Elmer G. Osterhoudt
and
The Modern Radio Laboratories Catalog 

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Before we go on, does anyone know where Elmer Osterhoudt was on the night of October 5, 1922? Anyone? Anyone?
You there, on the computer! Stand up! Where was Elmer on October 5, 1922?  ...That's correct. Very good. You may be seated.
He was 3,453 miles south of San Pedro, California, off the coast of Peru, aboard a steam ship named the J. A. Moffett.



This letter is on page 25 of the December 1922 issue of  Radio World

On the night Elmer set the record while aboard the J. A. Moffett, the ship was on its way to Chile. The antenna on the ship was made of four separate wires, 300 feet long, and the ocean was used as the "ground." The radio was a one tube regen using a 6 volt Audiotron and honeycomb coils. On that night, he also picked up hundreds of other signals, and wrote that he would have set more records if he had bothered to log them. He made two more trips to Chile, but never experienced the same receiving conditions again.
 
The J. A. Moffett, built in 1915 for Standard Oil of California.
 
Aboard the J. A. Moffett, Elmer was the radio operator, made up crew lists, acted as the mailman, collected correspondence courses aboard the ship, and "got the press out." He did typing of all kinds, from making payrolls and immigration lists to love letters from the captain. "Love letters" seems to be sarcasm. Elmer left the ship in 1923.
 
Elmer could send and receive Morse code at 30 words per minute. He could type 40 words per minute. The code didn't come to him easily. It took years on his own to reach 7 WPM. In 1919 he enrolled in the YMCA Radio School in Los Angeles and it took him a year of night school to reach 20 WPM. During his last FCC exam an inspector told him his sending was "lousy." He was not deterred in the least, he wrote that not a single operator at the school couldn't copy his code.

In the 1930s Elmer took a month long brush-up course on radio theory and Morse Code at Pacific Radio School in San Francisco. This allowed him to pass his FCC license renewal exam with ease. However, he was unable to get a job aboard a ship due to the Great Depression, and wrote that he had wasted a months time. Two years later he again renewed his license, but without brushing up on the code. He passed the exam on his second attempt.

As for the wasted time, in a 1953 edition of Radio Builder and Hobbyist (No. 35) Elmer wrote that he actually got untold value for his time taking the course.

 
And now, without further adieu, the catalog drawings and photos of actual products.
 

MRL QRM INTERFERENCE COIL

       
 
 
This is a drawing of the MRL QRM coil. It is used as a "wave trap" 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.
 
Here's the picture from Detail Print 18. Why didn't Elmer use this one for the catalog?
 
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 dollars.
 
 
 
Mr. Osterhoudt even drilled a hole for a mounting bracket.
 

 
 
Older MRL QRM coils The one on the right is in use by James McNutt as a stand-alone wave trap.
James McNutt is an author of crystal set books and goes by the pen name K. E. Edwards.

 

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 the inside 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 getting it. Does it have an eye in the top? Are you lookin' at me?

 

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 substitute the DP-13 drawings with photos of an actual MRL vario-coupler.
This is listed as the #29 Variometer, Catalog No. 7-194 on page F6 of the catalog.
It is used in the MRL #29 Variometer Crystal Set. The circuit is found in Hand Book 25 and Detail Print 44.
 

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. The one in the center was sold by MRL in 1979, but Elmer stopped ordering the cotton covered wire in 1975.

Notice that the wire doesn't cover the entire coil form on the right. That's because he used thinner gauge wire, which makes the coil tune sharper. None of the parts are "standard." Every time he changed the wire or the diameter of the coils 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.
 
MRL Variocoupler
The quality of this vario-coupler is outstanding for a product that was just one small item in the catalog.
 
This one was found on ebay in June of 2020. It sold for $26.10 with shipping.
 
Notice the yellowed cellophane tape. When cellophane tape was invented in 1930 (called at the time "cello tape"), it was considered a marvelous invention. Many magazine articles were published 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.
 

CRYSTAL STAND and CRYSTALS

 
 
 
Back to the catalog, we want to build our first crystal radio and need a crystal and something in which to mount it. On page F-1 we find the crystals and stands.

These pictures are very different than the others in that they show the stands at a slight angle. In the left picture, No. 1 is pure Elmer Osterhoudt. No. 2 seems to be a photo that he has gone over in ink; same with Fig. 3 on the right.
 
 
 
Here are the crystals.
 
 
Assembled crystal stand. $1.00 in the 1986 catalog. A New Old Stock one today sells for $75.00
 
 
 
Knocked down crystal stand. Elmer sold these for 50. Today they are $55.00.
 

 
 
 
In section F of the catalog we find this entry for MRL "Catwhiskers." What are the objects on the right in the drawing? The first one is a Philmore cat whisker, and next to it is a Philmore cat whisker with an MRL cat whisker wrapped around it.
 
MRL crystal and cat whisker. Elmer sold Steel Galena, Silicon, Iron Pyrites and Carborundum.
 
MRL loose crystals. The larger one is Iron Pyrites (fool's gold) the other is Steel Galena.
An MRL mounted Iron Pyrites crystal is shown for scale.
 
MRL advertisement from Popular Mechanics, October, 1947.
There were two competitors advertising in the October 1947 issue. Amorose Radio and "Allen" both offered a crystal and instructions for 25. It seems Elmer bested them by offering SIX crystals and catwhiskers, instructions and a catalog, for the same price.

This is the only ad I can find where Elmer offered something other than literature. It only ran one month.

 
Here is the drawing in the catalog for the MRL Carborundum Crystal.
50 in 1972, one dollar in 1983. What does it look like in real life?
 
The piece of plexiglass is one inch long by one half inch wide.
 
How did Elmer "fix" the cat whisker to the crystal?
 

TUNED RADIO FREQUENCY COILS

 
This catalog entry is unusual in that Elmer used a photograph. However, you didn't get the factory made coils shown in the photograph.
 
Instead, you got these cool MRL made coils. When they stopped being commercially made, Elmer just made his own!
 
The reason for the cloth covered wire is for spacing between the turns.
 

 
Other than Paul Nelson, who took over MRL after the death of Elmer Osterhoudt, I know of only two other people who have met Elmer. One person is Jim McNutt. He lives in Oregon, his call sign is WA6OTP. He related this story to me via email:

"I was 8 yrs old* and read in the back of "Boys Life" that you could buy a Radio Kit for $3.75 from Modern Radio Labs. I looked at the Address and it was only a few blocks away. I had been working mowing lawns and the like and had the money and wanted to try it. So on Saturday I peddled to the address on Volata Rd. in Redwood City, Cal. and went back and forth But the address was a house. That confused a little boy, I was looking for Modern Radio Labs. Soon a Tall older man ( I was 8 remember ), came out and said "what are you doing" I told him and he said "you found it, come on up." In those days garages were detached and two strips of concrete lead up to two doors that opened from the middle. It was Modern Radio Labs. He had a work bench, with light bulb to control voltage and wires and all kinds of stuff I did not know what they were. He asked what I wanted and he pulled a box off a shelf and sold me the crystal set. MRL #1 Long Distance. I built it. It worked. It was magic.

I still build Crystal Sets and other Radios. When I was 30 I went to see him, He was quite old then. I bought one of every thing he had. Every Book, every note sheet and every kit. He died soon after that. Nice man.
"

* This was in 1952.

 
Using Google Maps we can find the house at 1131 Valota Road. MRL was in that garage in 1952.
 
In 1974 Jim bought one of everything Elmer had. Jim said Elmer was "quite old." Jim was 30; Elmer was 75.
Jim McNutt wrote the book "Radios That work For Free" under the pen name of K. E. Edwards. You can get a copy at his
website,  Hope and Allen Publishing , or at Mike Peebles' site.
 

 
The other person I've found to have met Elmer is Dave Norcross, who lives in the North Mojave Dessert. His call sign is WH6EAD. He related this story to me on the Antique Radio Forum:

"I got my first MRL catalog in June 1969 or so, and maybe one additional from Elmer... not too sure. I still have every piece of paper he sent me.

I met Elmer and Mabel at their Sacramento house sometime between about Feb 1970 and April 1970. I was all of 17 years old and a senior in high school, living near Auburn CA. His shop was astounding to me. I clearly remember his coil winder... and wondering if I could rig one up. He would have been about 69 or 70 then (which I will be in a few short years, hmmm).

I bought everything he had I could find the money for... built a dozen or so Xtal sets. Still have my QRM coil that he wound.

Elmer was gray haired, and I don't recall if he was balding or not. Mid height and build (sounds like a description Sherlock Holmes would disdain). They were very welcoming... we may have visited in the front of the house before the shop. My mental picture of the two of them is now almost blank.

I recall many copies of the books and Detail Prints in a rack... 49 years ago - am I really that old? "

 
Yes Dave, you are really that old, and part of the dwindling group of people to have actually met Elmer Osterhoudt.
 

 
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