A very pretty Remler Radio
made in San Francisco circa 1949
A comprehensive story containing historical, educational, technical and biographical elements & opinions
Introduction to the
The Remler Radio Company began business in 1918 at San Francisco, California as soon as World War One was over and it was legal for American citizens to own radios. It was founded by Elmer Cunningham, a legendary pioneer of radio who had earlier manufactured a bootlegged (cheaper and better) version of De Forest's Audion Tube that he called the Audiotron Tube at his factory in nearby Oakland. The legend (which may be true) is that the name 'Remler' is supposed to be Elmer spelled backwards with an extra R for radio. Co-founders were Thomas B. Gray and Ernest G. Danielson who took over the business from Cunningham four years later. They briefly changed the name, but then returned to using Remler.
This company started at the very beginning of the Radio Age and some of the very oldest radios found today were made by Remler. Their early radios were always at or slightly in advance of the "state of the art" in electronics. Throughout the years, the Remler company made an amazing array of radio and radio related products including table and console radios for the home, radio-phonographs, car radios and they even made a few early television sets. During the 1920s and 30s they made very sophisticated radios for their high end customers and good simple radios for their budget minded customers. At any time in their history, much of their business was the fabrication of components for other companies and advanced electronics for the military. They produced the detailed electronics training kits used extensively to educate the technicians needed by the Army and Navy during World War Two.
The company lasted an incredible 70 years as a family owned enterprise, but it never expanded outside of the San Francisco Bay Area and so it never became a major player in the radio, television or electronics business. For most of that that long period, the Remler company developed wonderful high tech products and made quality components for its customers. They earned a fine reputation and enjoyed much success. However, not too long after the radio this story is about (and is shown below) was built, the company found itself in big financial trouble. This happened because management had let themselves be fooled by an unscrupulous East Coast salesman into manufacturing and sending him a huge number of radios. These radios were sent to this salesman on consignment with the understanding that customers were waiting to buy them. When the customers failed to materialize, the radios were returned, but many were found to be heavily damaged in transit. This debacle resulted in a huge loss and this was perhaps the proximal reason Remler soon vacated the consumer market. By the early 1950s, Remler Radio stopped manufacturing radios for home use and perhaps (although it may not have been obvious at the time), this marks the start of the company's decline.
The sad end of a once great little companyAs is so typical in multi-generational family businesses rife with nepotism and without a proper plan for succession by younger, non-family management staff, this company met a sad and inglorious end in 1988. The president-grandson, who was only in his mid 40s, died unexpectedly and with no great grandson groomed to take his place. A real coup de grace came when Remler's second in command died a couple of months later leaving the company totally leaderless and hopelessly disorganized. Perhaps it was the strain and heartache of presiding over a once vibrant, but now disintegrating company that was responsible for the early death of its president and, soon after, its second in command. I mean, at the end, Remler was such a pathetic shadow of its once vibrant self, it must have been very hard on the mental and physical health of the people who ran it to watch the work of generations fall apart. The end came when the phone company simply disconnected the telephone, the power company simply turned off the electricity and the last person to leave that afternoon simply locked the door for the last time. By the way, I understand that the abandoned building is still there and the name 'Remler' can still be seen.
Such is the fate of nearly every American company after the genius that founded the company dies and a lesser son or grandson, lacking the original drive, interests, iron will, discipline and intelligence of the founder, inherits the business. Rather than blame these sons and grandsons, perhaps we should feel sorry for them being burdened with responsibilities they never wanted and were not suited for. What a terrible and unfair burden to be yoked with, to have to live up to a genius father's or a legendary ancestor's unrealistic expectations. I know I sure never lived up to my dad's.
Ruth's very nice Remler radio
By the time the radio shown below was manufactured, World War Two had been over for three years and the Great Depression was long over. The USA was beginning to turn into a "Consumer Society" and many industries were back building products for the retail market. This small manufacturing company in San Francisco produce their little radios that were elegant in their simplicity. Almost gone was the extravagance and heavy ornamentation of the earlier examples of the Art Deco style that had dominated the 1920s and 30s to be replaced by simple wood and plastic shapes. To distinguish theirs from all the other brands, Remler placed a little Scotty Dog on their radios and so they became a favorite with ladies and gentlemen collectors too, even to this day.
Ruth's 1949 Remler Model 5560 with its iconic Scotty Dog logo.
Simple elegance and a better, safer electrical design than the typical All American Five radio.
This little Remler radio I am writing about is a different and much safer version of the so-called All American Five radios that were so prevalent in the radio market at this time. Although this Remler radio is a much safer version, I still want to say something about the AAF radio technology that characterized the radio market from about 1940 to 1960.
All American Five radio technology
The All American Five (AAF) radios were much cheaper and less sophisticated electronically than were the pre-war radios. The biggest difference between the AAF radios and the earlier radios is the fact that they did not have a power transformer. Not having a power transformer allowed these radios to be built much cheaper, but even so, they still sounded pretty good because of advances in speaker technology. America's population was more urban by now and so the need for outside antennas with long wires to capture those weak far off stations was no longer necessary. Small, built-in loop antennas started to be a feature of all these radios and that saved money too as internal tuning coils were no longer needed.
The reason that the AAF radios could be made without a power transformer is because of advancements in tube design, advances in strong permanent magnets for the speakers and the reduced size and cost of electrolytic filter capacitors. The new tubes could work quite efficiently off of 120 volt AC house current or the 120 volt direct current systems that many farms still had. With the larger values of filter capacitors now available, the need for having a big choke coil built into the speaker's field magnet was no longer necessary. The development of powerful speaker magnets and cheaper ways of filtering out hum eliminated the need for the powerful electromagnet and choke coil that the old radios had.
Another thing that made the AAF radios cheap to manufacture was that they no longer featured shortwave bands and all the complicated tuning arrangements required to tune in shortwave. By the time this radio was built, the big radio networks had international news bureaus who used transcontinental cables to send happenings from around the world to your AM radio. Official wartime censorship of the news was "officially" over (although it certainly went on then as it does today), so people didn't feel the urgency to tune into shortwave to hear things as they happened before the censors got a hold of it. International shortwave broadcasting was still very active with a lot of stations on the air, but listening was rapidly falling out of fashion with ordinary people, so that almost no new radios came with shortwave.
All these things seriously cheapened post-war radios, but this cheapening certainly made them much more affordable than ever before. Now, everybody in a family had their own radio and every room in the house had one too. As affordable and as popular the AAF radios were, there were real serious downsides to this technology and the most serious of these was safety.
Thousands of persons over the years have received painful and serious electrical shocks - some resulting in death - from their AAF radios. These little radios were especially dangerous to use in the kitchen and deadly dangerous to use in the bathroom where they seemed to fit in so well. I remember as a kid all the warnings about using a radio in the bathroom, but everybody did. To try to make the AAF radios safe enough to use in the home, all of them had a Masonite (cardboard like) rear cover to keep consumers from touching the chassis accidentally. Of course, when a radio stopped working, the first thing anybody did was to take off the back and pull out the tubes thus exposing themselves to electrocution. God help you if you touched the knobs of one of these radios with wet hands and the water dripped on a metal shaft. No, these radios were deadly dangerous and I have written an extensive article on a foolproof method for making them safe and I urge everybody who has an AAF to read it.
A special word on AAF safety:If you have an AAF radio and it doesn't have an Isolated Return Bus, please read my article on how to simply and cheaply modify them for safety. Remember: "The life you save may be your own." If you have a late 30's to early 60's tube radio and you are unsure if it is dangerous or not, drop me a line and I'll try to help you determine how safe it is and what you need to do about it if it isn't.
This Remler radio's outstanding safety featureIn the early days before polarized AC sockets and plugs, there was a slightly more expensive way of making these radios nearly as safe as the old transformer radios, but most radio companies were too cheap to build their radios this way. What I am talking about is an "Isolated Return Bus" also known as a "Isolated Ground Bus." Building a radio with an IRB requires a bit more labor (and slightly raises the cost), but it is so much safer, I can't understand why it wasn't mandated by the Underwriter's Laboratories or by the government. In today's world, no company would be allowed to market anything as dangerous as a AAF without a isolated return bus, but back in the 40s, 50s and 60s, companies could get away with murder - and murder was what some of these AAF radios did to their owners. The fact is, I don't know of any brand, other than Remler Radio, that used the IRB at such an early date, so in that respect, Remlers were a much better radio than their competition.
Rebuilding the Remler Radio and restoring it to operation
When I first began to work on this radio, I noticed that the radio's loop antenna was inexpertly attached to a crude back panel that an amateur carpenter had made for this radio. The problem was that the loop wasn't connected to the other circuits in the radio properly, but with the schematic, that was easy to fix. Naturally, all the old paper/wax capacitors had to be replaced as did the electrolytic capacitors, but those things are cheap. It only cost about $15 to replace everything and because there's really not that many things to replace, the work went quickly. For an extra margin of safety, I replaced the power cord with a polarized plug and then wired it so that the Isolated Return Bus is at AC Neutral and only the rectifier tube and the indicator light has "hot" AC Line voltage on it. The radio is triple safe now.
As always, I carefully checked the actual wiring against my schematic and modified my schematic as necessary then rechecked both to make sure everything made sense electronically. When I was very sure the radio was wired properly and all the new parts were in where they were supposed to be, I plugged in the radio, tested it for isolation from AC and then turned it on. All the old tubes were still good and the radio started playing after the normal warm-up period. The volume and tone coming out of the speaker was excellent. Later that evening I listened to KGO up in San Francisco (the home town of the radio) and it came in loud and clear. I know it's a bit absurd, but I always feel a kind of deep satisfaction when an old radio that hasn't worked in many years comes to life again.
ConclusionsWith a nice speaker and a mellow wooden cabinet, this is a nice sounding AM radio for its size, but I have to admit that its sound quality is inferior to my big 1936 Fairbanks Morse, but nearly equivalent to my 1936 Troy radio. The Troy has a tone control and that makes it somewhat nicer sounding. While I was at it, I installed a little Farnstock Clip and a "gimmick" capacitor so that an outside antenna could be coupled to this radio. Actually, with a good outside antenna, either my Fairbanks or my Troy will capture weak, distant stations better than this little radio, but when signals are good, that built in loop antenna works surprisingly well. Now, if there was only something worth listening to locally.
By the way, I have just sent off for a low power AM transmitter and in a few days I will set up a station in my house so that I can broadcast real entertainment to my old tube radios and start to use them as they were meant to be used. Soon I will be transmitting recorded programs and music from the "Golden Age of Radio" and retransmitting my favorite FM station so that I can hear it in any part of the house on AM. It should be great fun and the old radios won't have to be silent anymore due to lack of something decent to listen to.
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The story of my 1936 Troy Radio
The story of my 1936 Fairbanks Morse Radio
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