In the 1920s and 1930 radio was a big deal and everybody wanted to get into it. The National Toy company was no exception And like many companies began as something else. Philco originally made batteries, for example.
A young engineer – James Millen – trained in mechanical engineering, there were no schools in electronics and radio at that time, became interested in radio and after working for a number of companies began at first consulting and then working for National and helped them enter the radio market.
First making radio components then regenerative receivers. Eventually to become the chief engineer and manager of the National Radio company. The SW2, SW3 and SW5 which became very popular particularly with Ham Radio operators and SWLs [Short wave lighteners].
In 1932 the General Electric Co. was awarded a contract by the recently established Civil Aeronautics Authority (known as the FAA today) to provide short-wave (HF in today’s terminology) transmitters and receivers to the Government for air safety use in the fledgling airline industry. GE had developed a transmitter but they did not have a receiver. The Western Electric Company had a receiver, but for competitive reasons GE did not want to team with Western Electric and instead approached Millen to have National design and manufacture a suitable receiver. The result was the AGS (for Aeronautical Ground Station). This was the first high performance short-wave receiver made by National and one of the first high performance receivers commerically available. Most of the receivers were sold to the CAA through General Electric Co. A few went into the amateur market along with amateur band-spread coils.
Again the depression reared its head and in order to make the receiver more marketable a reduced version was made available; this was called the FB-7. The rf preselector was eliminated and a more economical wrap-around sheet metal cabinet was provided; only one set of coils was included so that the cost was reduced to where many amateurs could afford what was probably the first medium performance amateur superhet receiver. The receiver became very popular among amateurs and is among collector, too.
The HRO and its Descendents
After the introduction of the AGS by the Government, the airline industry itself began to recognize the importance of reliable radio communication and urged National to develop a receiver for their use. Herbert Hoover, Jr was then in charge of radio communications for Western Airlines (which later became part of TWA); he acted as an informal spokesman for the airlines. The main airline requirements were that if plug-in coils were necessary to obtain the desired performance, then all coils must be plugged in simultaneously. A second requirement was two stages of preselection. As these requirements, plus a crystal filter, closely matched those desired by the amateur community for their dream receiver, the two markets could be combined into one receiver which became known as the HRO. By the way, HRO stands for Helluva Rush Order, honestly! How it got that name is part of the HRO story which is too long to include here.
The HRO was unique in that unlike the competition – Hammerlund, Hallicrafters, RME and others- it did not have a band switch nor did it have a frequency indicator dial area. What id did have was a very accurate micrometer tuning dial and corresponding graphs on the plug in coil assemblies.
When WWII broke out the military approached Nation and said “Start building HROs until we tell you to stop.”
Millen left National in 1939.
In 1939 lightning struck! The June 1939 issue of QST carried an announcement that as of May first, 1939, James Millen had “completely withdrawn from the National Company……” What had happened to end such a successful collaboration of almost 15 years?
The immediate reason occurred early in 1939. According to Millen, Warren Hopkins, who held the controlling interest in National, told Millen that he (Hopkins) wanted Millen to switch the emphasis of the company from making short-wave radios for a very limited sector of the country to making broadcast type radios to be marketed by the retail giants as Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward and the many large and well known department stores around the country. The purpose of the drastic change was to make the National Company a “household name” in the radio business.
Millen was flabbergasted!
National had been highly successful in designing and manufacturing short-wave radios; in fact, they were the recognized leader in the receiver field and more recently in transmitter and accessory items, too. Equally important, the company was profitable!
Why? Hopkins would give no definite reasons, saying only that he wanted to change the direction of the company, and the company needed products where it would have more exposure.
Millen wanted no part of it; he was dedicated to building the best receivers that he could build regardless of price. The consumer radio business was completely alien to him. So he left National and formed his own business.
The James Millen Corporation became highly successful in it’s own right and remained until Millen him self left.
Meanwhile National continued to make communications receivers. With versions of the original HRO going until the mid 1960s. That original being the HRO60.
The original single conversion super-heterodyne circuit and layout remained the same.
Other receivers where also produced for the SML and Ham market as well as the military.
NC 100, NC 200, NC240 and variants. These were band switched but you can see James Millen’s influence in their mechanical design.
Instead of some kind of dial cord arrangement that could easily break and stretch, the tuning was all mechanical and the coil assembly for each band was in a tray that moved back and forth over contacts, there by keeping all connections to the tuning capacitor and vacuum tubes short and insuring a positive contact. Even for the time a very good mechanical design and very rugged. Many of these and variants were also made for WWII. I personally owned one or two at a time and can vouch for them as well as the HROs. Not many receivers could come close to the sensitivity and stability of these receivers.
But National suffered fro the same post WWII malaise as lot of companies. Their post war medium product line were no where near as high quality as their pre war products were. Being mediocre at best. Same as those of Hammerlund were the later ones were not of the same quality as the HQ129x or the later Hallicrafters were not as good as the SX28 or SX24. Their high end products were quite good but their medium not so much.
National eventually left the consumer Ham and SWL market and only did military contracts and then in the late 1980s went out of business all together.
But in their hey day you really could not do much better and the early products still very collectible. Particularly the HROs.