Elmer G. Osterhoudt
and
The Modern Radio Laboratories® Catalog 

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Modern Radio Laboratories® and MRL® are registered trademarks of Paul L. Nelson. Visit the MRL website  here.

 
In 1915, after reading a book about a new invention called "Wireless," a 16 year old boy named Elmer G. Osterhoudt (pronounced OH-sterhowt) made a crystal radio in order to receive the code signals that were said to be invisibly traveling through space.

He wound a beautiful coil of 220 turns of wire on a piece of broom handle, then he painted it with white lead paint which he had made himself. Connecting the coil to a 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.

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."

He sold thousands of kits, coils, crystals and all parts related to crystal radios, many of which he made himself. He also wrote many handbooks, "Detail Prints" and a quarterly magazine called "Radio Builder and Hobbyist." Along with the catalog, he printed them himself 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!
 

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 and the last column of the index extended all the way to the bottom. The catalog lost about a page a year. 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 any of his handbooks or "Detail Prints." Even on the catalog it is shortened to "MODERN RADIO LABS." and everywhere else to simply "MRL."

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)

 
Elmer was born in Oregon on October 6, 1899, the son of William and Alice Osterhoudt. Except for the story of making the crystal radio in 1915, we know little else of his youth. He had seven brothers and sisters, though two sisters died young, one was two years old and the other was four.

The Osterhoudt family moved to Los Angeles, California sometime in 1915 or 1916. During WWI Elmer was stationed at the Alameda U.S. Naval Base in California. (With the exception of a brief move to Reno, Nevada in 1971 - 1972, he spent the rest of his life in California. He and all of his siblings are buried in the Los Angeles area.)

There was a draft registration (the 3rd one) on September 12, 1918 for men aged 18 through 45. Prior to this third draft, the minimum age was 21. Elmer would have fallen into this new category. There is no draft registration card in the archives for Elmer, so he may have volunteered. Whether he was drafted or volunteered, the war was over on November 11, 1918.

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.

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 bell 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 motor slowly came to a stop - permanently. Later he "got a new rotary spark gap" and "proceeded to jam up the air."

He worked for a brief time at Southern California Edison Company as a wireless operator, then spent the years 1920 to 1923 at sea as a radio operator with RCA. He served aboard a steam ship named the J. A. Moffett, owned by Standard Oil of California (it's not clear if he worked for RCA or Standard Oil, or if these are two different stories.)

In 1924 he opened the "Manchester Radio Electric Shop" in Los Angeles, CA. In 1928 he was in a shop in Oakland, CA on 14th Street. In 1930, after the stock Market crashed and business got bad, Elmer decided to go back to sea. When he tried to get a job on a ship, the Chief Radio Operator laughed. There were 150 guys on a list waiting for the same job.

Instead of going out to sea, he kept the radio shop opened and married his girlfriend, Mabel Elizabeth Smith, whom he had met in 1929. In 1932 they began Modern Radio Laboratories at an address on 23rd Avenue in Oakland, California.

 


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. There was no website (obviously), there was only the MRL catalog and vague two or three line advertisements in magazines. His "business plan" was genius and will be explained later.

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 55 years hand-making radio parts. He may have been an artisan, but he wasn't was an artist in the ink on paper sense of the word. 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. 

 

MRL QRM INTERFERENCE COIL

 

 
 
This is a drawing of the MRL QRM coil. It is used to null strong radio stations on a crystal set. What does it really look like?
 
It was shipped wrapped in Detail Print 18, which describes its construction and use. The diameter is one inch.
 
Very nicely constructed. How long did it take Elmer to make this? How long did it take just to make the empty coil form with the riveted eyelets holding the solder lugs? He wound both coils, covered them with coil cement, printed and cut out the label, then marked the solder lugs. In 1986 he sold this for two bucks.
 
 
 
Mr. Osterhoudt even drilled a hole for a mounting bracket.
 

MRL VARIO-COUPLER

On the same page as the QRM coil is the MRL VARIO-COUPLER. This is composed of two coils on a cylindrical coil form with a third coil inside. The user can turn this coil and vary the "coupling" of the coils. What does it actually look like? On the right we have zoomed in, just as though you were reading the catalog and peered in for a closer look. Nah, I'm just not seein' it.

 

The catalog states the vario-coupler comes with Detail Print 13, or you could buy  DP-13 alone for 20 cents. At the top of DP-13 are more drawings of the vario-coupler. It is still hard to tell what the actual coil looks like.

 
An attempt has been made here to emulate the DP-13 drawings above with photos of an actual MRL vario-coupler.
 

The construction of the vario-couplers seems to have been very labor intensive, as Elmer built them all by hand. It's not possible to date these except for the one on the left, which was made in 1979.

Notice that the wire doesn't cover the entire coil form on the right. That's because he used thinner gauge wire. This makes the coil tune sharper. None of the parts are "standard." Every time he changed the wire or the diameter of the internal coil he had to recalculate the number of turns.
 
Riveted eyelets hold wires and solder lugs in place. It seems he did strive to make a "factory made" product even if every one was unique.
 
 
This is the work of an artisan.
 

 
 
 
Here's the drawing from the MRL catalog next to the actual coil. Now that we've seen photographs of the vario-coupler, the drawings are easier to understand.
 
The quality of this vario-coupler is outstanding for a product that was just one small item in the catalog.

Notice the yellowed cellophane tape. When cellophane tape was invented in 1930 (called at the time "cello tape"), people thought it was a marvel. Many magazine articles were printed showing the various uses of this pressure sensitive transparent tape.

What was unknown then was that millions of photographs, newspaper clippings, stamps, scrapbooks and basically anything that was "taped together" would be ruined as the glue on the tape dried, turned brown and separated from the cellophane.

 
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