Atwater Kent

The Man and His Radios

By Ralph Williams

Atwater Kent was a thrifty New Englander born in Vermont, educated in Massachusetts who invented the closely timed ignition system, and operated Atwater Kent the world's largest radio factory in Pennsylvania. Some key dates: Birth 1873, First manufacturing 1896, Philadelphia move 1902, Ignition Systems 1907, First radio instruments 1921, Open set 1922, Mahogany box sets 1924, Metal box sets 1926, Superheterodynes 1930, Closed plant 1936.

Kent was always interested in automobiles and, particularly, in the means of igniting internal combustion engines. He patented the Contactor, a breaker point mechanism, and the distributor to enable the use of a single coil. Income from his ignition systems enabled Kent to enter the radio business with a fully equipped manufacturing facility, a national service organization and an appealing concept, the Open Set. (We call them breadboards.)

Kent brought the best minds of his time into his organization to do radio design, factory operation, marketing and product advertising. He was demanding of his people, but fair. He was also very careful of his Company's reputation. His radios were of very high quality and reliability with strong customer appeal to the middle class. Kent's customers often bought another Atwater Kent radio to replace an earlier one that lacked the newer features.

After entering the radio receiver market with Models 1 through 8, Kent put it all together with Model 10. The set had two radio frequency amplifiers, a detector and two audio frequency amplifiers, all assembled on a mahogany board but having neither panel nor enclosure. Its price was moderate, its performance was adequate and its appeal was immediate to the listeners of the twenties and continuing to the collectors of the nineties.

The circuit of the Model 10 was continued in nearly all the Atwater Kent radio sets of the middle twenties. It was finally displaced by the screen-grid tube in Model 55 and the superheterodyne circuit of the Model 70 series. During the 1930s Kent brought out a new cycle of about 15 radios each year. Included were: Consoles, Compacts (table models), auto radios, Direct Current sets, Battery sets, and radios using 32 volt power for farm and rural use where commercial power was not available.

In the middle thirties Kent recognized the changing market for radio receivers. His business was based on moderately priced consoles with a tolerance for high-quality table models. However, he did not accept the market for cheap sets and preferred to close down rather than compromise his name and reputation. In 1936 Kent closed the factory and moved to California where he spent a well earned retirement until his illness and death in 1949.

Used with permission - R. Williams