Elmer G. Osterhoudt
The Modern Radio Laboratories® Catalog 

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Elmer Osterhoudt
    Photo from 1918 Compton Union High School yearbook Photo thanks to Victor Rodriguez  

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 1957. Link

* 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¢, which narrows down the volume that Elmer actually read. 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

** After searching Los Angeles property records and the US census for any neighboring household that had a boy named Elmer of the appropriate age, fellow MRL fan Victor Rodriguez has determined that this person is Elmer Stevens. He appears in the Compton Union High School yearbook with Elmer Osterhoudt. Link

The two Elmer's were in the high school band and school orchestra together, but their friendship is unknown. Elmer referred to him as "a neighbor boy" in his account.

*** 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.
1936 East 77th Ave Los Angeles CA
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.

On May 1, 1917, the Osterhoudt's moved to 241 E. Truslow Avenue in Fullerton, California. Elmer was interested in entomology and biology, and without being able to use his radio equipment he pursued these fields instead. He was a member of the Lorquin Natural History Club, he corresponded with professional entomologists, and placed ads in the Lepidoptera, a Boston publication, to trade insects and butterflies from the east coast. He raised the butterflies himself.

By 1918 the Osterhoudt's were back in Los Angeles at 8011 Crockett Boulevard, a few blocks away from the 77th street address. 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 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.

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 publication 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 coils, all made by hand!
MRL logo
MRL logo
MRL logo
MRL logo
MRL logo
The MRL logo was hand drawn by Elmer, and almost every one is different. "First use in commerce" of Elmer's trademarks is listed as  December 15, 1932. Today, these trademarks are owned by Paul Luther Nelson, current owner of Modern Radio Laboratories®, who registered the logos to himself in 1999.

MRL Catalog
MRL Catalog
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 city directories, census records, birth and death certificates, advertisements, and his literature - and he wrote a lot of literature. 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
Scotts Mills, Oregon. 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, 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 was born in Butte Creek, Oregon. Butte Creek was incorporated into Scotts Mills in 1916. He was apparently born on his grandfather's farm and not in the town of Scotts Mills itself. The population of Scotts Mills at the time was about 100. Cyril was born in Silverton, Marion, Oregon, about 5 miles from Scotts Mills.

For reasons not known, the family moved to Spokane, Washington, sometime around 1902. 
1903 Spokane Washington listing
Entry from the 1903 Spokane, Washington City Directory. The house in the listing, built in 1889, still exists.

From Spokane they moved to Yakama City. Charles died there in April of 1903. Minnie Osterhoudt died of typhoid fever 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 along with his brothers Henry and John, moved to Vancouver, Washington, then to Eugene, Oregon.

On July 27, 1904, John Osterhoudt married a girl named Lillie S. Shields in Vancouver Washington. They lived in Enterprise, Oregon, but eventually moved to 593 8th Avenue in Eugene.

Elmer wrote in MRL Data Sheets Vol. 6 that his father owned a planing mill in Eugene. (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. The company name was "J H Smith & Co," according to the city directory. The mill was
a few blocks from the Willamette River near Skinners Butte, where the mill race met Eighth Avenue. Henry and John Osterhoudt also worked at the mill.

The 1910 census shows that Wilbert and Elmer lived at
205 8th Avenue in Eugene. This was the actual address of the planing mill. Accordingly, the mill 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."
1911 Eugene City directory
Entry from the 1911 Eugene City Directory.

Cyril was reunited with his father and Elmer sometime between 1910 and 1912. An article in the Eugene Guardian states that Wilbert had married Lela May Smith in 1911, and the 1914 City Directory shows they lived at 656 E. 8th Avenue. Lela May filed for divorce in June of 1914 and the divorce was granted on August 18, 1914.
1914 Eugene City listing
Entry from the 1914 Eugene City Directory.
NOTE: It isn't known if Lela May Smith was the daughter of James H. Smith, Wilbert's partner. There was a Lela May Smith in Eugene who was the daughter of James Smith, but it was a different James Smith. She was the daughter of James L. Smith, a farmer who died in 1907. This Lela May Smith married Clark H. Hileman in 1903 and was still married to him when she died in 1933. Her mother's name was Nancy.

The 1920 census states that James H. Smith, 67, of 205 8th Street in Eugene City, was married to Jessie D. Smith, 48 (not Nancy). His occupation was "Carpenter in a planing mill."

Wilbert Osterhoudt and Jim Smith at the Eighth Avenue Planing Mill 1909. Click for full size.
The mill opened in September of 1908.


Left to right: Jim Smith, Wilbert Osterhoudt, Mr. Basinette, Henry Osterhoudt, John Edwin Osterhoudt. Click for full size.

Fun facts: Wilbert was 5'8" tall. Henry was 5'9" and John was 5'8". (Information  from a census document from Marion County, Oregon, 1895) When this picture was taken Wilbert was 39 years old, Henry was 44 and John was 34.

The Star Toymaker

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 Ammoniac.

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 poor Dad 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 Willamette 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.)  Skinners Butte is only a few blocks away from the mill (where they also lived) at 205 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. Link

A grass sled

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.

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 Skinner's Butte 1909

Downtown Eugene, Oregon in 1912. 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 became the location of Eugene City Hall in 1964. The building was demolished in 2015 and the site is now a large parking lot.

Eugene was home to the University of Oregon. See this map.
Also, see these 1912 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. The Osterhoudt planing mill is at the bottom of Plate 16. Link

On August 14, 1915, one year after his divorce from Lela May, Elmer's father married Alice Elsie Shields, the sister of his brother John's wife, Lillie. By this time Wilbert and Alice had a daughter named Wilda Frances Osterhoudt. Lela May had asked for 1/3 of Wilbert's property and $25 a month alimony during the divorce. The Lane County History Museum states that the J. H. Smith & Co mill stopped operating in 1914, the year the Osterhoudt's were divorced. It's impossible to know the exact chain of events, but Wilbert and Alice left Eugene, taking Elmer, Cyril and Wilda with them. They were married in Santa Ana California, and would spend the rest of their lives in Los Angeles.

Elmer and Cyril eventually had six half-brothers 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.)

Eugene High School
Eugene High School in 1912. Built in 1900, Elmer would have attended school here. In 1915 a new high school was built and this building became Eugene City Hall. It was located at Willamette Street and West 11th Avenue, a few blocks from the mill on 8th Street.

The white building on the right was Central Public School. Today a branch of Chase Bank and a convenience store are located on the two sites.
Willamette Street and West 11th Avenue, Eugene, OR
Willamette Street and West 11th Avenue, 120 years later. Only the fire hydrant remains, and it's probably not even the same hydrant.
Fullerton Union High School
Fullerton Union High School
In 1917, while living at 241 E. Truslow Avenue in Fullerton, CA, Elmer attended Fullerton Union High School. He took biology, was interested in entomology, and had a large collection of insects. In a letter to the noted entomologist Fordyce Grinnel Jr, dated May 21, 1917, Elmer wrote, "On account of having to take my wireless down when we were at Florence I have gone into Entomology about as deeply as ever again." The Junior College was in the same building as the high school, and he befriended the teacher who taught entomology there, Hiram Tracy. Elmer would offer advice and encouragement to the college students in the class. He stated they always got plenty of specimens but did a poor job of mounting them.
Compton Union High School 1903
Compton Union High School. Photo taken in 1903.
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.

Elmer Osterhoudt 1918
Photo of Elmer from the 1918 Compton Union HS yearbook.

Elmer Osterhoudt 1918
Elmer Osterhoudt 1918
Elmer Stevens
  Elmer played "First Trombone" in the school orchestra and the band. Also in the orchestra was Elmer Stevens (right), who played drums.
We believe Elmer Stevens was the "neighbor boy" who brought his non-working crystal set to Elmer Osterhoudt in 1915.
Click on the above photos for the complete orchestra or band group photo.


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, but the 1915 directory lists an Alice Shields at 922 W. 6th Street, not far from the Jones Sash & Door address. Neither of these addresses exist today.

Jones Sash and Door

MRL Mystery: The Osterhoudt's lived at 657 8th Ave in Eugene, Oregon. After they left for California a woman named Olga Jones lived at that address, while Wilbert worked for the Jones Sash and Door Company in Long Beach. Is this just a coincidence due to a common name, or did Olga have some family connection with Jones Sash and Door Company?

In the preface in his handbooks, Elmer wrote that he was a technician at "Electrical Products Company." This was a company in Long Beach 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 was in the Navy in 1918. Since the Osterhoudt's had moved to 77th Street by 1917, it was probably in 1915 or 1916.
Electrical Products Company Los Angeles
Entry from the 1913 Los Angeles City Directory. This address is in the Long Beach area.
EPCO 1923 Los Angeles
Ad from the 1923 Los Angeles City Directory
In 1918, Elmer 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 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." 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 wasn't until November of 1919 that it became legal once again for an amateur to own a transmitter.)

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, and by examining the dates of the known details of his life, he had not been at the Naval base for the whole two years of his enlistment. When he left the navy he moved back home to his family at 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.

When 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.

Model T spark plug coil
  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. He is also listed in the "Citizen's Radio Call Book" of November 1922 with the same call sign.

Listing in the May, 1920 issue of "Pacific Radio News"

According to "Amateur Stations of the United States," in 1920 and 1921 Elmer had a 1000 watt station at 8011 Crockett Street in Los Angeles. Elmer later wrote that the power was actually 500 watts.

So, how did he fund his radio hobby, research and experiments?

Hammond Lumber Co
Osterhoudt Hammond Lumber
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 Wireless Pioneers, 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 a ship.

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 Maru."
Tenyo Maru 1920
The Japanese passenger liner SS Tenyo Maru docked at San Francisco in 1920. The photo Elmer took may have looked very much like this one. This photograph was taken at the Brannan Street Wharf in San Francisco on October 5, 1920, which places Elmer at this very spot around the same date. Source.

Elmer may have had an interest in this ship because it was the first turbine driven steamship ever to enter the port of San Francisco. It carried Asian immigrants to Angel Island Immigration Station, an island in San Francisco bay.

Note: In this photo the ship is docked between piers 34 and 36. Built in 1909, the piers have since collapsed and have been replaced with a public park.
  1918 Compton HS yearbook page  

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.) Notice that Elmer Stevens, whom we believe is the neighbor boy who brought his radio to Elmer Osterhoudt in 1915 (see top of page), is a plumber.


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 Portland, Oregon.

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 Hastings Street."

In 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 strange paths.)

On August 31, 1921, Elmer was aboard the tug named "Sea Lion." 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 newspaper article.)

tugboat Sea Lion
  The tugboat "Sea Lion," built in 1920 at the Main Street Iron Works, San Francisco, CA.  

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 at the Alameda Works Shipyard, also owned by 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. 

El Sugundo
                            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, the F. H. Hillman 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, signed "care of Radio Corporation of America."

Aboard ship, Elmer was known as "Sparks," a common nickname for the radio operator. Elmer wrote that he "quit" in 1923. By then, almost every other ship on the Pacific coast was a Japanese cargo ship. Elmer wrote, "After an OP spends several years at sea, he gets sick of the monotony of sea life and looks for a land station job."

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.

In January 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! In Radio Builder & Hobbyist #38, Elmer related that he built many crystal sets while at this location, and sold them with a cabinet for $15.00 (equivalent to about $270.00 in 2023.)

Los Angeles Times June 18, 1922
This advertisement, from the Los Angeles Times, is dated June 18, 1922. It seems the Nadeau Radio Electric Shop already existed before Elmer took it over in 1924. According to the 1922-1923 Los Angeles directory, it was owned by Lou and Eva Kipp. Their residence was next door at 1930 East Nadeau Street. On the other side of the radio shop, at 1926 Nadeau, was a hardware store owned by William Kipp. The buildings no longer exists.

After selling the Nadeau Avenue store to Elmer, Louis Kipp opened another radio and electric supplies shop at 1749 E. Florence Ave, two blocks away from the Nadeau address.
The Practical Druggist 1923
  This correspondence to "The Practical Druggist" is dated December 27, 1923. Elmer opened the Nadeau Radio Electric Shop a month later. Modern Radio Laboratories may never have appeared in 1932 if Elmer had opened a drugstore instead of a radio store. The country was in the middle of what is known as the "radio craze" of the 1920s, which certainly would have influenced his decision.  

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.

Call Heard
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 on 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 6NW was reassigned sometime around 1922 to James F. Upchurch of Vallejo, California. The March 1922 issue of Radio contains a report from station 7LR in Albany, Oregon, of stations he received. One of them was 6NW. It was likely James Upchurch who was heard.

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 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. 6NW became W6NW some time between 1928 and 1929.

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 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, after the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co opened a factory on a 40 acre site about a mile away on the same street. 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.
Manchester Radio Electric Shop
From "Radio Doings" March 20, 1927
Manchester Radio Los Angeles
From "Radio Doings" November 25, 1928
1522 Firestone Blvd
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.
1522 Firestone Boulevard
1522 Firestone Boulevard in 2021. According to Paul Nelson, Elmer's father Wilbert built this building.
Manchester Radio Electric Shop
Manchester Radio Electric Shop
Watts-Compton City directory entries for 1927. The "r" next to the address number indicates this was Elmer's residence. The other Osterhoudt's all lived on Crockett Boulevard.
Victor Harvlie
Herman MacMillian
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. They occupied a large building at the corner of Manchester and Graham.) Victor was replaced by Herman MacMillian in 1927.
Earl Fricke
Al Barnette
Two electricians worked for Elmer in 1927/28. Barnette's address was three blocks from the store.

Osterhoudt Foothill Blvd
Osterhoudt Foothill Blvd
In 1928 Elmer moved to Brooklyn Township, in Alameda County, Oakland, California. He 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 Crockett Blvd.
Manchester Radio Electric Shop
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.
Manchester Radio Shoppe
An advertisement in Broadcast Weekly magazine (May 17, 1929) for Spartan radio dealers gives us the same address. 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 Sweden.
Ebenezer Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Francisco.
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 Electric Shop could add the word "Television" to its name. The future 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 bad Elmer 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.

The US Census shows that by April, 1930, Cyril and Leona had two children, Everett and Raymond. They lived at 510 28th Street in Oakland with two of Leona's brothers, Virgil and Frank Peer. Cyril is listed as being a Radio Mechanic in a radio shop, but he was not working at the time of the census. (The address is now a parking lot.)
Later in 1930 Cyril and Leona moved back to Los Angeles, to 8019½ Crockett Boulevard, where Elmer and Cyril's father, stepmother, 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.

To add to the misery, Mabel's mother passed away on April 1, 1930. She was 52.
  Alma Anderson Smith - Mabel's mother.  

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 granted on December 15, 1932.

1932 Yellow Pages
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 residence. The 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.

151 Liberty
1934 San Francisco phone book entry
151 Liberty
1938 San Francisco directory entry
In 1933 Elmer and Mabel closed the radio shop and moved to 151 Liberty Street in San Francisco, owned by Mabel's parents. (Mabel lived there before meeting Elmer.) 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.

The 1934 Los Angeles directory lists Cyril Osterhoudt in the section for "Radio Sets and Supplies - Retail." The address was 7705 S. Central Ave, about one mile from the Osterhoudt residence on Crockett Blvd. The location is now a parking lot. It lists Cyril's home address as 8610½ Compton Avenue. That address no longer exists, but it seems it was within 100 feet of 1522 Manchester Avenue, the site of Elmer's Manchester Radio Electric Shop ten years earlier. More mysteriously, in 1932 8610 Compton Ave was the home of "Western States Radio Repairs," owned by William Mack.

Mabel Elizabeth Smith, age 23.
Photo from her passport, March, 1923. Brown hair, brown eyes, 5' 1" tall.
MRL Mystery: From 1924 to 1928 Elmer's radio store was in Los Angeles, California. In 1928 he moved to Oakland, California. On October 6, 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?

According to the Osterhoudt's marriage license, 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? It turns out there was nobody with that name present at the wedding!

There is a mistake on the Osterhoudt's marriage license. Robert Sala was actually Roberta Sala. She was 24 years old at the time, and worked as a nurse in a hospital. Her maiden name was Chapman, daughter of Robert Chapman. She was divorced, living with her parents, and had an infant baby. Logically, she was a friend of Mabel's, since Elmer wasn't from San Francisco.

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.
In summary...
1899 - Elmer Osterhoudt is born to Wilbert and Minnie Osterhoudt in Butte Creek, Scotts Mills, Oregon.
The Osterhoudt family, consisting of Charles Higby Osterhoudt, his sons Henry, Wilbert, and John, Minnie and Elmer, all live in the same farmhouse.
1901 - Elmer's brother Cyril is born.
1902 - The entire family moves to Spokane, Washington.
1903 - Charles, Wilbert, Minnie, Elmer and Cyril (and possibly Henry and John) move to Yakima City, Washington.
Elmer's grandfather, Charles Osterhoudt, dies in April, age 73.
Elmer's mother, Minnie Osterhoudt, dies in September, age 27, of typhoid fever.
1904 - Wilbert, Elmer, Henry and John move to Vancouver, Washington.  John marries Lillie Shields and moves to Enterprise, OR.
190 - ? Wilbert, Elmer, and Henry move to Eugene, Oregon. John, Lillie, and their three children eventually move there as well.
1908 - Wilbert is part owner of a planing mill in Eugene, Oregon. Elmer is enrolled in Eugene High School.
Wilbert's brothers Henry and John work at the mill.
1911 - Wilbert marries Lela May Smith. Cyril is reunited with his father and Elmer around this time.
1914 - Wilbert and Lela May are divorced.
1915 - Wilbert moves to Los Angeles with Elmer, Cyril, Alice Shields, and their new daughter, Wilda. Wilbert and Alice get married there. Elmer builds his first working crystal radio.
1917 - The US enters WWI. It is illegal to own a radio or erect an antenna. The Osterhoudt's move to Fullerton, CA. Elmer attends Fullerton Union High School and pursues biology and entomology.
1918 - Elmer graduates Compton High School. He works at Southern Board and Paper mills.
In September Elmer and Cyril join the US Navy. Elmer is a radio technician (Cyril may be one as well). WWI ends in November.
1919 - Elmer obtains an amateur radio license with call letters 6NW.
1920 - Elmer is employed as a laborer at Hammond Lumber Company in Los Angeles.
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 Francisco.
1920 to 1923 - Elmer is employed by RCA as a radio operator aboard 8 different ships.
1924 - 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 Osterhoudt residence..
Elmer moves the store to 1522 East Manchester Ave and renames it Manchester Radio Electric Shop
1928 - 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 (a radio repairman) lives two blocks away from the store with his wife, Leona.
1929 - October 6 - Elmer marries Mabel Smith. They live at the 28th Street address in Oakland.
October 28 - The stock market crashes and the Great Depression begins.
1930 - Wilbert and John Osterhoudt both pass away, as does Mabel's mother. Cyril and Leona move back to the Osterhoudt
residence in Los Angeles.
1932 - 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 December.
1933 - Elmer and Mabel move to Mabel's old home, an apartment owned by Mabel's father at 151 Liberty Street in San Francisco.
(Note: The radio store has 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.)
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 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 himself.

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 wire.

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. 


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.


Radio operator

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," which was copyrighted in 1961, but this photo is from 1951. The photo also 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.