Elmer G. Osterhoudt
and
The Modern Radio Laboratories Catalog 

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Modern Radio Laboratories website

 
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 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.

* 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
 
MRL Mystery: (The first of several to be found on this site). 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.
 

 
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.

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.

 
In 1918 Elmer worked as a laborer at Southern Board and Paper Mills, now known as PABCO. This building was built in 1912 and would have been quite new when Elmer was employed there. Located at 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.

At the time, Elmer and his family lived at 8011 Crockett Blvd in Los Angeles. Southern Board and Paper Mills was a little less than a mile from their house.
 


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. He registered on the very day the new draft went into effect, Sept 12, 1918. 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.

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."
 

How did Elmer fund his radio research and experiments?

According to the preface in his handbooks, 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.

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 he finally obtained a job aboard a ship.

From 1920 to 1923 he was at sea as a radio operator. He made $225 a month, which he said was "good money." According to Elmer, in 1921 he worked aboard the "El Segundo" (an oil tanker built in 1912 and owned by Standard Oil). 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 "Williamette." Apparently, life aboard the Williamette 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."

Elmer also worked in the radio room of the SS Atlas in 1921 and 1922. He then served aboard a steam ship named the J. A. Moffett, owned by Standard Oil of California. The transmitter aboard the J. A. Moffett was a Marconi P-4.

Though the J. A, Moffett was 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 signed  aboard the ship, "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 and Majestic brand radios. The Harkness radio can be found page 13 of the November 1923 issue Radio Broadcast.
 
In various issues of "Radio News" (not the same as "Pacific Radio News") it was reported that Elmer's call sign of 6NW was heard in Fort Wayne, Indiana (April, 1925), Hayaitai, New Zealand (February, 1926), East Orange, New Jersey (July, 1926), Berwyn, Illinois (October, 1926), and Amuay, Venezuela (June, 1928).

Early issues of QST magazine reported 6NW was heard in Cleveland, Ohio (January, 1925), Panama Canal (January, 1926), Smethwick, England (July 1926), New York City (March, 1927), Hyogoken, Japan (June 1927), Hanscom, Alaska (December 1927), Saranac, Michigan (December, 1927), and others too numerous to mention, even a submarine docked at a port in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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." He must have found this out the hard way, because Elmer made the "Brass Pounders League" in the March 1926 issue of QST with 117 contacts.

In 1928 Elmer moved to Oakland, California and opened a shop on 14th Street. On October 7, 1929 he married his girlfriend, 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. 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 open, but apparently moved it from 14th Street 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 trademark was 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.
Property records state this was built in 1931, but property records are often incorrect.
 

1508 23rd Avenue, Oakland, CA (second door from the left) This was the site of the Manchester Radio Electric Shop in 1932. Modern Radio Laboratories was born the same year. Photo is from 2016. The "market" on the right is actually a liquor store.

 
1508 is the downstairs apartment/storefront. Of course, there wouldn't have been bars on the windows in 1932.
20 years later Elmer and Mabel would own an entire 9 unit apartment complex of their own in Redwood, California.
 
Year 1933 Oakland, California phonebook entry. Notice h2125 E 28th is their home address.
 
Osterhoudt residence at 2125 East 28th Street, Oakland, CA.
Modern Radio Laboratories began here in 1932.
This address is about 1 mile from the store location.
 

 
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 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 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. 

 

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?

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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