||Photo from 1918 Compton Union High School yearbook
Photo thanks to Thomas Philo
|One day in 1915,
after reading a 10¢ booklet* about the wonders of a new invention called
"Wireless," a 16 year old boy named Elmer G. Osterhoudt
began the construction of a crystal radio. He was attempting to receive the signals that were said to be invisibly
traveling through space, undetectable by human senses.
He wound a beautiful coil made of 200 turns of 28 gauge
cotton covered wire on a
piece of broom handle. Then he painted it with white lead paint
which he had invented himself.
Connecting the coil to a galena crystal, headphones and antenna, he
listened in vain for the wireless signals. He soon came to
the realization that his radio didn't work. The lead in the
paint had ruined the coil. The radio was stone dead; he
couldn't get as much as a click out of the headphones.
Elmer had a neighbor who was also interested in Wireless and who was
also named Elmer. This Elmer also had made a radio that didn't
work. He came by with his radio because Elmer Osterhoudt
"knew all about radio." Elmer put the other Elmer's non-painted coil
into his set and in came a powerful rotary spark signal from
station 6JG! **
The magic of this single event influenced the entire
remainder of his life. A first-hand account can be found on
Page 2 of "How To Make Coils" by Elmer Osterhoudt, written
* In HB-5 "CRYSTAL SET
CONSTRUCTION" Elmer writes that the magazine was "The
Electrical Experimenter." In April of 1915 the price of this
magazine went from 5¢ to 10¢. The July issue, on page 109,
shows a simple wireless receiving set. There is no coil
data, but the illustration resembles what Elmer described
above. Page 109 also has an article on how to blow up a toy
boat using homemade wireless apparatus and a simple mine
filled with gun powder.
** There was indeed an amateur with
the call sign 6JG. The 1916 edition of "Radio Stations of
the United States," issued by the Department of Commerce,
lists him as James A. Homand of 1423 McKinley Street in Los Angeles, California.
This address is about three miles from where Elmer lived.
|In 1917 Elmer Osterhoudt and his family
lived at this address at 1936 East 77th Street in Los Angeles,
CA. The 100+ year old house, built in 1908, lies under the
additions and modern exterior of this building.
Elmer wrote that in
1917, while living at 77th and Crockett (the house in the
photo above), he had erected a 55
foot antenna mast made of all sorts of 2x4s, 2x3s
and pairs of 1x2s. It had a dozen guy wires made of
bailing wire. On top of the mast was a four wire
antenna, each wire separated by 30 inches. (He didn't say
what the other end was connected to.) It was up for about a year
when his father decided to move, so he had to take it down.
That's when he noticed the bailing wire had almost rusted
through. It would have fallen down by itself in another
month, and would have either hit the house or have fallen
into the street!
If that was the case, we're probably looking at the exact
spot where the mast was located.
It was just as well. On April 6, 1917, due to the war, it
became illegal for a private citizen to own a working
transmitter or receiver. In addition, the Department of
Commerce directed that "the antennae and all aerial wires be
lowered to the ground." It's almost hilarious that Elmer's
antenna would have complied of its own accord.
The Osterhoudt's moved a few blocks away, to 8011 Crockett
This might have been the end of the story of Elmer
Osterhoudt's interest in radio. Just another boyhood hobby
However, during his lifetime Elmer Osterhoudt would (in all
probability) hand-wind more coils and design and sell more crystal
radios than anyone who has ever lived. He outlasted all his
competitors in the mail order crystal
radio business. He, along with his wife Mabel, ran a mail order company
named "Modern Radio Laboratories" for 55 years.
sold thousands of kits, coils, crystals and all parts
related to crystal radios, many of
which he made himself. He published the MRL catalog and wrote many handbooks, "Detail
Prints" and a quarterly publication called "Radio Builder
and Hobbyist." He printed them himself, at first with a
mimeograph machine and later
on a lithograph
Everything needed for a radio could be found in his catalog;
coils, capacitors, headphones, switches, jacks, binding posts,
sockets, crystal stands, knobs, batteries, wire, all sorts of hardware and
even vacuum tubes and transistors. He manufactured over
types of coils, all made by hand!
The MRL logo was hand drawn and almost every one is
|In the 1970s the
MRL catalog index was five columns wide
(compare to 1986 picture on the right). The catalog began to shrink
as more and more products became unobtainable. Click on the catalog pages
for a larger version. (Will open in a new tab.)
|There is little information about
Elmer available but we
can glean some details from his literature - and there was a
lot of it. He also included a hand written note with each
order, some of which have survived.
His company, Modern Radio Laboratories,
was established in 1932. It says so, right at the top of the
"EXPERIMENTER'S CATALOG." Oddly enough, Elmer rarely used
the entire name in his handbooks and other literature.
Even on the catalog it is shortened to "MODERN RADIO LABS"
and elsewhere simply to "MRL." Some of his
magazine advertisements listed the company as "Modern Radiolabs" but later
it was shortened to
"Laboratories," since these ads were charged by the
number of words.
Every one of his handbooks has this list of accomplishments
printed inside the front cover:
"WITH RADIO SINCE 1915."
RADIO Operator, R.C.A. Marine Service.
Radio Mechanic, Maximum, USN.
Technician, Electrical Products Corporation.
Southern California Edison Company.
Majestic Electrical Products.
U.S. Motor Company
Manchester Radio Electric Shop
Modern Radio Laboratories
Amateur and Radio Service
Scotts Mills, Oregon. Photo taken in 1912 by James Eaton.
(Click for full size - will open in
born in Scotts Mills, Oregon on October 6, 1899, the
son of Wilbert and Minnie Osterhoudt. Wilbert (also
known as William) was a carpenter, cabinet and
furniture maker. Elmer had a brother named Cyril,
who was born on April 17, 1901. The family lived on
the farm of Charles Higby Osterhoudt, Wilbert's
father. Also on the farm were two of Wilbert's
brothers, Henry and John.
Note: To be more precise, Elmer and Cyril were born in Butte Creek, Oregon.
Butte Creek was incorporated into Scotts Mills in
1916. They were apparently born on their
grandfather's farm and not in
the town of Scotts Mills itself. The population of
Scotts Mills at the time was about 100.
For reasons not known, the family moved to Yakima,
Washington. Charles died there in April of 1903.
Minnie Osterhoudt died in September 1903 at the age of 27. A lone newspaper article hints
that Elmer and Cyril had a three month old brother
named Clarence who died two weeks after their mother died (see page 10). Cyril was sent to live with Wilbert's sister Nellie
McConnell in Clackamas, Oregon. Elmer stayed with his father,
who moved to Eugene, Oregon, where Wilbert's brother
John lived with his wife, Lillie Shields. According
to Elmer (MRL Data Sheets Vol. 6) his father owned a planing mill there. (A planing mill takes boards
from a saw mill and turns them into finished
lumber.) Actually, Wilbert didn't own the mill
outright, he had a partner named Jim Smith.
census shows that Wilbert and Elmer lived at 205
8th Avenue in Eugene. The mill was also on 8th
Avenue, but a few blocks towards the Williamette
River near Skinners Butte, where the mill race met
Eighth Avenue. Accordingly, it was named "Eighth
Avenue Planing Mill."
Note: The designations "Street" and "Avenue" are used
interchangeably in old Eugene newspaper articles and maps, so the mill
was also known as "Eighth Street Planing Mill."
Cyril was reunited with his father and
Elmer sometime between 1910 and 1912.
article in the Eugene Guardian states that
Wilbert had married Lela May Osterhoudt (maiden name
unknown) in 1911.
Lela May filed for divorce in June of 1914 and the
divorce was granted on August 18, 1914.
Osterhoudt and Jim Smith at the Eighth
Avenue Planing Mill 1909. Click for full size.
The mill opened in September of 1908.
right: Jim Smith, Wilbert Osterhoudt,
Mr. Basinette, Henry Osterhoudt, John Edwin
Osterhoudt. Click for full size.
In 1912, when Elmer was 13 years old and living in
Eugene, he traded in three empty beer bottles for the
deposit and bought a 10¢ book named "The Star
Toymaker." Using the plans from this book, Elmer and
Cyril built a tin talking machine, bird houses,
motors, waterwheels, stilts, telegraph sounders,
electric bells and dry cells. They would also go to
garages and acquire discarded dry cells from Model T
Fords to power their projects. At one time they had
about 100 of them connected together in series for
"a sparking good time." When the cells became
depleted they figured out how to chemically
rejuvenate them using a saturated solution of Sal
They also used the cells to set off their cannon,
which was made of a foot long pipe 1" in diameter,
mounted on a 2" x 6" board. One end was
closed off with a big bolt and had a slot sawed into
it to hold the end of a lamp cord. They charged it with
Potash and Sulfur and sent an electric current
through the lamp cord. According to Elmer, they once
stuck the handle from an old umbrella into it, and
it was blown out with enough force to drive it
through a wooden box.
Handbook 8, Radio Kinks and Quips, contains the
following three sentences:
"At home, my brother and I used to drive our
nuts. We had an Edison Cylinder record phonograph.
We used to reverse the belt and run it backwards."
Accounts of how to make a canon out of a 1" gas
pipe, how to rejuvenate dry cells with Sal Ammoniac,
how to reverse the belt on an Edison phonograph,
and even how to acquire depleted batteries from
automobile garages can be found in Popular
Mechanics magazines that were published prior to 1912, so it seems Elmer may
have been reading Popular Mechanics in
addition to The Star Toy Maker.
According to Elmer, they sometimes threw their old
dry cells out their 2nd story window at their dogs
below when the dogs were "celebrating." What is
interesting about this sentence is that the
Osterhoudt's had dogs. Elmer and Cyril built "grass
sleds" and used them to sled down Skinners Butte,
which rises 200 feet above the surrounding city.
Skinners Butte is still a recreation spot today.
Near the base of the Butte was a mill race
connecting to the Williamette River, which crossed
8th Avenue. This was the location of
Wilbert Osterhoudt's mill. (There were several planing mills at the time in the immediate area.) In any case, the butte is only a few
blocks away from where they lived on the 200 block
of 8th Avenue. On
top of the butte were the charred ruins of an
observatory, which had been dynamited in 1905, so it
must have been a great place for kids to explore.
A grass sled from the book. Elmer
and Cyril would have had plenty of scrap wood
from the planing mill.
A copy of the book is on Page 11.
That's about all we know of Elmer's youth. Elmer and his brother
Cyril were both destined to spend their careers in
radio. By the way, Elmer still had the book in 1966.
Eugene, Oregon in 1909. Skinners Butte rises in the
background. Elmer and Cyril may have walked down
this very street. For all we know, they may even be
in the photo! There are few, if any, of these
buildings still standing as they've been replaced
with modern structures. The Osterhoudt & Smith
planing mill site is now occupied by the US District
Court Clerk's Office
Eugene was home to
the University of Oregon. See this
Also, see these
1912 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. The Osterhoudt
planing mill is at the bottom of Plate 16.
14, 1915, Elmer's father married Alice Elsie Shields,
Lillie's sister, in Los Angeles, California. They had a daughter named Wilda Frances
Osterhoudt. Elmer and Cyril eventually had
and sisters, though two sisters died young; Nora
died of Whooping Cough when she was almost 4 years
old, and Ada May died of pneumonia the day before
her second birthday. (See
page ten for list of siblings.)
The Los Angeles 1916 Long Beach City
directory lists W A Osterhoudt as a woodworker
at Jones Sash and Door
Company, located at 1101 West Broadway. The "W A" would be William
Arthur. Unfortunately it doesn't list his address.
In the preface in his handbooks, Elmer wrote that he was
a technician at Electrical Products Company.
This was a company founded in 1912
that made electric and neon signs. Elmer wrote that
he worked there "during the war," so this would have
been sometime after 1915 but before he began his
stint with the Navy in 1918. The company was
located at 941 16th Street in Los Angeles, which
places it in the Long Beach area along with the
Jones Sash & Door company where his father worked.
With the exception of two brief moves
to Reno, Nevada in 1950 and 1971, Elmer spent the
rest of his life in California. He and all of his
siblings are buried in the Los Angeles area.
Elmer attended Eugene High School in Oregon, but graduated from Compton Union High School in
June of 1918. At the time, he and his family lived
at 1936 E. 77th Street in Los Angeles. The school was
six miles from their house.
He worked as a laborer at Southern Board and
Paper Mills, now known as PABCO, located at Vernon
and Santa Fe Avenues in LA. (He wrote this himself
on his draft card.) The building in the photo above was
built in 1912 and would have been quite new when
Elmer was employed there. The actual address is 4460 Pacific
Blvd. The area was known as Vernon at
the time, but is now Los Angeles. 100 years later
the building is still there making paper products.
building is one corner of a huge complex of buildings, some
of them very dilapidated.
On September 12, 1918 there was a U.S. Military
draft registration (the 3rd one of the war) for men
aged 18 through 45. Prior to this third draft, the
minimum age was 21. Elmer would have fallen into the new category.
Apparently, working at PABCO didn't suit him, because he registered on the very day the new draft went
into effect, Sept 12, 1918. (He and his brother
Cyril registered at the same time.) It seems he was
immediately accepted, as the US military was in
desperate need of radio technicians, but had no time
to train them. He was stationed at
the Alameda U.S. Naval Base. The war was over "at the 11th hour on the 11th day of
the 11th month of 1918."
According to Elmer, he attained the
title "Radio Mechanic, Maximum" while in the Navy.
Escaping both the war and the 1918 Spanish Flu
pandemic with his life, he was 20 years old when he
got his Amateur Radio license in 1919, with a call
sign of 6NW. (It wasn't
until November of 1919 that it became legal once
again for an amateur to own a
He never mentioned whether he had (or needed) a
license while in the Navy, but all radio licenses
for Amateurs had to be reissued in 1919. Since he
was at Alameda in 1919 he probably went to San Francisco to take the test, which is a short
distance away. If he had been back in Los
Angeles he would have had to travel 382 miles back
to San Francisco. Millions of men were
sent home after the war but Elmer wrote that being a
radio mechanic, he had been at the Naval base for
the whole two years of his enlistment. When he left
the navy he did move back home with his family to
Crockett Boulevard in Los Angeles.
1919 was during the age of the spark gap transmitter.
Elmer's first transmitter was a spark plug coil from
a Ford automobile that was fed with an AC doorbell
transformer. The tone changed during transmission as
the points got hot! His second transmitter, which he
called his "handsome homemade rotary spark," was fed
with a 1/2 kilowatt transformer from Sears and
Roebuck. At the first press of the key the spark
jumped to the shaft of the motor, burning it out. One can imagine
the look on his face as the rapidly spinning motor
slowly came to a
stop - permanently. Later he "got a new rotary
spark gap" and "proceeded to jam up the air."
There were only a handful of operators on the air
back then, and the best distance one could get was
about 30 miles. His self-designated call letters
were "EO" till the government made amateurs get a
license because they were having "too much fun."
NOTE: A spark gap transmitter basically transmitted
bursts of static. These bursts were created by
rapidly opening and closing the connection to the
low voltage side of an induction coil. Elmer used
the spark plug coil from a Ford, possibly a Model T.
(The coils were so plentiful that you can
still buy one today.) The tone was determined by how
quickly the circuit was interrupted, and this is
probably what Elmer's AC doorbell was used for. The
rotary spark transmitted a higher pitched tone, but
it was still just a controlled form of static.
Elmer wrote that he "proceeded to jam up the air" he
wasn't kidding. These signals were so broad that two
transmitters operating within a short distance of
each other would drown each other out, blanketing
the airwaves with noise.
A Ford Model T spark plug coil and an
antique doorbell. Of course, it wouldn't
have been antique in 1919.
|Not all Model
T coils look exactly
like this one, but they are similar. The
Ford Model T
had four coils, each one in a wooden box. Millions
of Model Ts had been produced by 1919 so
there were plenty of coils to be had. There is a vibrator mounted on the top to create a
high voltage spark, but Elmer used a doorbell
(hopefully, minus the bell).
The "Pacific Radio News" issue of May 10, 1920 lists
Elmer as holding the radio call letters 6NW. They
spelled his name wrong. The "Citizen's Radio Call
Book" of November 1922 spelled it worse - "Ousterbouat."
Listing in "Pacific Radio
to "Amateur Stations of the United States," in
1920 and 1921 Elmer
had a 1000 watt station at 8011 Crockett Street in
Los Angeles. (The actual address is Crockett
Boulevard, not Crockett Street.) Elmer wrote that
the station was actually only 500 watts.
So, how did
he fund his radio hobby, research and experiments?
Osterhoudt entry in the
1920 Los Angeles City Directory.
An entry in the Los Angeles 1920 City
Directory shows an E. G. Osterhoudt working as a
laborer at Hammond Lumber Company. Both his father and his Uncle John (who
lived in the same house with Elmer) were carpenters,
and would probably know if a job became available at
a lumber yard. Though Hammond Lumber was about four
miles from his house on Crockett Blvd, Alameda
Street was only a few blocks away. A trolley car
could have transported him up Alameda Street in less
than a half an hour.
As for his roles at Majestic Electrical Products and
U. S. Motor Company, Elmer never mentioned these in
his writings, nor did he ever mention working in a
lumber or paper mill, nor did he mention how hard it
was for a veteran to find a job after the war.
Likewise, he never mentioned that in 1920 he was a
member of the California Academy of Sciences.
The January 1920 US Census shows Elmer working for a
power company in Fresno, CA as a wireless operator.
In June of 1920, he traveled to San Francisco hoping
to land a job as a radio operator aboard a ship. He
arrived on a Saturday. By Sunday he was down to his
last $20. By Monday he was employed at Southern
California Edison Company as a wireless operator.
Apparently, he wasn't there very long.
According to Elmer's application to the Society of
in 1920 he was at the RCA
wireless station at Marshall, California, about 40
miles north of San Francisco. Today the station is
an historic landmark in a park-like setting, but
when Elmer was there it was surrounded by barren
coast land. He was only
there a week. In July of 1920 he finally obtained a
wireless operator position aboard
Elmer relates in "MRL Data Sheets Vol. 6" that
in 1920, while in San Francisco and waiting to go to
sea, he had $25 and spent $20 of it on a Kodak
camera to take a picture of a Japanese ship named "Tenyo
passenger liner SS Tenyo Maru docked at
San Francisco in 1920. The photo Elmer
took may have looked very much like this
photograph was taken at the Brannan
Street Wharf in San Francisco on October
This crop from the 1920
Compton Union High School Alumni page shows
Elmer as a 1918 graduate.
He's working for Standard Oil. (Watts, CA is where he lived when he
attended the school.)
From 1920 to 1923
Elmer was at sea employed as a wireless radio operator. On July 6, 1920
he was the operator aboard the S. S. Rose City. This
was a passenger ship named after the city of
According to Elmer, on July 20, 1920 he was the
radio operator on "Standard Oil Barge 93."
On January 25, 1920 he served aboard a steam ship
named the J. A. Moffett, also owned by Standard Oil
of California. The J. A. Moffett, named after the
former president of Standard Oil of California, was
launched in 1914 and was the largest oil tanker in
the Pacific at the time. Elmer made $225 a month,
which he said was "good money." On
November 2, 1920, during the Harding-Cox
presidential election, the ship was docked at
Vancouver, British Columbia. At the request of the
captain, Elmer remained at the radio in contact with
station NPG in San Francisco.
When the election was over he gave the Captain the
results, then left the ship and "ran up and down
1921 there was some sort of strike, which backfired.
The radio operators lost $20 a month, and on July
21, 1921 Elmer
ended up on a lumber scow named the "Willamette."
Apparently, life aboard the Willamette wasn't very
pleasant due to the light ship lurching in the waves. Elmer wrote that he got six meals a day;
"three down and three up." A good part of
his time was spent "hanging over the rail."
(A Radio Service Bulletin dated October 1, 1921
lists a "Willamette" with a transmitter range of 200
miles. It had a Gray and Danielson radio. Gray and
Danielson, also known as Remler Company, was founded
in 1918 in San Francisco, so this seems to be the
correct ship. Searching on the Internet for
"Willamette" will lead you down many
On August 31, 1921, Elmer was aboard the tug named
In a newspaper article published by the Oregon
Daily Emerald on November 29, 1921 it states
that radio operator Elmer G. Osterhoudt is working
aboard the tug "Sea Lion," plying up and down the
Pacific coast, where he is also studying botany and
physiology. (He was taking a correspondence course
from the University of Oregon at the time, ergo the
On September 28, 1921, Elmer was in the radio room
of the SS Atlas, owned by Standard Oil Co. of
California. By June 17, 1922 he was aboard the
F. H. Hillman, an oil tanker built in 1921, also for
Standard Oil of California.
From July 3, 1922 to September 4, 1923 he worked aboard the "El Segundo," an
oil tanker built in 1912 and owned by Standard Oil.
Entry from Radio Service Bulletin, US Department of
Commerce, January, 1915. Page 12.
(NOTE: Marconi Wireless was incorporated into the
Radio Corporation of America in October, 1919)
Though the SS Atlas, the J. A. Moffett and the El
Sugundo were owned by Standard Oil ,
Elmer actually worked for RCA. Elmer wrote that in the
1920s he reported to a Chief Radio Operator named
Dick Johnson, who worked for RCA. On the next page
is a letter Elmer wrote while aboard the ship,
of Radio Corporation of America."
Elmer wrote that he "quit" in 1923. By then, almost
every other ship on the Pacific coast was a Japanese
In addition to the correspondence course in botany
he took from the University of Oregon, he was enrolled in a correspondence
course in Pharmacy during
his time at sea. In Elmer's own vague words, "Read
up on Pharmacy for 2 yrs. with phones on."
He attended one semester of USC College of Pharmacy
in Los Angeles. Afterwards he became "official janitor"
(his own words) in a drug
store, and contemplated the idea of owning his own
drug store. His ham shack sat on a property he
owned. Elmer wrote, "I had a lot with my
6NW on the back." He sold the lot for $1000. With
that and the money he saved while at sea (he called
it Ship money), he opened a store. Thankfully, it wasn't a drug store.
of 1924 he opened the "Nadeau Radio Electric Shop."
We have an address for this shop from the
Los Angeles Times as 1928 East Nadeau Street.
This was just up the block and around the corner from
Elmer's house at 8011 Crockett Boulevard!
|This advertisement, from
the Los Angeles Times, is dated June
18, 1922. In 1922, Elmer was aboard the oil
H. Hillman" and the "El Segundo." It seems
the Nadeau Radio Electric Shop already
existed in some form before Elmer opened it
in 1924. According to the 1922 Los Angeles
directory, it was owned by Lou and Eva Kipp.
Their residence was next door at 1930 East
Nadeau Street. The buildings no longer
Later in 1924
Elmer moved the radio shop to Manchester Avenue in Los
Angeles, and named it the "Manchester Radio Electric
Shop." This shop was one mile from his
house. He worked in
the store from 9AM till 9PM six days a week, and a
half day on Sunday. According to Elmer, (Radio Notes
No.1, page 16 and MRL Data Sheets Vol 3, Page 11) he made hundreds of Harkness
Reflex sets. Back then you could trade in your old
radio when purchasing a new one. Elmer would
disassemble the old sets and build a Harkness Reflex
using his own coils. He then
added a power supply, batteries, a cabinet and a
speaker, and sold them for $65. He was also a dealer
of Stewart-Warner, Federal, Sparton, Ungar & Watson,
Edison, Grebe, and Majestic brand radios.
various issues of "Radio News" and QST
magazine, it was reported that the call sign
6NW was heard all over the country
from 1925 to
1928. 6NW was also heard in Venezuela, Japan, Alaska, and even a submarine docked at a port in
Honolulu, Hawaii. 6NW made the "Brass
Pounders League" in the March 1926 issue of
QST with 117 contacts.
However, these contacts weren't made by
Elmer Osterhoudt. Elmer had been issued the
call letters 6NW in 1919. The call
sometime around 1922 to James F. Upchurch of
Vallejo, California. In 1924, 6NW was
assigned to Emry C. Stuedle of
Vermont Street in Los Angeles, California.
Emry Stuedle seems to be the person who made
the contacts heard all over the world.
Elmer apparently let his license lapse. At
the time, he was a radio operator working
aboard various ships at sea and would have
been unable to renew it. Coincidently (or not)
when he opened the Manchester Radio and
Electric Shop in 1924 it was also the end of
the era of the spark-gap transmitter.
In December 1915,
the year Elmer made his first crystal set,
the Bureau of Navigation had issued 6NW to
Morrison R. Webb, of 541 18th Street in
Oakland, CA. Imagine if Elmer had heard 6NW
instead of 6JG on that fateful day, then
ended up with the first call letters he ever
Early call letters were frequently
reassigned. Since the first digit
represented the area of the country, there
were only two letters available for the call
sign in each of nine districts. California
was "6." There are 676 combinations of
the 26 letters in the alphabet (26 x 26).
However, the letters X, Y and Z were not
used as the first letter, limiting the
number to 598. The number of stations quickly exceeded that
amount and a third letter was added in the
Three letter combinations beginning with the
letters K. N. W, X, Y and Z were not used,
as well as "SOS" and "PRB." Also not used
were calls beginning with "QR" or "QS," as
well as anything determined to
vulgar or objectionable. This still left
over 10,000 call signs per district.
Elmer wrote that the Amateur Radio guys wanted him
to set up a station in his shop, but he refused
because the shop would always be full of loiterers
and no work would get done. He said that calling
"CQ" far into the night would be a waste of time
that could be put to other uses. "Running a radio
shop took all your time if you wanted to stay in
|In 1924 Elmer's radio store, the
Manchester Radio Electric Shop, was located at 1522
Manchester Avenue in Los Angeles.
Manchester Avenue was renamed East Firestone Boulevard
1927. The city directories for the Watts-Compton area of
California show the store was there till 1928. Elmer moved to Oakland
CA later in 1928.
From "Radio Doings" March 20, 1927
From "Radio Doings" November 25, 1928
1522 Firestone Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA. Site of
the Manchester Radio Electric Shop in 1924. Photo from 2011.
Firestone Boulevard was named Manchester Avenue prior to 1927.
|Watts-Compton City directory entries for
1927. The "r" next to the address number indicates this was
also Elmer's residence. Elmer had at least two salesmen working for him. In
1925 Victor E. Harvlie, who was an electrician, worked in
the store. In 1927 Victor left to work at Graham Electric Shop,
two blocks away at 1704 Manchester Ave. (Notice the name
doesn't have the word "Radio" in it.) Victor was replaced by
In 1928 Elmer moved to
Brooklyn Township, in Alameda County, Oakland, California.
moved the radio shop to 5805 Foothill Boulevard,
two blocks away from where his brother Cyril
lived with his wife Ellen Leona Peer on Kingsley Circle.
Cyril was a radio repairman.
Elmer never mentioned Foothill
Boulevard in any of his
literature, or whether
Cyril ever worked with him.
The address is now a Walgreens. Whatever building was there
in 1928 is long gone. Around this time, the rest of the
Osterhoudt family moved from 8011 Crockett Blvd to 8019
An advertisement in the Oakland Tribune (September
25,1929) for Spartan radio dealers gives us the name of the store.
A similar ad for Grebe radio states the shop is open in the evenings
and a telephone call will "bring a set tonight."
Notice the address.
An advertisement in Broadcast Weekly magazine (May
1929) for Spartan radio dealers gives us the same address. The ads
above suggest Elmer and Mabel lived at 5809 Foothill Blvd, while the
store was at 5805 Foothill Blvd. If they lived on Foothill Blvd it
was only for a short time.
They moved to 2125 E 28th
Street in 1928.
On October 7, 1929, Elmer and Mabel Elizabeth Smith were
married by Rev. C. O. Lundquist in the Ebenezer Evangelical
Lutheran Church in San Francisco, and they moved into
the new house on 28th Street, in Oakland.
The church at the time had a Swedish congregation.
Mabel's mother (maiden name Alma Anderson) was born in
Ebenezer Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church in
This church survived the earthquake of 1906 but burnt down in 1993.
This was a time of unprecedented prosperity and
innovation in the United States. What a great time to get
married! In addition to the booming radio business, the
Osterhoudt's could look forward to a life of new inventions;
everything from an electric washing machine, refrigerator
and vacuum cleaner to sliced bread and Penicillin, and even
a personal Kodak motion picture camera. The most exciting
news was that Television had evolved from a system of motors
and spinning disks to an electronic version invented by
Philo T. Farnsworth. Soon, everyone would be able to "see by
wireless" in their own homes, and The Manchester Radio Shop
could add the word "Television" to its name.
must have appeared very promising.
Two weeks after they were married the stock market crashed, followed
by the Great Depression.
Sales of clothing, cars and radios collapsed.
Industrial production fell by 47% and nearly 25% of American
households did not have a single employed wage earner. Business became so
decided to go back to sea. He spent a month at
Pacific Radio School brushing up on his code. but when he tried to get a job
at RCA on a ship, the Chief Radio Operator laughed. There
were 150 guys on a list waiting for the same job.
1930 Cyril and Leona moved back to Los
Angeles, to 8019½ Crockett Boulevard, where Elmer and Cyril's
uncle John, and four brothers and sisters lived. On June 18,
1930, John Osterhoudt passed away. Cyril and Leona were
officially married on August 23, 1930. On December 3, 1930,
Elmer's father Wilbert passed away.
Elmer kept the radio shop
open but moved it from Foothill
Boulevard to 1508 23rd Avenue, much closer to where
they lived. No longer named Manchester Radio Electric Shop,
the new store was named Modern Radio Laboratories. In
1932 he "invented" the celluloid plug-in coil and the No.1
and No.2 crystal sets.
The trademarks for MRL and Modern Radio
Laboratories were registered on December 15, 1932.
The store phone number, from the 1932 Yellow Pages.
|1508 23rd Avenue, Oakland, CA (second
door from the left) This was the site of the "Modern Radio Laboratories" radio
store in 1932.
Modern Radio Laboratories was born the same year, so the
name of the radio store preceded the name of the company. Photo
is from 2016.
This building was less than a mile from Elmer and Mabel's
building was built in 1891 and renovated in 1911, so we can
imagine it looked very much like this in 1932. It currently
contains 10 one bedroom apartments.
|1508 is the downstairs
apartment/storefront. Of course, there wouldn't have been
bars on the windows in 1932. The store was only here for a
short time. By 1934 The Osterhoudt's were in San Francisco.
20 years later Elmer and Mabel would own an entire 9 unit
apartment complex of their own in Redwood City, California.
Year 1933 Oakland, California City Directory entry.
Notice h2125 E 28th is their home address.
Here's the home phone number.
Elmer and Mabel Osterhoudt's residence at 2125 East 28th Street, Oakland, CA.
The house was built in 1928, the year Elmer moved into it.
This address is about 1 mile from the 23rd Ave store location.
From RADIO magazine, June 1933. The address is
Elmer's radio store.
$1.00 in 1933 is the equivalent of $20.00 in 2020.
1934 San Francisco phone book entry
1938 San Francisco directory entry
|In 1933 Elmer and Mabel closed the radio shop and moved to
151 Liberty Street in San Francisco, to an apartment owned by Mabel's parents.
Modern Radio Laboratories was now a mail order business. In
1938 Elmer and Mabel moved back to Oakland and opened
another store, once again named Modern Radio Laboratories.
|MRL Mystery: From
1924 to 1928 Elmer's radio store was in Los Angeles,
California. In 1928 he moved to Oakland, California.
On October 8, 1929 he married Mabel Smith of San
Francisco, in a Lutheran church in San Francisco. San Francisco isn't far from Oakland,
but it's 380 miles from Los Angeles. How and when did they meet?
Witnesses to the wedding were Elmer's brother Cyril,
and Robert Lee Sala of 106 10th Avenue in San
Francisco. Who was Robert Lee Sala?
Trivia: The San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge and
the Golden Gate Bridge did not exist in 1929. Trips
to San Francisco from Oakland were made by ferry or
by driving all the way around the bay.
||Elmer Osterhoudt is born
to Wilbert and Minnie Osterhoudt in Butte
Creek, Scotts Mills, Oregon.
||Elmer's brother Cyril
||Elmer's mother, Minnie
Osterhoudt, dies age 27.
||Wilbert is part
owner of a planing mill in Eugene, Oregon.
Elmer is enrolled in Eugene High School.
Wilbert's brother John and his wife Lillie
Shields also live in Eugene.
||Wilbert marries Lela May
(maiden name unknown).
||Wilbert and Lela May are
moves to Los Angeles with Elmer and Cyril, where
marries Alice Shields, Lillie's sister.
Elmer builds his first
working crystal radio.
||Elmer graduates Compton High
School. He works at Southern Board and Paper
September he joins the US Navy as a radio
WWI ends in November.
||Elmer obtains an amateur
radio license with call letters 6NW.
||Elmer is employed as a
laborer at Hammond Lumber Company in Los
Elmer is employed as a wireless operator at
a power company in Fresno, CA.
Elmer is employed as a radio operator at
Southern California Edison Co. in San
||1923 - Elmer is employed
by RCA as a
radio operator aboard 8 different
||Elmer is employed in a
drug store, where he gets the idea to open a
store of his own.
Elmer opens the
Nadeau Radio Electric Shop in Los
Angeles, around the corner from the
Elmer moves the store to 1522 East
Manchester Ave and renames it Manchester Radio
||Elmer moves to 28th
Street in Oakland
and opens a radio store on Foothill
Boulevard. It is still named Manchester Radio
Electric Shop. His brother Cyril lives two
blocks away from the store with his wife,
||October 6 - Elmer marries Mabel Smith. They live
at the 28th Street address in Oakland.
October 28 -
The stock market crashes and the Great
||Wilbert and John
Osterhoudt both pass away.
Cyril and Leona move back to the Osterhoudt
residence in Los Angeles.
||Elmer moves the radio
store to 23rd Avenue in Oakland. It is named
Modern Radio Laboratories.
He "invents" the celluloid coil form in
1932, which becomes the basis of a mail
order business. See page 7.
"Modern Radio Laboratories" is trademarked in
||Elmer and Mabel move into an apartment in
San Francisco owned by Mabel's parents.
(Note: The radio store seems to have closed
at this time. They will remain in San
Francisco till nearly the end of the Great
Depression. In 1938 they move back to Oakland and open a radio store
on 14th Street. During WWII this
store also closes, and Elmer works once
again for the US Navy. The store never
reopens, and they move to Hayward, CA in
1944. More details on the following pages.)
Radio Laboratories was a mail-order company. You
mailed your order to MRL and Elmer sent the order
through the US mail back to you. Most of the MRL
advertising consisted of sometimes vague three or four line
advertisements in radio magazines. His "business plan" was
brilliant and will be explored on Page 6.
Long after the crystal radio was
made obsolete by the regen radio, the Superheterodyne
and FM, Elmer Osterhoudt
via MRL continued to sell radio parts, kits and plans to
crystal set "fans" who made their own radios.
According to Elmer, the "golden age" of the crystal
radio ended in 1924. As time marched on and
many parts became commercially unavailable, he made them
Of paramount importance to him was keeping the cost
down for the experimenters who bought from MRL.
Elmer wrote that nobody can make money by cutting a
small piece of plywood and reeling off 15¢ of magnet
wire, but he knew what the "Dabbler" was up against
when he had to buy a 4x8 sheet of plywood or "buy
out the company" because he needed a few feet of
Elmer spent 54 years making radio parts by hand. He may
have been an artisan, but he wasn't
was an artist in the ink on paper sense of the word.
He admitted his handwriting was awful. There are hundreds of drawings in his
catalogs and handbooks but unless you know what the
parts look like, the drawings are hard to fathom. On
the rest of this site we'll compare some actual MRL parts with the drawings.
This is not to criticize Elmer's drawing skills. If
he had taken a drawing class perhaps his catalog and
handbooks wouldn't possess the uniqueness they do.
Instead, the goal is
to show what a fine product you got compared to the
drawing of the same product in the catalog. Those of us still
alive who purchased from MRL will see what they were
actually looking at in the catalog. Unfortunately,
most of the 10,000 MRL customers have already passed away,
along with Elmer and Mabel.
appreciate the MRL products shown here, you
may want to look at an actual catalog
published by Elmer Osterhoudt.
||See you back
in an hour.
|Welcome back! Did you
see that guy on Page A-5? For years I wondered if
that was Elmer. Why would EO have a picture of some
random guy in the catalog? It's NOT him. It's a
radio operator at a police station. Elmer took the
picture from a National Radio Institute publication.
was Donald H. Peters of Findlay, Ohio.
Here's another MRL mystery: Did
Elmer take a course in radio repair?
Only NRI graduates
received National Radio-TV News. Where did he get his copy?
The entry in the catalog advertises HB-11, "Radio
Operating as a Career," which was copyrighted in 1961,
but this photo is from 1951. The photo appears on
page 5 of the handbook.
the only picture of a human being in all of Elmer's
surviving library of literature. Why did Elmer
choose this picture? Did Donald Peters resemble
Elmer? According to his 1942 draft card, Elmer was 5' 10" tall, weighed 195 pounds, and
had a light complexion with blonde hair and blue
eyes. (His 1918 draft card stated he had light brown
hair.) The ship manifest from the J. A. Moffett,
dated January 28, 1922 states he weighed 175 pounds,
so he gained 20 pounds in 20 years!
In one of his publications Elmer stated that
he might include a photo of Mabel and himself in a
future edition. Whether he did or not is one more