Elmer G. Osterhoudt
and
The Modern Radio Laboratories Catalog 

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FIRST MRL ADVERTISEMENT

 
The very first Modern Radio Laboratories advertisement.
Submitted to Short Wave Craft in 1932, it appeared in the February 1933 issue.
The address is the location of the Manchester Radio Electric Shop, Elmer's radio store.

 
 
 
 
Elmer stated that at the time he placed this advertisement he knew of no other crystal set ad. It was a gamble that apparently paid off. For 25 you got a "Blue print" of a crystal set, not the actual crystal set. For the same 25 you had already obtained the copy of Short Wave Craft, which was filled with radio diagrams.

25 in 1932 had the buying power of $4.40 in the year 2020.

In the beginning, MRL didn't carry any crystal radio parts. Elmer had been making and selling hundreds of plug-in coils, but these weren't designed for crystal radios. Apparently, the very first (and only) MRL mail-order product that wasn't a plug-in coil was the blue print for the MRL No.1 Crystal Set.

In HB-17 "MRL 20 Crystal Set Circuits," the first circuit is the MRL No.1 Crystal Set. Under the diagram Elmer wrote, "This is the set that started us in the mail order business."
 
The MRL No.1 DX Crystal Set, circa 1932. Recreated set built in 2020.

 
MRL ad from "Radio" magazine magazine, June, 1933.

 
MRL ad from "Radio Craft" magazine, November, 1933. You now get Blueprints for six more crystal sets.

The new address was the location of Mabel's parents house. Apparently, Elmer and Mabel lived there for five years during the Great Depression.

 
MRL ad from "Radio World" magazine March 10, 1934. The ad now boasts "1800 miles." By 1938 the distance was 4250 miles. However, these extreme reception reports were probably made using a No.2 set, which picked up shortwave.
 

MRL No. 2 CRYSTAL RADIO

 
 
The first radio sold by MRL was the No.1 Crystal Set, described in Hand Book 17 and Detail Print 26. However, the greatest legacy of MRL is probably the No.2 Crystal Set, which Elmer "invented" in 1932. Oddly, the No.1 set isn't listed in the catalog, and the catalog entry for the No. 2 Crystal Set is just a footnote at the bottom of page K-1.

Catalog page K-1 is an entire page devoted to the MRL No. 2-A single dial set. Elmer states that both sets have been made and improved upon since 1933.

At the bottom of the catalog page it states that HB-2 (or Hand Book 2) "MRL No.2 Long Distance Crystal Set" is 50 extra. It has a copyright date of 1945. In the back of HB-2 there are five pages of testimonials in a closely typed small font. Elmer claimed to have hundreds of reports in a stack six inches think.

Later, he published Detail Print 22, "MRL No. 2 LONG DISTANCE CRYSTAL SET". In this DP Elmer wrote that the size of the stack of testimonials was then 12 inches thick. The date of DP-22 is not known, but it was included in the MRL DETAIL PRINT FILE, dated 1958.

The stack must have at least doubled again by the time of his death in 1987.
 
This is the top of Detail Print number 22. In typical Elmer Osterhoudt fashion, the drawings are made face on or a side view without the slightest angle. The drawings in HB-2 are the same; squares, circles and lines.
 

 
The MRL No. 2 Long Distance Crystal Set.
 
The drawing suddenly seems to come to life once you know what you are looking at!
 
 
The front panel is 5 1/2" by 7". The radio was not sold with a base.
 

 
This No. 2 was built into a plywood box.
 
This radio was built by a Bob Dildine of Santa Rosa, California in the early 1970s. He did a nice job on the radio and on the box. The bottom and sides of the box are kerfed so everything slides together without fasteners or glue. You just slide the bottom off and the radio and back panel slide out.

Because it was housed in the box it is pretty much pristine inside.

Coil connections to the switch taps.

 
MRL No. 2
Another MRL No. 2, also in a wooden box. This was built in 1977 by Sloane Freeman.

 
Another MRL No. 2. These are getting rare. Only three have appeared on ebay in the last few years.

Want to see something REALLY rare?

 

An unbuilt MRL No. 2 Long Distance Crystal Set from 1980.
 
The switch points, front and rear. The panel is actually jet black but doesn't come out well in photographs due to the finish.
 
The variable capacitors came wrapped in this paper.
 
The back and front of the panel where you attach the variable capacitors. Everything is countersunk. Elmer called the panel material "compo." There are many references to compo panels in his handbooks. It's probably short for "composition board." I've often wondered if the compo panels are Masonite.
 
The screws are inserted into the capacitor, the shaft has been cut, a wire joins both sections. There is a big honking solder lug on the capacitor body. This is how Elmer sent both capacitors.
 
The coil, hand made by Elmer. If he had hundreds of testimonials about this set in 1945, how many of these coils did he make?
 
Many MRL sets use those brightly colored pin jacks on the left. They came in white, yellow, orange, red, and blue. Despite these parts being 40 years old, they still look new. The brass on the MRL switches is still shiny.
 

Now let's think about this set for a minute. Elmer made the coil form, then wound the coil on the form. He cut out the "compo" panel, then drilled the holes, countersunk them and painted the panel. Then he riveted the switch points onto the panel.

He made the two MRL switches. He printed the dial scales. He prepped the variable capacitors, then he added two knobs, a knocked down crystal detector, a mounted crystal which he made himself, two pin jacks, two Fahnestock clips, hookup wire, and solder. He put the crystal, cat whisker, and dial scales in envelopes, which were printed on the outside with what was inside the envelopes.

He had to purchase the material to make the coil form. He bought the variable capacitors, crystal stand, knobs, headphone jacks, parts to make the switches, rivets, solder lugs, screws, wire, solder, paint, envelopes, etc. Then he hand printed a copy of Detail Print #22, which he authored himself.

And he sold this kit for $7.50 in 1980.

 
Handbook Number 2 or HB-2, copyright 1945. It is 24 pages printed in a tiny font in a pamphlet about 9.5 x 6.5 inches. This HB is a different size than all the others. All of Elmer's handbooks were lithographed by Elmer, except HB-2, which was printed on a printing press. The print is actually pressed into the paper, as shown above on the right.

On page 9, Elmer references an article in the February 1934 issue of Radio magazine, so even thought the copyright date is 1945, it may have evolved from an earlier publication, possibly the "blueprint" he sold in the 1930s.

The last original copy of HB-2 was sold sometime in 1983. A customer of MRL named Sloane Freeman related this story in June of 2020:
"In 1983 I put in an order for some things over the phone, among them a HB-2 handbook. Elmer told me he was totally out of them and would not be printing any more. This was a couple of weeks after Mabel died. Five or six months later an envelope comes in the mail and there is my HB-2. Elmer had found one copy in a stack of stuff and remembered I wanted one. So unless he found some more somewhere, mine is the last."

Paul Nelson printed a batch of duplicates in 2003 on Elmer's lithograph machine. They are available today on the MRL website.

 

 
Here's a nice MRL No.2 from the 1990's.
 
The switches and crystal detector were made by Paul Nelson.
 

 
In 1938 and 1939 the address for Modern Radio Labs was 7700 East 14th Street in Oakland, CA. From 1940 to 1943 the address was 1406 77th Avenue, both of which are in this building at the corner of 14th and 77th. The entrance to 1406 77th Avenue is behind the pickup truck and utility pole. The storefront faces 14th Street. The actual address of the building (in the year 2018) is 7700 International Blvd.

Logic would dictate this was one of the locations of the MANCHESTER RADIO ELECTRIC SHOP, Elmer's radio store.
 
Why did the MRL address change in 1940? The 1940 US Census shows they did indeed have a radio store here. Perhaps the Osterhoudt's just switched the MRL mailing address for convenience. Maybe the days of the Manchester Radio Electric Shop were coming to an end. A lack of inventory during the rationing of WWII would have put them nearly out of business, anyway. In 1942, consumer radio production was halted by the US government.
 
1940 phonebook entry. 7700 E 14th was the storefront.
 
1941 phonebook entry. The store is no longer listed, but Elmer is a salesman.
By the way, their phone number was TR-9081
 
 
So what did Elmer Osterhoudt do during WWII while at this address? According to a "Radio Age" article by Dick Mackiewicz, during WWII Elmer was an instructor for wartime radio technicians and operators. Military records show that in 1942 he was employed by the US Navy at his old base in Alameda, CA. If this was the case, Manchester Radio Electric Shop may have been closed for the duration, and never reopened.

Modern Radio Labs did carry on during the war, as evidenced by a 1943 advertisements in "Radio World" and "Popular Mechanics." However, an ad in the March 1944 edition of Radio Craft has the MRL address in Hayward, CA, so the Osterhoudt's had moved out of this building by then. Hayward is about 10 miles south of Alameda.
 
1406 77th Avenue entrance. Above the mailbox next to the door can be seen the address (right-hand photo.)
 
The building is a "2-Story Mixed Use Commercial/Residential situated on a 3556 Square Foot Lot". The street level section is zoned "Commercial - Retail/Office". Upstairs is zoned "Urban Residential" and is a "4 bedroom/2bath Residential..." It was built in 1923.
 
According to the 1940 census, Elmer and Mabel Osterhoudt owned this property, lived here and operated a radio store.
This is how it looked 80 years later, in 2020.
 

 
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