By John J. Nagle, K4KJ
paper originally appeared in AWA Review, Volume 1. 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. Bill Fizette, AWA
President, for his support of the Millen Page project.
story of how a small manufacturer of power plant specialty items,
and later toys and household items, became one of the leading
manufacturers of amateur, commercial and military short-wave communications
equipment is interesting and fascinating. As we will see, it was
not planned that way; it just happened!
In 1879 Edison invented the electric light bulb. This created
a large demand for electrical energy. Charles Steinmetz and George
Westinghouse solved the mysteries of alternating current which
permitted large amounts of electrical energy to be transmitted
over long distances. This, in turn, created a need for large power
generating stations. By the early 1900's the design and construction
of power generating stations was, in today's terminology, an emerging
At the turn of the century, one of the leading power plant construction
companies was, and still is, the Stone and Webster Co. who then
had their headquarters in the Boston, Massachusetts area.
Power plants required many hardware specialty items which were
new and unique and for which no regular suppliers had yet established
themselves. Three mechanical engineers from Stone and Webster
recognized this market and set up a company on a part-time basis
to design and manufacture these hardware items.
A material called transite was widely used at that time to make
switching and transformer vaults for power plants. Transite is
sheet material, similar to plywood except that the base material
is asbestos which is noncombustable and a nonconductor of electricity.
The power plant specialty business had one serious drawback; while
the market with Stone and Webster was quaranteed, it was sporadic.
Stone and Webster did not receive new construction contracts every
day and there were long gaps between contracts when there was
no demand for the specialty items A search was therefore made
for products which they could manufacture using the production
tools they has for which a steady demand existed.
One of the three knew a toy buyer for the F.W. Woolworth Company;
so they went into the toy business.
I have not been able to pinpoint the date when the three actually
began manufacturing power plant items or when they began manufacturing
toys but it was in the 1910-14 period. On October 23, 1914 they
incorporated in Massachusetts as the National Toy Company. The
initial capitalization was $1000; $700 in cash and $300, which
was the evaluation placed on a patent for "talking machine
toys." The incorporators were Warren Hopkins, Walter Balke,
and Rosewell Douglass. Hopkins had the most money and the controlling
interest in the company and always "called the shots"
until his death in the early 1940's, even though he retained his
position at Stone and Webster; in fact, Hopkins later became president
of Stone and Webster Engineering Co. In the early toy days the
company was run by Roswell Douglass; he died in the late 'teens
and William Ready became the chief operating officer. He also
took Douglass' place as a stock holder.
The toy business was highly successful; in June 1916, sixteen
months after incorporating, the company had grossed over $33,000
and paid over $8,000 to Balke, Hopkins and Douglass. This is better
than a ten-to-one return on their $700 cash investment is sixteen
months and would be considered good even today, but these were
pre-WWI dollars. The toys were sold through such wellknown stores
as F.A.O. Schwarz, Jordan Marsh, Wm. Filene, John Wanamaker, and
Gimbels Bros., as well as through Victor and Columbia Talking
Machine dealers. Over 8,800 of these toys were sold between January
and June of 1916 and the company planned to make 16,000 more during
the remainder of 1916. The early talking machine (phonograph)
toys were designed by Walter Balke, who was very ingenious mechanically;
the toys were attached to the turntable of a phonograph and were
activated by the record being played on the phonograph. For example,
'REX the Magnetic Dog' was controlled by a resonant reed. When
this reed was activated by the proper note on the record, REX
would jump out of his kennel. 'The Magnetic Dancers' were small
figures of dancers with steel bases that would glide on an opaque
glass plate over aspecial record on the phonograph containing
small cobalt magnetics. These would cause the dancers to glide
around the 'dance floor.' Another series were the 'Wireless Pups'
which I have not seen described. There was also an entire family
of 'Ragtime Rastus' dancers including Boxers and Uncle Sam and
Mex. These were loose jointed wooden figures that would dance
or box on top of a revolving turntable. By choosing a record with
the proper beat, a very entertaining effect could be obtained.
This Success apparently created the need for additional working
capital and it was proposed to issue $5,000 worth of preferred
stock to be purchased by the present stock holders. The reasons
for this are interesting:
"New things are constantly being brought to us, many of
them specialties not in the toy line (for instance a mattress
for children's cribs and hospitals which can be readily taken
apart, washed and aired, as well as other household specialties).
In order that we may take up the manufacture of any profitable
specialty, we shall probably when increasing the capital stock
change the name to The National Company or other suitable name
that will not limit us to toys."
I have not been able to determine when that was written or when
the name was actually changed but I believe it was in lat 1916.
On February 16, 1932 the corporation charter was further amended
to formally change the company name to the National Company, Inc.
by which name the company is generally remembered. Note that the
word "Company" is part of the name and should be spelled
out as is the word National. The expression National Co., Inc.
When the United Sates entered World War Im the company made airplane
parts and thread gauges for the war effort. At the conclusion
of the war National went back to making power plant items, toys
and as an added line, household items.
By the end of March 1923 the National inventory included fourteen
items: T.M. Toys, Magnetic Dancers, Robert Mixers, DMB Covers,
Victrolene, Wall Rack and Plan Holders, Radio Components, S. Santry,
Holophane, Thompson Spa, Portalite, H. Electric Lt, Co. Doble
and Miscellaneous. I can only identify about three of them.
Entering Radio - The Early Years
In the early 1920's several radio stations began regularly scheduled
broadcasting and the public craze was to build radio receivers.
The leading variable capacitor (condensor in those days) manufacturer
at the time was Allen D. Cardwell, and Cardwell was not able to
keep up with the demand. Cardwell's representative in the Boston
area - George Q. Hill - was unhappy since he worked on commission
and his income was limited by Cardwell's deliveries. Hill recognized
the demand for variable capacitors and looked around for alternate
sources. The management of National was always interested in new
products and were eager to profit from the new radio craze. In
1922 they began supplying variable capacitors to Hill who sold
them as fast as National could make them. When National later
entered the radio business, Hill became the sales manager for
In 1924, two engineers from Harvard University, Fred H. Drake
and Glenn Browning, developed the Browning Drake tuner which was
"guaranteed" to improve radio reception; Browning and
Drake approached National to manufacture the tuner. The radio
editor of the Christian Science Monitor, Vulney Hurd, liked the
Browning Drake tuner and gave it extensive publicity in his weekly
newspaper column, so that the tuner soon became a very popular
item. The National Company decided to make the design, manufacture
and sales of radio equipment and components their principal line
of business, and began looking around for someone knowledgeable
in the fledging radio field to join the company and lead them.
In 1924 Hopkins, Ready and Balke were on a business trip to Garden
City, Long Island where they were introduced to James Millen.
Millen's father had recently died while the younger Millen was
a mechanical engineering student at the Stevens Institute of Technology
in Hoboken, N.J. In order to finish college, Millen began writing
magazine articles on radio topics. For example, a "Dear Abbey"
type column on radio topics regularly appeared in Doubleday's
Radio Broadcast magazine in which Millen answered questions
from readers on their radio problems.
Millen had begun writing at an early age. He had his first item
published when he was 15 in the October 1916 issue of Popular
Science Monthly; it showed how any home work shop could have a
small anvil. Staple an old fashioned flat-iron upside down to
the edge of the work bench. It sounds like a good idea, even today,
if you can find an old fashioned flat iron!
Because of his writing, Millen had aquired a considerable reputation
in radio and had built up an extensive consulting practice which
included CECO in Providance, R.I. and the Spencer brothers in
the Boston area who had just established the American Appliance
Co., which was later to become Raytheon. When Millen graduated
in 1926 he began working for National on a consulting basis and
in 1927 dropped his other consulting contracts and began working
for them full time as Chief Engineer and General Manager. His
goal was to firmly establish the National Company in the radio
In 1926 the National Company needed to expand its manufacturing
facilities and acquired the factory building at 61 Sherman Street,
Malden, Massachusetts, formerly owned by the Cub Knitting Mills.
Cub had gone bankrupt and their factory had been put on the auction
block. The attorney who was suppose to appear at the auction to
set the minimum acceptable bid did not show up so the building
went to National for about ten cents on the dollar.
National's first offering under Millen's guidance included a Type
L-3 two-stage audio power amplifier and battery eliminator which
was developed in collaboration with Arthur Lynch, a Model E-1
single stage audio amplifier and battery eliminator, and a Model
M battery eliminator. These were announced late in 1927.
In 1929, in collaboration with Glenn Browning, National announced
the MB-29 broadcast band tuner which consisted of three stages
of rf amplification and bandpass tuning. In 1930 an improved model,
the MB-30, consisting of four stages of rf amplification, was
advertised. These were both TRF models.
The Regenerative Receivers
National's first short wave receiver was the SW-2 (stands for
Short-Wave, 2 tubes) consisting of an intuned rf amplifer and
a regenerative detector. The basic design was obtained from the
RCA Communications Laboratory, then located at Van Cordtland Park,
New York City. Several of Millen's college classmates had gone
to work for RCA and he had extensive contacts there. The SW-2
was based on a receiver design RCA developed for an "export
receiver" sold by the General Electric Co. in South America.
This receiver became known as the SW-4 when it was later manufactured
The SW-2 was the only receiver National made without sheet metal
or production tooling; for example, all holes were laid out by
hand instead of using fixtures. The SW-2 was extensively advertised
as a TV receiver and Millen wrote an article in the November 1928
issue of Radio News describing his TV experiments. The SW-2 appeared
in late 1927 or early 1928. A three-tube version of the SW-2 appeared
in 1929; the third tube was an voltage amplifier and apparently
was added to provide additional amplification for TV work.
In 1929 the company produced the four-tube SW-4, the fourth tube
being an audio power output tube. A sheet metal cabinet was also
As new and improved vacuum tubes were devloped, National improved
its receivers. In 1930 Millen and Kruse, who was a former technical
editor of QST, designed the SW-5 receiver. The fifth tube was
added to provide a push-pull output stage for loud speaker operation.
This was one of the first short-wave receivers specifically designed
for operation from AC power lines. The receiver was completely
hum-free and had no dead spots which was quite an accomplishment
at that time. A "high fidelity" version of the same
receiver - the SW-45 - was also sold which used type 45 tubes
for the audio output stage instead of the type 27 used in the
As the country was in the midst of the great depression, a low-cost
version of the SW-5 was soon developed - the now venerable SW-3.
The push-pull audio output stage of the SW-5 was eliminated -
which meant headphone operation only - and a wrap-around sheet
metal cabinet was substituted to further reduce costs. Both AC
and battery powered models of the SW-3 were marketed and two upgrades
made; the last right after WWII to use octal tubes. This receiver
was in production almost 15 years, from 1933 to 1948, the longest
production run of any receiver except the HRO which was in production
for almost 30 years. The SW-3 has become a "must" for
any collector of early short-wave receivers.
One last regenerative receiver deserves mention, the SW-58C. This
receiver was designed as a companion receiver for the AGS superheterodyne
receiver to cover the 200 to 400 Khz frequency range used by the
airlines that the AGS receiver would not cover. The receiver is
basically the SW-58 except for the plug-in coils. These coils
look like the coils used for the AGS/FB-7 receivers but they are
longer and smaller in diameter. They are NOT interchangeable with
the AGS/FB-7 coils. The SW-58C has a National type N dial, as
did the AGS; the SW-58C is generally seen in AGS advertisments
as the 'other' receiver in the relay rack.
The Early Superheterodynes
In 1932 the General Electric Co. was awarded a contract by the
recently established Civil Aeronautics Authority (known as the
FAA today) to provide short-wave (HF in today's terminology) transmitters
and receivers to the Government for air safety use in the fledgling
airline industry. GE had developed a transmitter but they did
not have a receiever. The Western Electric Company had a receiver,
but for competitive reasons GE did not want to team with Western
Electric and instead approached Millen to have National design
and manufacture a suitable receiver. The result was the AGS (for
Aeronautical Ground Station). This was the first high performance
short-wave receiver made by National and one of the first high
performance receivers commerically available. Most of the receivers
were sold to the CAA through General Electric Co. A few went into
the amateur market along with amateur band-spread coils.
Again the depression reared its head and in order to make the
receiver more marketable a reduced version was made available;
this was called the FB-7. The rf preselector was eliminated and
a more economical wrap-around sheet metal cabinet was provided;
only one set of coils was included so that the cost was reduced
to where many amateurs could afford what was probably the first
medium performance amateur superhet receiver. The receiver became
very popular among amateurs and is among collector, too.
The HRO and its Descendents
After the introduction of the AGS by the Government, the airline
industry itself began to recognize the importance of reliable
radio communication and urged National to develop a receiver for
their use. Herbert Hoover, Jr was then in charge of radio communications
for Western Airlines (which later became part of TWA); he acted
as an informal spokesman for the airlines. The main airline requirements
were that if plug-in coils were necessary to obtain the desired
performance, then all coils must be plugged in simultaneously.
A second requirement was two stages of preselection. As these
requirements, plus a crystal filter, closely matched those desired
by the amateur community for their dream receiver, the two markets
could be combined into one receiver which became known as the
HRO. By the way, HRO stands for Helluva Rush Order, honestly!
How it got that name is part of the HRO story which is too long
to include here.
The HRO was first announced in the October 1934 issue of QST and
delivery was promissed for December 1934 in time for the Christmas
trade. The photograph shown in that announcement is the prototype
model which did not go into production. However, technical problems
delayed deliveries until March 1935; the photograph shown in the
January issue of QST is that of the first production model. The
same basic receiver stayed in continuous production almost thirty
years until October 1964 when the HRO-500 was announced. This
is a remarkable life span for any piece of electronic equipment,
especially one that was designed so early in the electronics age.
In February 1936 National announced the HRO Jr., a scaled down
version of the HRO, at a cost of just under $100. The advertised
economics were effected by removing the crystal filter, the S-meter
and by supplying only one coil set, without bandspread, to cover
any two contiguous amateur bands. One further economy was not
advertised; with the HRO Sr. each coil set was aligned in the
receiver with which it was sold. This of course, gave an exact
alignment of each coil set for each receiver. The complete alignment
of an HRO Sr. required about four hours. With the HRO Jr. the
coils were aligned to an average receiver and the receivers were
aligned with an average coil set so that one did not have the
precision alignment that was obtained with the more expensive
In August 1936, Millen announced a new receiver designed for both
amateurs and short-wave listeners, the NC-100X. This basic design
would be carried through in many more receiver designs, the 100XA,
the NC-101 series, the NC-200 family that came out just before
WWII, to mention a few. Unfortunately, time and space do not permit
a detailed examination of these and many other receivers that
National engineers developed. Suffice to say, that by the middle
1930's the design of high performance receivers had advanced from
an art to a science and National built up a very competent engineering
staff that kept National products up to date and in high demand.
Millen Leaves National
In 1939 lightning struck! The June 1939 issue of QST carried an
announcement that as of May first, 1939, James Millen had "completely
withdrawn from the National Company......" What had happened
to end such a successful collaboration of almost 15 years?
The immediate reason occurred early in 1939. According to Millen,
Warren Hopkins, who held the controlling interest in National,
told Millen that he (Hopkins) wanted Millen to switch the emphasis
of the company from making short-wave radios for a very limited
sector of the country to making broadcast type radios to be marketed
by the retail giants as Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward and the
many large and well known department stores around the country.
The purpose of the drastic change was to make the National Company
a "household name" in the radio business.
Millen was flabbergasted!
National had been highly successful in designing and manufacturing
short-wave radios; in fact, they were the recognized leader in
the receiver field and more recently in transmitter and accessory
items, too. Equally important, the company was profitable!
Why? Hopkins would give no definite reasons, saying only that
he wanted to change the direction of the company, and the company
needed products where it would have more exposure.
Millen wanted no part of it; he was dedicated to building the
best receivers that he could build regardless of price. The consumer
radio business was completely alien to him. So he left National
and formed his own business.
From a historical point of view it is interesting to pause a moment
and look back and examine what Millen had contributed to the National
Company, Inc. in it transformation from a toy maker to a leadership
role in short-wave communications receivers.
First, I have heard it said by people who were closely associated
with National, but not employed by National, that, in the 1930's
National was run by Jim Millen and his secretary Frances Bearse.
Miss Bearse held the formal title of Office Manager but was apparently
more of Millen's right-hand "man."
Second, Millen traveled extensively in those days visiting suppliers,
dealers and most important, individual amateurs and amateurs radio
clubs throughout the country. When he returned to Malden, he knew
what new materials and components were available. He would sit
down with his designers and sketch out new products. In short,
Millen was an "idea man."
The third role Millen played was as a publicist. As noted earlier,
Millen had a flair for writing and he used this ability well.
He usually wrote a magazine article describing each new product,
but more than that, he would explain in simple technical terms
why it was built the way it was. By the end of the article most
readers would agree that the way National designed the equipment
was the "only way" to do it and nobody could improve
In the march 1934 issue of QST Millen inaugurated what is probably
the longest running and most successful series of technical advertisments.
These were always the first advertising page in QST and consisted
of a single page write-up on some technical topic of interest
at the time: a description of a new receiver, a new circuit or
component of something similar. This page was known as "page
73" at National regardless of the magazine page on which
it was printed. This series continued through number 243 which
appeared in the July 1954 QST, a run of over 20 years.
In retrospect, Millen believes Warren Hopkins' desire to change
direction was based on another consideration; Hopkins died of
cancer in the early 1940's and Millen feels that Hopkins was told
he had cancer in early 1939 and had only a few years to live.
Hopkins wanted to convert his assets into the maximum amount of
cash possible. This would be a natural reaction for any business
man in Hopkins' situation. National had a good reputation in amateur
and Government circles but was virtually unknown by the general
public or, equally important, by the financial community which
would ultimately set the value of his holdings. This lack of recognization
would tend to hold down the price of National stock.
As it turned out, Hopkins got his wish of increased value for
his stock but from an entirely different direction.
In the summer of 1939 war broke out in Europe; representatives
of Allied governments, particularly the Royal Navy, visited National
and ordered large numbers of receivers, particularly HRO's. When
the United States entered the war some two years later, the word
was "Start building HROs; we'll tell you when to stop."
Needless to say, National began producing for the war effort.
The number of employees went from the 200-300 range to about 2500
during the war. The war effort brought increased recognition and
profits to National and after the war, in the late forties, National
National's Post-War Years
National built extensively on its war-time expansion and devlopment
an impressive array of military, industrial, and consumer as well
as amateur products and appeared to have a very promising future.
Effective June 1, 1953 William A. Ready retired, after almost
forty years as president of National, and Charles C. Hornbostel
became president. Hornbostel graduated from the Harvard School
of Business specializing in accounting.
William A. Ready is remembered as a kindly person by his fellow
employees at National. He knew most employees on a first name
basis as well as their wife's and children's names. He was always
available and often stopped to talk with employees on his tours
through the plant. No special introductions were needed.
Ready began the tradition of holding employee Christmas parties.
Former National employees still gather at Christmas to renew old
friendships and memories. I have been priviledged to attend several
of these reunions and have found the employees treasure their
memories there. National must have been an interesting place to
After the company went public, a controlling interest was acquired
by Louis C. Learner, an investment company, and the Learner interests
took control. Legal technicalities tend to obscure the facts and
I have not been able to dtermine all the details to my satisfaction.
The new management apparently set up a second company called National
Radio Company, Inc.; all Government work continued to be charged
to the National Company, but now all commercial and amateur work
was charged to the National Radio Company. Press releases were
made detailing plans for rejuvination of the company and the price
of the stock went up. At that point the Learner interests sold
their stock. Several component productlines were sold to Japanese
interests as was the production machinery and the name National
Company, Inc. The National Radio Company went into bankruptcy
and that name was sold to the bankrupt's principal creditor, who
in turn sold it to the FAN-WEL Corp., who purchased the remaining
assets as well. In June 1974, FAN-WEL changed its name to National
Radio Company, Inc. and is still doing business under that name.
The Japanese-held National Company, Inc. makes consumer type radios
but, to the best of my knowledge, they are not sold in this country.
Warren Hopkins had his wish come true after all.
I would like to acknowledge the extensive help I have received
from many sources. First, James Millen has spent many hours reviewing
the early days of National with me as well as the early history
of the radio industry in which he played an important part. He
has provided me with many technical data sheets and magazine tear
sheets on the early equipment built by National and copies of
his own extensive writings. I must also recognize the cooperation
of the former employees of National who welcomed me into their
group; particularly Vincent and Edith Messina, Conrad Espinola,
Jack Ivers and Gene Simms. It has been a real pleasure meeting
these people. I would like to also thank the management and employees
of the present National Radio Company for letting me browse through
their files of the old Nation Company.
Last, but certainly not least, my wife Martha has spent a lot
of time correcting and revising my manuscripts and turned it into
I can not conceive that this document is free of errors, although
it is based on the best evidence available to me. I will be happy
to hear from anyone having more accurate information.