Elmer G. Osterhoudt
and
The Modern Radio Laboratories Catalog 

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Modern Radio Laboratories website

 
Elmer Osterhoudt
    Photo from 1918 Compton Union High School yearbook Photo thanks to Thomas Philo  

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. 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


** 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.

The Osterhoudt's moved a few blocks away, to 8011 Crockett Boulevard. 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 and almost every one is different.

 
 
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 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
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 and Cyril were born in Butte Creek, Oregon. Butte Creek was incorporated into Scotts Mills in 1916. They were apparently born on their grandfather's farm and not in the town of Scotts Mills itself. The population of Scotts Mills at the time was about 100.

For reasons not known, the family moved to Yakima, Washington. Charles died there in April of 1903. Minnie Osterhoudt died 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 moved to Eugene, Oregon, where Wilbert's brother John lived with his wife, Lillie Shields. According to Elmer (MRL Data Sheets Vol. 6) his father owned a planing mill there. (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 1910 census shows that Wilbert and Elmer lived at
205 8th Avenue in Eugene. The mill was also on 8th Avenue, but a few blocks towards the Williamette River near Skinners Butte, where the mill race met Eighth Avenue. Accordingly, it 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."

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 Osterhoudt (maiden name unknown) in 1911. Lela May filed for divorce in June of 1914 and the divorce was granted on August 18, 1914.

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.

 


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 Williamette 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.)  In any case, the butte is only a few blocks away from where they lived on the 200 block of 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.

That's about all we know of Elmer's youth. 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 1909. 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 is now occupied by the US District Court Clerk's Office

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, Elmer's father married Alice Elsie Shields, Lillie's sister, in Los Angeles, California. They had a daughter named Wilda Frances Osterhoudt. 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.)

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.

In the preface in his handbooks, Elmer wrote that he was a technician at Electrical Products Company. This was a company 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 began his stint with the Navy in 1918. The company was located at 941 16th Street in Los Angeles, which places it in the Long Beach area along with the Jones Sash & Door company where his father worked.

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.


 
PABCO Paper
Elmer attended Eugene High School in Oregon, but 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.

He 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 but Elmer wrote that being a radio mechanic, he had been at the Naval base for the whole two years of his enlistment. When he left the navy he did move back home with his family to 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
 
doorbell
 
  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. They spelled his name wrong. The "Citizen's Radio Call Book" of November 1922 spelled it worse - "Ousterbouat." 


Listing in "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. (The actual address is Crockett Boulevard, not Crockett Street.) Elmer wrote that the station was actually only 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.
 
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.)
 

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.

According to Elmer, 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.)

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, also for 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 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."

Elmer wrote that he "quit" in 1923. By then, almost every other ship on the Pacific coast was a Japanese cargo ship.  


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!

This advertisement, from the Los Angeles Times, is dated June 18, 1922. In 1922, Elmer was aboard the oil tankers "F. H. Hillman" and the "El Segundo." It seems the Nadeau Radio Electric Shop already existed in some form before Elmer opened it in 1924. According to the 1922 Los Angeles directory, it was owned by Lou and Eva Kipp. Their residence was next door at 1930 East Nadeau Street. The buildings no longer exists.

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 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. 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.

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. 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.
 
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 also Elmer's residence.  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.) Victor was replaced by Herman MacMillian.
 

 
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. The ads above suggest 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 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.


In 1930 Cyril and Leona moved back to Los Angeles, to 8019 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.


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 registered 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, to an apartment owned by Mabel's parents. 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.

 
MRL Mystery: From 1924 to 1928 Elmer's radio store was in Los Angeles, California. In 1928 he moved to Oakland, California. On October 8, 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?

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?

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.
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In summary...
1899 - Elmer Osterhoudt is born to Wilbert and Minnie Osterhoudt in Butte Creek, Scotts Mills, Oregon.
1901 - Elmer's brother Cyril born.
1903 - Elmer's mother, Minnie Osterhoudt, dies age 27.
1908 - Wilbert is part owner of a planing mill in Eugene, Oregon. Elmer is enrolled in Eugene High School.
Wilbert's brother John and his wife Lillie Shields also live in Eugene.
1911 - Wilbert marries Lela May (maiden name unknown).
1914 - Wilbert and Lela May are divorced.
1915 - Wilbert moves to Los Angeles with Elmer and Cyril, where he marries Alice Shields, Lillie's sister.
Elmer builds his first working crystal radio.
1918 - Elmer graduates Compton High School. He works at Southern Board and Paper mills.
In September he joins the US Navy as a radio technician. 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 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. 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 into an apartment in San Francisco owned by Mabel's parents.
(Note: The radio store seems to have 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.)
 
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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. 

 

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? 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 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.

 
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