paper originally appeared in the AWA Old Timers Bulletin, June
1981. 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. William
Fizette, AWA President and Mr. Marc Ellis, OTB Editor for their
support and assistance.
The story of Jim Millen, his work
with National and later his own company, has been covered before
(CQ, July 1967, pp.26-31) but it would take a dozen such articles
to do justice to the subject.
In 13 years he transformed the old National Toy Company into the
country's foremost ham and commercial radio manufacturer, but
when National's backers tried to freeze Jim out of the profits
(by paying themselves high salaries to reduce profits to be split)
he knew it was time to form his own company. To guard against
similar problems in the future, he became a banker himself, and
indeed is still active in that profession.
It was a good time to be in electronics; the industry was small
enough so that many engineers and executives knew each other personally.
As an illustration of how the industry was run, among those who
played the game like sportsmen, Jim tells of a request from RCA
for his company to build their service oscilloscopes.
He needed a $100,000 loan to set up production lines, which was
out of the question through formal channels. But RCA arranged
to sell CRT's to Millen who would install them in the scopes and
sell them back to RCA at the same price. Millen's invoice to RCA
was paid within ten days, but RCA allowed six months to pay their
invoices. Result: a $100,000 interest free loan!
Similar arrangements could be made for an RCA license, which 'formally'
cost $100,000, far too much for a small company to pay. But Millen
could license RCA to use some of his lesser patents for $90,000,
and pay them their $100,000, in effect getting the license for
In May 1938, QST carried a notice of the new James Millen Company,
and in October their first ad and catalog appeared. Succeeding
catalogs featured a rapidly-expanding line of mechanical components,
all soundly engineered - some have survived unchanged for forty
years - but this was just the tip of the iceberg.
What really paid the company bills was the subcontracting work
for firms such as RCA and GE. They found it far cheaper to have
Millen make equipment than to set up their own production lines.
It might be service scopes for RCA, two-way police radios for
GE, wartime gear for MIT's Radiation Lab, or marine radar for
Sometimes the products were fully engineered and ready for production;
more often Millen would receive an electrical prototype and would
do all the mechanical design themselves. As new components were
designed and tooled up, they would appear in the catalog. Subcontract
work accounted for perhaps three-quarters of Millen's total output,
and kept the amateur activities afloat.
Millen's approach to ham equipment was to take electrical designs
originated by others, and to adapt them mechanically for commercial
production. Their first venture was a tunable heterodyne filter,
used in the headphone line outboard of a receiver, adapted from
a September 1939 QST article and made under license (given gratis)
by its author Dr. Ray Woodward. In January 1941 QST published
a description of Henry Rice's clever VFO called the "Variarm",
and shortly Millen had a commercial model going.
Jim Millen had intended from the beginning, to make an amateur
receiver, but not until the war's end was he in the position to
do so. He had an elaborate design ready, a receiver incorporating
every feature a ham could want: direct frequency readout, ten
ham- and general-coverage bands, motor-assisted tuning, motor-driven
bandswitching, etc etc.
It appeared in the early 1947 catalog, as a "custom-built"
model, but it must have been apparent, some time before, that
it was not a profitable venture: no ham could afford it. Only
one prototype was ever finished.
A "cheaper" model was under design at the same time,
using a more traditional approach, with sliding coil catacomb
(like the Millen-designed pre-war National models) and band-set-bandspread
tuning condensors. This model DFP-201 is absolutely typical of
Millen's design philosophy, that a sound mechanical design was
the foundation on which the electrical design would be built.
Millen unveiled the DFP201 (and the 501) at a Chicago trade show
in May 1947, and put it in his catalog, but it was soon obvious
that even this "cheaper" model could never be sold;
their no-compromise design philosophy made it far to expensive.
The few prototypes that were completed were said to have cost
$2100 apiece to build. Both models were immediately withdrawn,
and revised catalogs printed.
Through the 1950's and 60's new ham equipment appeared in Millen
catalogs, side by side with mechanical components.
After 38 years it was time to pull the plug. Their antiquated
factory building was in the path of urban renewal, and massive
renovations would have been needed to meet new OSHA safety regulations.
Jim suffered a heart attack and had to reduce his activities,
so in May 1977 the factory was closed. Jim retired to his farm
and his banking interests. He feels lucky to have been in the
electronics business when there was room for individual effort,
and certainly the rest of us are lucky to have benefitted from
My thanks to (naturally) Jim Millen, his production superintendent
Gene Williams and 30-year employee Mel Dunbrack, and to Tom Rutherford
who salvaged from the factory much of the equipment that otherwise
would have been scrapped.