Elmer G. Osterhoudt
and
The Modern Radio Laboratories Catalog 

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Modern Radio Laboratories website

 
Elmer Osterhoudt
    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. An original account can be found on Page 2 of "How To Make Coils" by Elmer Osterhoudt, written in 1957.

* 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. Link


** 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.
 
MRL Mystery: In 1917 Elmer Osterhoudt and his family lived at this address at 1936 East 77th Ave in Los Angeles, CA. The 100+ year old house, built in 1908, lies under the additions and modern exterior of this building. Did Elmer live here two years prior, in 1915? Is this the site where he and the "other" Elmer made his first radio?

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.

This might have been the end of the story of Elmer Osterhoudt's interest in radio. Just another boyhood hobby set aside.
 

 
However, during his lifetime Elmer Osterhoudt would (in all probability) hand-wind more coils and build 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.

He 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 magazine called "Radio Builder and Hobbyist." He printed them himself, at first with a mimeograph machine and later on a lithograph printer.

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 FIFTY-FIVE types of plug-in and solenoid coils, all made by hand!
 
 
 
The MRL logo was hand drawn and almost every one is different.
 
A Modern Radio Labs catalog from April, 1986, one of the last ones ever printed. It contains 46 pages of closely spaced text and diagrams. This is the front cover showing the index.
 
In the 1970s the index was five columns wide (compare to picture above it). The catalog began to shrink as more and more products became unobtainable. Click on the catalog page for a full sized one you can read. (Will open in a new tab.)
 

 
There is very 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." including:
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
6NW (1919)

 
Scotts Mills, Oregon, birthplace Of Elmer Osterhoudt. Photo taken in 1912 by James Eaton.  (Click for full size - will open in new tab.)
An original copy hangs on the wall at the Scotts Mills Historical Museum
 
Elmer was born in Scotts Mills, Oregon on October 6, 1899, the son of Wilbert and Minnie Osterhoudt. Wilbert (also known as William) was a carpenter. Elmer had a brother named Cyril, who was born on April 17, 1901. Tragically, their mother died in 1903 at the age of 27.

Note: To be precise, Elmer was born in Butte Creek, Oregon. Butte Creek was incorporated into Scotts Mills in 1916. He was apparently born on a farm and not in the town of Scotts Mills itself.

On August 30, 1914, eleven years after the death of Minnie, his father married Alice Elsie Shields . Elmer soon had six additional half-brothers and sisters, though two sisters died young; one lived to be two years old and the other, four. (See page ten.)

The Osterhoudt family moved to Los Angeles, California sometime in 1915. The Los Angeles 1916 Long Beach City directory lists, "Osterhoudt W A  woodwkr Jones Sash and Door Company." The "W A" would be William Arthur. It lists his residence as being in Los Angeles but unfortunately doesn't list the address.

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. Other than the story of making the crystal radio in 1915, we know little else of his youth. Handbook 8, "Radio Kinks and Quips," contains the following three sentences:

"At home, my brother and I used to drive our poor Dad nuts. We had an Edison Cylinder record phonograph. We used to reverse the belt and run it backwards."

That's about all we know, but it gives some insight into Elmer's personality.

 
Elmer 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 then 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.
Presently, this 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 wasn't the greatest job for him, because he registered on the very day the new draft went into effect, Sept 12, 1918. It seems he was immediately accepted, as the US military was in desperate need of radio operators, 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." Draft Card

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 should be noted here that it wasn't until November of 1919 that it became legal once again to own a transmitter.

He may have had a license for the Navy (he never mentioned it), but all radio licenses for Amateurs had to be reissued in 1919. Elmer stated he was in the Navy for two years. If he was still at Alameda in 1919 he would have had to go 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. The fact is, millions of men were sent home after the war and it seems Elmer was not at the Naval base for the whole two years.

1919 was 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. One can imagine the look on his face as the rapidly spinning motor shaft slowly came to a stop - permanently. Later he "got a new rotary spark gap" and "proceeded to jam up the air."

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 News"

According to "Amateur Stations of the U.S. 1920 - 1923," Elmer had a 1000 watt station at 8011 Crockett Street in Los Angeles. How did he fund his radio hobby, research and experiments?

In the preface in his handbooks, Elmer wrote that he was a technician at Electrical Products Company. This was a company in Los Angeles, 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 1914 but before he began his stint with the Navy in 1918. 



There is an entry in the Los Angeles 1920 City Directory showing an E. G. Osterhoudt working at Hammond Lumber Company. This isn't as far-fetched as it seems. 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.

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.

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 was employed at Southern California Edison Company as a wireless operator, a fact the 1920 US Census verifies. That job didn't seem to suit him, and later in 1920 went to Standard Oil, where he finally obtained a job aboard a ship.
 


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 he was at sea as a radio operator. According to Elmer, in 1920 he was the radio operator on "Standard Oil Barge 93." 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 Hastings Street."

In 1921 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)

In 1921 there was some sort of strike, which backfired. The radio operators lost $20 a month, and 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 strange paths.)

Elmer also worked in the radio room of the SS Atlas in 1921 and 1922, owned by Standard Oil Co. of California. He then served aboard a steam ship named the J. A. Moffett, also owned by Standard Oil of California. The transmitter aboard the J. A. Moffett was a Marconi P-4. He made $225 a month, which he said was "good money."

Though the SS Atlas and J. A, Moffett 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, signed "care 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 cargo ship.

Apparently, he studied Pharmacy for two years 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" in a drug store, and entertained the idea of owning his own drug store. His ham shack sat on a property he owned. In Elmer's own words, "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.

In 1924 he opened the "Manchester Radio Electric Shop" on Manchester Avenue in Los Angeles, California. 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) he made hundreds of Harkness Reflex sets. The Harkness sets came in kit form. Elmer added a power supply, batteries, a cabinet and a speaker, and sold them for $65. He was also a dealer of Stewart-Warner, Federal, and Majestic brand radios.
 
In 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. The call 6NW was REASSIGNED sometime around 1924 to Emry C. Stuedle of Vermont Street in Los Angeles, California. Elmer apparently let his license lapse after he sold the property where his radio shack was located. Coincidently (or not) 1924 marked the end of the era of the spark-gap transmitter.

When Elmer passed his exam in 1919, he had been issued a license with re-assigned call letters. 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 heard!

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 1920s.

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 be 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 business."

In 1928 Elmer moved to Oakland, California and opened a shop on Foothill Boulevard. On October 7, 1929 he married Mabel Elizabeth Smith, and they moved into a house at
2125 East 28th Street, in Oakland. Two weeks later the stock market crashed, followed by the Great Depression. In 1930, business got so bad he 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 at him. There were 150 guys on a list waiting for the same job.

Instead of going out to sea, he kept the radio shop open, but apparently moved it from Foothill Boulevard to 23rd Avenue. In 1932 Elmer "invented" the celluloid plug-in coil and the No.1 and No.2 crystal sets. He and Mabel then began Modern Radio Laboratories. The trademarks for MRL and Modern Radio Laboratories were registered on December 15, 1932.

 

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 around 1927. The city directories for the Watts-Compton area of California show the store was there till 1928. As stated above, Elmer moved to Oakland in 1928.
 
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. Elmer had at least two salesmen working for him. In 1925 Victor E. Harvlie, who was an electrician, worked in the store. In 1927 he 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. Harvlie was replaced by Herman MacMillian.
 

 
 
 
Elmer moved to Oakland in 1928. He appears in the 1930 Oakland City Directory, along with Mabel, as having a shop at 5809 Foothill Boulevard. He never mentioned Foothill Blvd. in any of his literature. The 1930 census states they lived in Brooklyn Township, in Alameda County, Oakland. Foothill Blvd goes right through Brooklyn Township.

The address is now a Walgreens. Whatever building was there in 1930 is long gone.

Adding to the intrigue, Elmer's brother Cyril, who was a radio technician, also moved to Oakland. Cyril and his wife lived two blocks away from Elmer and Mabel. Did Cyril work in Elmer's shop? In 1929 the economy collapsed. By 1931 Cyril was back in Los Angeles. In 1932 Elmer moved the shop to 23rd Street. In 1933 Elmer and Mabel moved to San Francisco.
 

1508 23rd Avenue, Oakland, CA (second door from the left) This was the site of the Modern Radio Laboratories radio shop in 1932. Modern Radio Laboratories was born the same year. Photo is from 2016.

This is one block in from Foothill Boulevard, but about 4 miles away from the radio shop at 5809 Foothill. The building was built in 1891 and remodeled in 1911. It currently contains 10 one bedroom apartments. The main address is 1502 23rd Avenue.

The "market" on the right sold beer and liquor. As of 2021, it is boarded up, chained and padlocked. The grates on the doors of 1504 and 1508 are now rusted on the bottoms from urine. Signs above 1504 say "no loitering, drinking or illegal drugs," and that activities are being video taped. Apparently the "market" was a hangout for degenerates, who were pissing through the security grates on the doors, right into the doorway of what was once Modern Radio Laboratories!

The area is now "ethnically diverse" and the violent crime and murder rate is very high.

 
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 1933 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, California.
 
Year 1933 Oakland, California City Directory entry. Notice h2125 E 28th is their home address.
 
The shop phone number, from the 1932 Yellow Pages. Notice the name of the store.
 
Here's the home phone number.
 
Elmer and Mabel Osterhoudt's residence at 2125 East 28th Street, Oakland, CA.
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.

 
MRL Mystery: From 1924 to 1928 Elmer's radio store was in Los Angeles, CA. In 1928 he moved to Oakland CA. In 1929 he married Mabel Smith, but Mabel was from San Francisco. San Francisco isn't far from Oakland, but the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge wasn't built till 1936! How and when did they meet?
_____________________________________________________
 
Modern 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 explained on Page 6.

Long after the crystal radio was eclipsed by the regen radio, then the TRF receiver and finally the Superheterodyne, Elmer Osterhoudt via MRL continued to sell radio parts 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 himself.

Of paramount importance to him was keeping the cost down for the experimenters who bought from MRL.

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 hand writing 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. 

 

WAIT!
To fully appreciate the MRL products shown here, you may want to look at an actual catalog published by Elmer Osterhoudt.
CLICK HERE. 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.

 
His name was Donald H. Peters of Findlay, Ohio.  LINK
 
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." It was copyrighted in 1961, but this photo is from 1951. The photo appears on page 5 of the handbook.

This is 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 MRL mystery.

 
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