A Potted History of some famous UK Radio Manufacturers

HMV, The Gramophone Company

 There have always been rivalries between existing and emerging technologies. Such was the position in the mid to late 20s when the American chairman of His Master's Voice, Alfred Clark, perceived radio as a threat to his phonograph business. Not surprisingly did radio upset Mr.Clark as he'd been in the phonograph business for nearly forty years. He was also wary about the parallel development of electric amplifiers in audio reproduction, the application of which, he and his staff thought would degrade the quality of the sound from their gramophones. However he was beginning to see reason; on the grounds that for some applications the sound output from purely mechanical means was too low, he saw advantages in adding a valve amplifier. Not only that, but having got the amplifier, he could possibly add a radio as well! So, in 1927, HMV introduced the prototype of their first electric gramophone and by late 1928, HMV had become reconciled, not just to the way forward being the alien electric path and not via their acoustic soundboxes, they were taking steps to enter the field of Radio.
In those days the Marconi Company held the necessary patents required for manufacturing and selling radio equipment so it was to them that an initial approach was made. As fate would have it, Marconi, at that precise time were looking for a buyer for their Marconiphone radio business and Alfred Clark found himself being drawn, not into a mere agreement to pay royalties, but together with many other big names in the Industry, into negotiations which would result in a much larger enterprise. By chance, HMV's parent "Victor Company" in New Jersey had just been taken over by RCA whose head, David Sarnoff, co-incidentally now wanted to strengthen his UK outpost's grip in the expanding radio industry. He must have seen the opportunity to purchase Marconiphone as "manner from heaven" and quickly joined the negotiations. He didn't stop to think why all the other potential buyers were dropping out, and did a deal. So in 1929, the names RCA, Victor, HMV, Marconiphone, and a good share of the Marconi-Osram Valve company became linked in the radio business, to the exclusion of Marconi themselves who had agreed to wait some 20 years before rejoining the fray.
In 1930 there was a missed opportunity when HMV were offered Bakelite as a new cabinet material and had kicked it into touch (where it was picked up by Ekco who went on to score a try with it!). HMV said this new fangled Bakelite wasn't compatible with their image of the polished wooden cabinet and didn't want anything to do with it.
By 1931 HMV were beginning to realise that the Marconiphone deal wasn't all they'd thought it to be, and amongst other things, were in the process of resolving patent difficulties. Presumably, because they hadn't received as much as they'd initially wanted for their ailing radio business, Marconi was trying to limit the range of patents for which HMV had acquired the use. Maybe after doing their sums they discovered they had sold HMV the patents for less than book price so they now wanted to exclude any patents which they themselves had purchased from other companies. Under pressure however they eventually conceded and agreed that HMV could have the lot. In the meantime, when they had taken stock of their new radio business HMV realised that Marconiphone had sold up because they had been in the doldrums, clearly the reason for selling up and probably the reason the other bidders who had experience in radio had dropped out! Was the problem poor management or failure to get adequate funding for improving the business or was it something about the Marconiphone product range? The management angle was taken up by HMV and a search made for a new MD. An approach was made, among others, to Stanley Mullard who was fed up with Dutch involvement in his valve business but to no avail...nobody was interested. Then it was discovered the Marconiphone problem may be technical. The in-house M-O valves were not as good as other makes, and it was around their own ranges that most Marconiphone radios had been designed. As HMV tried to resolve the situation they were dogged by in-fighting between the Radio people and the Valve people but nevertheless decided to equip their newer sets with valves from outside their own company. It turned out that part of M-O V's problem was circumventing patents on valves. Their own designs were difficult to manufacture and often proved less than reliable. At each step in the development of the valve, manufacturers had to keep up with the opposition. After the triode had come the screen grid tetrode which had revolutionised receiver performance. The later addition of a third grid, making the pentode, resulted in another major improvement but as this had been patented by others, M-O V had to look for an alternative if they were to remain independent.

 

An advertisement of 1952

In trying to circumvent the Pentode patent they came up with, what would prove to be an excellent device, the beam tetrode but were unable, as had been the case with a lot of their other ideas, to design a mass producible valve. Maybe at a senior management level, when they heard of the latest M-O V valve patent, the parent company, RCA had their own engineers look at the design and they soon produced a good workable valve, which was developed into the famous "6L6". Not long after, M-O V engineers having been shown that their beam tetrode patent was worthwhile, carried on development and finally came up with the more famous "KT66", a valve still in demand, with its big brother the "KT88", nearly 70 years later!
In 1931, two years after HMV had started merger talks with Columbia, their main gramophone competitor, the two companies finally got together under the name Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) but even then, by the start of that year, HMV's proportion of electric to acoustic equipment was a mere 3.5%.
Under EMI's management the expertise of radio design staff was strengthened and they branched out into the up-and-coming field of Television. Twenty years later, in the early 50s, after a period of relative stability, HMV were revisiting their old problem of reliability and fighting to maintain their good name. Slowly but surely they succeeded, but not without, again, ditching in-house components and buying from outside. Unfortunately, a few years later, EMI was having cash flow problems and probably after much heartseaching, in 1957 they ceased making domestic products, sold the brand names HMV and Marconiphone, and Ferguson started to make products branded with these names, to be sold by a new Thorn subsidiary, the "British Radio Corporation". BRC was later renamed in the early 70s as "Thorn Consumer Electronics" because the word "British" was, by then, not deemed good for marketing; "Radio" didn't have the right image for a company making mainly TV sets; and "Corporation" was not a correct description for a limited company. By 1979 the HMV name had been sold on to Fidelity Radio and the Marconiphone name had been dropped….

Read more histories>>