Elmer G. Osterhoudt
and
The Modern Radio Laboratories Catalog 

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MRL PLUG-IN COILS

 

 
 
 
 
In 1932 Elmer operated a radio shop on 23rd Avenue in Oakland, California. It was near the Alameda Island Naval Base (now Coast Guard) where he was stationed in 1918.

One day in 1932, he was in the shop experimenting with short wave coils when he ran out of coil forms. He rigged up some celluloid coil forms on tube bases. They worked so well he made more of them, and apparently sold them out of the shop.

H. W. Dickow, the editor of "Radio" magazine, introduced Elmer to two factory sales reps from New York and Chicago. They each covered 7 states. Soon, Elmer was making coils all day and half the night - with no profit. He decided to sell them himself, directly by mail. In 1933 the price was 25 for a coil.

 

 
Elmer sold 45 different plug-in coils. Designated A, B, C, E, O, 5A, 5C, 5X, MA, RF, RG and TRF.
 
You had to buy a whole set of shortwave coils, but coils that weren't for the short wave bands were sold separately.
 

 
The last person to touch this coil was probably Mabel Osterhoudt, after Elmer made it. I did not defile it by touching it myself.
 

 

On the left is a very early coil with a commercially made base and a label that has been printed using a typewriter. When the bases became unavailable, Elmer made his own, shown on the right. These labels were printed with his lithograph machine. Information gleaned from "Radio Flyer No. 23" suggests that coils with typewriter printed labels were made prior to 1946.
 
This material is another mysterious "Compo." that Elmer used. The hole in the center shows he used a hole saw to cut this out. Normally, when you're cutting a hole you're interested in the hole. Elmer was interested in what came out of the hole.
 
Imagine you are making these yourself. You've purchased the pins, celluloid sheets and wire. You've cut out the bases and drilled holes for the pins. You've glued in the pins. You make the forms on a last or jig, wind the coils (two or three separate coils on each form), solder the wires to the pins, reinforce the windings with coil cement, color code it, print a label, cut it out, and glue it on the coil. How much would you charge for one of these?

In 1933 Elmer charged 25 for a coil, $1.00 for a set of four. In 1955 he charged 75 for a coil, $3.00 for a set of four. In 1979 the price was $1.25 for a coil; $5 for a boxed set of four. Don't forget, you've got to make the box. If you bought a set you got the hand-made box for free.

To keep up with inflation, you would have to charge $7.50 for a coil and $30 for a boxed set in 2021!

 
A set of 5 pin coils made with repurposed tube bases. Elmer adopted the color code used on the coils around 1957. Prior to this he stated (in 1955) the colors were: 20 meters - light blue, 40 meters - orange, 80 meters - red, 160 meters - yellow. In addition, broadcast band coils were white, brown and yellow. At one point the colored strips on the top were replaced with lacquer.

In 1975 Elmer ran out of double cotton covered magnet wire. He complained that the price was $20.00 per 100 feet, so he wasn't going to stock it. (The MRL price was 30 to 85 per 100 feet, depending on the gauge.) By 1985 the coils were made of enamel coated wire entirely, so his personal supply of cloth covered wire had been exhausted.

 
 
 
 
This is an unusual coil of type "MA." It's an "A" type with the letter M designating "Midget." The coil itself (minus the pins) is exactly one inch high. It's made of plastic instead of celluloid, and doesn't appear in the 1970 catalog or any other surviving publications. The label does not seem to be printed on Elmer's typewriter or lithograph machine.

 
This is a four pin 80 Meter coil, with a red stripe. This dates it to pre-1957. What is interesting is that half the word "CUNNINGHAM" can be seen on the base. The part that was cut off is now the ring on the top of the coil. The base is a re-purposed vacuum tube base. Cunningham tubes with this logo etched on the base date from before RCA bought the company in 1931. Click on the right-hand photo.

Elmer was always on the lookout for these tube bases, and asked his customers to send them in if they wanted a set of coils. He would also buy them outright for 2 each. A burned out tube was just junk, and there were millions of 4 and 5 prong vacuum tubes in millions of radios, destined for town dumps. The 8 pin Octal tube base was invented in 1936 and slowly the supply of 4 pin tube bases dried up. Today a burned out four pin tube is a display item.
 

 
 
 
Here is an excerpt from a letter sent with an order to Dick Knotts (W7HJR) of Warrington, Oregon on May 15, 1980. (Elmer always sent a note with your order. Also, at some point Elmer or Mabel started tracking the orders. This letter came with order number 39,275.)

Elmer says he's been experimenting with plastics for a month and can now make 6 coil bases a day. He also found the pins come out of the base if they get too hot. The mystery of the bent pins on some of Elmer's coils has just been solved!
 

 
Is this an insight into Elmer's personality? Who says, "Hoopie-hellie?" On the other hand, MRL began with the creation of these coils in 1932. With no sockets to plug them into, and no tube bases to wind them on, he must have been scrambling to find a solution. When a friend found him 80 sockets, Hoopie-hellie he was back in business! When he finally ran out of sockets in 1982 he began to make his own.
See the entire letter   here.

 
 
 
The plastic Elmer developed was transparent.
 
By 1986 the plastic was black. How many formulations did he make? Did he ever tire of this? He was 87 years old.
 
This set of black bottomed shortwave coils was purchased in 1986 to go with the MRL 1-TUBE DX ALL WAVE RECEIVER KIT.
 
With no tube bases available to cut down, the top rings seem to be made of 1 inch PVC tubing.
 

 
MRL coil
Here's something interesting. Notice that where the white tape strip ends, it's a different width. This wasn't from a roll of skinny tape, it was cut by hand.

 
Advertisement in "Radio" magazine, September, 1934.
151 Liberty Street is 15 miles from the Manchester Radio shop in Oakland. It was the address of Mabel's parents.
Elmer and Mabel lived there during the Great Depression. It seems the store was closed for the duration.

 
 
 
Click on any picture for three pages of information from the catalog about these coils, written by Elmer.
 

MRL 2 PLATE ANTENNA CONDENSER

 
In the MRL catalog, among the 3D perspective drawings of variable capacitors, is Elmer's 2D drawing.
 
 
 
 
 
The actual capacitor. In 1986 this was $2.00
 
A MRL variable capacitor as used in a MRL 1-Tube radio.

Why a hand-made capacitor? According to Handbook 12, "Radio workbench Tips", Elmer states, "During the War, when
our metals were entirely cut off, we made hundreds of variable condensers ....and what not from old radio scrap metals."

 
An ad from "Radio" magazine, January 1934. This also appeared in "Short Wave Craft" in February, 1934.
The "MRL OSCILLATOR" is "Full of Bargains." Is this the genesis of the MRL catalog?
NOTE: The word "dope" used here is slang for "information." MRL stopped advertising the MRL OSCILLATOR in September of 1934.

 
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