million dollars in sales at the end of 1917. As part of an aggressive marketing campaign in 1919, the company’s name was shortened to “Philco”.
FIRST RADIO PRODUCTS, AND A CRISIS
Radio receivers of the 1920s required batteries – large batteries to supply operating voltages to the circuitry. Philco expanded their line of automobile and truck batteries to include radio batteries, and chargers for those batteries. The company also marketed what were called “socket-power” units. These units allowed a radio owner to replace the set's batteries with power converted from the standard alternating-current (AC) house wiring. Socket-power units proved to be Philco’s most important product at the time, and by the end of 1927 nearly a million had been sold.
Though Philco was the leader in radio batteries and power units, the radio industry was about to change. RCA introduced, in late 1927, its UX-226, UY-227, and UX-171A tubes designed for use with alternating current. By using these tubes, along with a rectifier tube, radio sets could be built that required no batteries at all. The tubes gained wide acceptance with radio designers and manufacturers, and this threw Philco into a crisis situation.
Rather than attempt to salvage its fading battery business, Philco retooled and became a radio manufacturer itself. Designers and engineers were hired, and the company acquired the necessary radio manufacturing licenses from the Murdock Company when it decided to leave the radio business. Then, Philco quickly contracted with the Hazeltine Company for the use of their Neutrodyne circuit. These actions resulted in the 1927-28 introduction of Philco’s first radio receiver, Model 511. This radio was available in a wide variety of cabinet styles, both tabletop and console, and was even available in various cabinet colors. Model 511 was (and still is, with careful restoration) an excellent-sounding radio, and sold over 96,000 units. The success of this model was enough to push Philco into full-time radio manufacture.
PHILCO LEADS THE INDUSTRY
Philco expanded its line of receivers with such models as the Model 86, the first to use screen-grid tubes, and the Model 20 “Baby Grand”, a small inexpensive receiver. The Baby Grand sold so well that, by the end of 1930, Philco was number one in radio sales. Throughout the rest of the 1930s, Philco had similar successes with other innovative models. Model 16 (1933-35) was an eleven-tube radio, capable of standard AM broadcast and shortwave reception. Available in either tabletop or console versions, the tabletop version was one of the largest ever manufactured. Another, the ubiquitous Model 60, a five-tube “home” broadcast receiver, was released in 1933. A simple, yet well-designed radio, it sold well and many examples survive today.
In 1935, Philco introduced the first of its “high-fidelity” models with the 200X. This receiver had a much wider frequency response than most radios of the time. This feature was refined and continued in Models 37-116 (1937), 38-116, and 38-690 (both 1938). These huge receivers featured automatic frequency control to maintain precise tuning, automatic station selector dials, and superb audio frequency response. Philco’s high-fidelity models, when correctly adjusted and tuned to a well-modulated AM station, could approach FM-quality sound. The company also offered its regular line of compact tabletop models and less expensive consoles.
During the 1939 model year, Philco released Model 39-116, its first featuring the new wireless “Mystery Control”. This was a small box that resembled a telephone set without a handset. The user could dial up preset stations, adjust volume levels, and turn the receiver off – all without going to the receiver itself. When thus activated, the Mystery Control box sent a series of radio pulses to the receiver, wherein a smaller separate receiver controlled the radio’s functions.
Philco continued to produce radio receivers and maintain its preeminent position in radio manufacturing through the end of 1942. When the United States entered World War II Philco, like most manufacturers, turned to wartime production. The company built not only radio equipment for war use, but also manufactured fuses and rocket projectiles. After war’s end in 1945, Philco returned to radio production, and expanded into manufacturing air conditioners, refrigerators, and electric freezers. Though its radio models of the late 1940s, and the 1950s were unremarkable, Philco nonetheless remained a leader in the radio industry.
PHILCO AND TELEVISION
Other manufacturers, such as RCA and Zenith, had not been idle in the new field of television. RCA became the industry leader in production of television sets, with Zenith in second place. Though the company had conducted research into television as early as 1928, Philco soon found itself in third place and struggling to catch up. By the 1947-48 model year, Philco was ready and marketed a complete line of tabletop and console television sets. These sets eventually reflected the quality Philco had achieved in its radio receivers, and the company soon became a major producer of television receivers.
Philco managed to catch the public’s fancy with two unusual television sets. The Predicta series of the late 1950s, with the picture tube mounted externally on top of the television receiver cabinet, was a design first. The picture tube was detachable and, by means of a connecting cable, could be placed away from the main body of the receiver. Though the Predicta was plagued with engineering faults, it was nonetheless popular with consumers. Today, surviving models are famous, immediately recognizable symbols of Fifties culture.
In 1960, Philco scored another first with the release of the Safari. This television receiver was the industry’s first fully solid-state, battery operated portable set. The set had a two-inch picture tube and included a magnifier to make the picture appear larger. The Safari was lightweight and could also be operated from standard AC house current.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Philco was in serious financial trouble, losing over four million dollars alone in 1961. The company was saved from total ruin, however, when it was purchased by the Ford Motor Company. Ford’s leadership soon returned the new Philco-Ford Division to profitability. The company continued to produce radio and television receivers, many of them now solid-state as the industry moved away from vacuum tubes.
Philco was sold again, in 1974, to General Telephone and Electronics. Little resulted from this move, and a final sale came in 1981 to Philips. The venerable Philco name had nearly disappeared, but Philips revitalized the company once more. Today, the Philco name is once again appearing on television sets, camcorders, and video recorders. Classic Philco radios are among the most collectible, and most antique radio enthusiasts have at least one or two Philcos in their collection.
Ramirez, Ron. Philco Radio, 1928-1942. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Books, 1993.
Ramirez, Ron. PhilcoRadio.com. <http://www.philcoradio.com>. 5 January 2003.
Rider, John F. Perpetual Troubleshooter’s Manual. New York: John F. Rider Publisher, 1938.
Schwark, Chuck, The Philco Repair Bench. <http://members.aol.com/philcodata/pdatindx.htm>. 6 January 2003.