RCA Model 40X-56 "New York World's Fair" Radio (1940)

           

              

The RCA model 40X-56 is a charming and historic little tabletop radio. Its molded front panel depicts scenes from the 1939 World's Fair, featuring the dramatic Trylon and Perisphere structures as well as the RCA building. Here are photos of my 40X-56 after restoration:

        

I own two other radios with figural repwood panels, both Emerson Snow White sets. Here is my restored World's Fair radio next to them:

My Emerson radios depict Snow White frolicking with her dwarf pals. The Model Q236 set has a painted cabinet and Model 247 is brown. You can read more about repwood in the Model 247 article.

1939 New York World's Fair

The 1939 World's Fair in New York City was important to RCA. When President Franklin Roosevelt opened the fair, RCA broadcast his speech on the new invention called television and NBC (owned by RCA) used the occasion to launch the first regularly scheduled TV broadcasts in the United States.

The Trylon and Perisphere—huge structures at the center of the grounds—served as the visual embodiment of the fair's futuristic theme and they appeared in countless posters and promotional materials, as well as the front of this little radio.

        

RCA's exhibition hall was shaped like a vacuum tube and it is located at M-10 in the fair map shown above.

By 1939, RCA had invested huge sums to develop TV and it used the fair to showcase this new technology. Visitors could walk before a camera and see themselves on a television screen, receiving a little card certifying that they had been "televised." RCA even constructed one special TV with a clear cabinet to convince skeptical visitors that television was not a trick. You can read more about RCA's world's fair presence at the Early Television Foundation website.

The goal of the 1939 New York World's Fair was to lift the nation out of the Great Depression, chiefly by reliance on technology and new ideas. This attitude was embodied in a streamlined visual style that some call Machine Age design. Everything in this new world, from locomotives to vacuum cleaners, was to follow this principle, which used clean, dramatic lines to highlight an object's function without ornamentation.

The mammoth Trylon and Perisphere were reduced to pure geometry—a needle-shaped tower and an immense white sphere—but these were buildings, not empty shells. As shown in this illustration from Life magazine, visitors entered through the base of the Trylon and rode an escalator up into the Perisphere, where, from moving circular platforms, they could look down into a model of the City of Tomorrow:

Visitors exited the Perisphere to walk around a long "helicline," that circled a reflecting pool. The helicline is also pictured on the front of this radio.

Another view of the future—the "wonder-world of 1960"—was given in the General Motors Futurama exhibit, where people sat in chairs on revolving circular platforms and viewed a tiny world of modern cities, farms, freeways, and airports:

Of course, not every marvel forecast in these utopian worlds came to fruition, but a number of things, such as multi-lane freeways with cloverleaf ramps, did become commonplace.

Although the fair wasn't a financial success, its themes—optimism about the future and a belief in technology as a positive force—had a profound effect on the world of 1939, and the ideas symbolized by the Trylon and Perisphere persisted for decades to come.

In 1984, PBS aired a 90-minute documentary, The World of Tomorrow, narrated by Jason Robards. Using footage from newsreels and home movies, it gave a vivid sense of what it was like to attend the fair. The film was created by WNET television in New York and later released on DVD. Click the icon below to view the documentary, which is available in six parts on youtube.com:

What Constitutes a "World's Fair Radio?"

Commemorative radios had appeared earlier than 1939. For example, Sears and Stewart Warner made sets for Chicago's 1933 "Century of Progress" fair:

The Sears Silvertone model 1808 had a cabinet with a stepped, skyscraper-like design and the Stewart Warner model 108C bore colored lithographs of the 1933 fair.

RCA was not alone in using the 1939 fair to sell radios. Crosley made a special edition set whose dial pictured the Trylon and Perisphere. This appears to have been Crosley's standard Model 11AB with an alternate dial face.

Other so-called world's fair radios included the Philco Model 39-116, Zenith Model 4B-317, and Firestone Air Chief Model S7425-6. Nothing on these radios identified them with the fair, but their cabinets were streamlined and they were sold in 1939-1940.

In my view, there's a difference between a commemorative radio which depicts the fair and some other radio that just happened to be sold around the same time, but you will sometimes hear both kinds of radio called a world's fair model. Whether you wish to pay a premium price for one of them is your decision.

The RCA 40X-50 Series

In the 1930s and 1940s, radios this size were marketed as "midgets" because they were considerably smaller than full size tabletops like my GE S-22X tombstone or Philco 90 cathedral. The 40X-56 might have been a family's second radio, used in a bedroom or kitchen, and with a handle that made it easy to move around.

This is a basic five-tube radio with a series-string (transformerless) power supply. It covers the standard broadcast AM band and it has two controls: power/volume and tuning. In the rear is a built-in loop antenna with a terminal for connecting a longer external antenna. The back cover also has a phono jack for a record player.

  

Except for its front panel, the 40X-56 was not unique. RCA used the same chassis (RC-436) in eight 1940 radios with wooden cabinets, all the same size with the same wooden handle:

  • 40X-50 Modern Blonde: streamlined cabinet with a blonde finish.
  • 40X-51 Colonial: streamlined cabinet in a darker finish.
  • 40X-52 Ivory: squarish cabinet with ivory paint.
  • 40X-53 La Siesta: squarish cabinet with silk-screened Mexican designs.
  • 40X-54 Treasure Chest: squarish cabinet with ship's-wheel grille and rope handles.
  • 40X-55 Honey Maple: squarish cabinet with wavy grille.
  • 40X-56 World's Fair: repwood front panel commemorating the 1939 New York World's Fair.
  • 40X-57 Golden Gate: repwood front panel commemorating the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

Of those eight models, the World's Fair and Golden Gate sets are by far the most desirable. The San Francisco Expo was a smaller show than the New York World's Fair and thus the Golden Gate radio is scarcer. You could call these two radios crossover collectibles, since they appeal to more than one group of collectors: those who collect radios and those who collect memorabilia from the New York or San Francisco fairs.

The RCA service manual for models 40X-50 through 40X-57 (chassis RC-436) appears below:

A schematic for this chassis also appears in Rider's RCA page 11-63.

Finding a 40X-56 Radio

My first sight of this radio was a heartbreaking experience. I bought the radio from the original owner, who lived 2,000 miles away. Despite my request, the seller ignored my packing instructions and stuck the radio in a too-small cardboard box with virtually no padding. The result was a damaged radio.

This photo was taken after I unpacked the radio and sorted out its pieces:

The box was barely big enough to contain the radio, let alone significant padding. The front of the box was torn where it was speared by something along the way. The chassis broke loose from the cabinet, sliding back and forth as the box bounced around in transit. The glass dial broke into pieces and all of the cabinet's glue joints separated. Even the speaker cone had separated from its frame.

Instead of a radio, what I had was a box of parts! I was so disheartened by the busted radio that I packed the mess back into the box and ignored it for nearly five years.

Electronic Restoration

In 2014, I decided it was time to salvage this poor little set. I began with the chassis, which had largely escaped damage. In the next photo, I have begun testing the tubes and removing the usual grime. You can read more about such basic tasks in my article, First Steps in Restoration.

Notice the radio's loop antenna, a flat, wax-covered oval of wire mounted on two wooden uprights that screw onto the rear of the chassis. You can also see the back cover, which is made of brown cardboard and ventilated with circular holes.

The next photos show the underside of the chassis before and after I replaced its capacitors.

  

RCA made this radio as compact as possible, resulting in a crowded underside. Fortunately, the new capacitors are much smaller than the old ones.

I also replaced the brittle old power cord, which had cracked in a number of places. Here is the chassis at this stage:

The final tasks were to lubricate the tuning mechanism, slip better insulation over the fragile antenna wires, and re-glue the speaker cone to its frame.

I connected the antenna and tried out the radio. Voila! The 40X-56 worked very well, or at least as well as any inexpensive set of this type.

Cosmetic Restoration

That concluded the easy portion of this project. I set the chassis aside and turned to the cabinet.

The focal point of this radio is its sculptured front panel, which is made of repwood, a material made of sawdust and glue pressed into a form. This photo shows the front panel as found, with considerable wear and plenty of dirt:

When I examined my World's Fair cabinet, I found that some glue joints had broken:

  

The panel was originally held to the cabinet front with glue and about a dozen nails. When I removed the nails, it fell off without any coaxing.

With the front panel gone, I tested the glue joints on the remaining box and found that they had all been pounded loose when the unsecured chassis bounced around during shipping. With a little wiggling, the box simply fell apart into four pieces.

I cleaned the old glue residue from the joints and glued the cabinet back together, including the various inner blocks and bracing pieces that had broken off in the melee.

  

The next photo shows the cabinet after regluing. Now, I was back where I should have started—with an intact cabinet and front panel ready for refinishing.

As you can see from this photo, the unrestored panel had significant wear and its dark areas were so murky that you could hardly make out its details.

I began by cleaning the panel with mineral spirits, but removing the dirt only accentuated the color contrast between the worn and unworn areas. I decided to strip the panel and refinish it. The second photo shows the panel after I wiped off the old finish with lacquer thinner:

Now, you can see many details that were previously obscured, like the RCA logo on top of the RCA building at the right. The green tape in the second photo was there to mask the painted Trylon and Perisphere shapes when I later applied new lacquer.

As noted in my article about restoring the Emerson Snow White radio, some types of repwood are robust. This one withstood lacquer thinner without damage. Not all repwoods are equal, however. Some types were made with a different adhesive mixture and they are more delicate. Before cleaning or stripping an unknown repwood item, I strongly advise that you test your solution on the back of the piece.

I'll finish the cabinet later, after I deal with the broken dial glass and stained grille cloth.

The dial was broken into two pieces. Before trying to glue the broken glass, I laid it on a scanner and made a hi-res scan. The ruler is present to indicate the scale. Then I cleaned up the scan using Paintshop Pro. If gluing doesn't work out, I can use that image to create a replica dial glass.

     

Printing onto a clear sheet is not difficult, but this pattern uses the color white and most printers are not capable of printing white (because they print on white paper—duh). As far as I know, only the now-obsolete Alps printers can print white. If the old dial isn't salvageable, I'll send my touched-up scan to a specialist for printing onto a clear sheet, which I can then glue onto a clear pane of glass or Lucite.

I glued the dial with glass glue, and the repair wasn't very noticeable. Much of the break will be hidden by the cabinet and that area is not a focal point, anyway. More noticeable than the repaired break are a couple of spots where paint was scraped off when the loose dial pieces knocked around during shipping.

  

Like nearly every internal support in the cabinet, the little dial supports were broken loose during shipping. These supports were not very strong in the first place, a reminder that this was an inexpensive radio.

  

In the second of the previous photos, where I have reglued the dial supports, notice how the inner face of the repwood panel is blotchy and rough. That's normal. The manufacturer had no reason to make the inner surface attractive.

The grille cloth was originally glued between a piece of corrugated cardboard and the opening in the cabinet. It is in awful shape.

  

This cloth was both faded and water-damaged. In the second photo, the dark areas at the left and bottom show the edges of the Trylon and Perisphere, which protected them from light exposure (specifically, from exposure to ultraviolet). This is probably close to the original color—much darker than the faded exposed area. If you look at photos of unrestored sets from this series, their cloths generally look straw-colored like the center part of this cloth, suggesting that they also faded from light exposure.

It also looks like something was spilled onto the top of this cabinet, running down into the fabric and washing out some of its dye. It's unlikely that I'll be able to salvage this cloth, but I have nothing to lose by trying. I soaked the cloth for a while and then gently removed it from the cardboard support.

Next, I soaked the cloth in a mild soapy solution and rinsed it, but the washing only worsened the color differences on the exposed side.

Some faded cloths can be salvaged by reversing them to display the unfaded side. I used this trick when I restored my Admiral 24C15 television. The reverse side of this cloth was less faded and blotchy than the front, but the weave of the back was much rougher, with many exposed thread ends. Flipping the cloth would give me a better color, but the cloth would look much cruder.

Ten years ago, it would have been easy to find a new cloth that matched this one, but many cloth producers have since gone out of business and the current selection is limited. I searched current suppliers, including sources for guitar amplifiers and generic speakers, but nobody had anything very similar to the pattern and color that I needed. I decided to install a temporary cloth that I happened to have on hand. The color is darker than ideal, but it's better than the ruined cloth.

Before installing the cloth, I'll need to refinish the cabinet and front panel. The first photo shows the unrestored cabinet. The second shows the panel after I wiped off the old finish with lacquer thinner.

  

The ivory paint on the Trylon and Perisphere looked good enough to keep, so I gently cleaned those areas with isopropyl alcohol and masked them to protect the paint.

It's remarkable how removing the dirty old finish revealed details in the panel. Now, I could decipher the RCA logo on top of the RCA building and read all of the lettering, even the tiny "©NYWF" copyright notice under the word Trylon.

I also wiped the cabinet box and handle with lacquer thinner to clean it and even out its color. The box is made of inexpensive wood without interesting grain patterns, so there isn't much you can do with it other than to color it correctly.

I sprayed some light coats of brown toning lacquer on the box and panel until they matched each other, and then applied two light coats of clear satin lacquer. The clear lacquer will protect the color coats and provide a little depth without giving the radio a cheap, too-glossy appearance.

This replicates the type of finish that RCA originally applied in the factory. The vast majority of old radio cabinets were finished with lacquer, and toning lacquer was routinely used to provide a consistent color.

The next photos show the restored radio:

     

For the time being, I have placed the radio in my office near my two Snow White radios, where I can look at them every day. The color of the 40X-56 turned out pretty close to that of the brown Emerson set.

Perched atop the 40X-56 is another 1939 World's Fair collectible, a trivet that portrays—what else?—our friends the Trylon and Perisphere. I don't plan to collect a lot of world's fair items, but that one just happened to pop up for sale locally.

Final Thoughts

Although this project began unhappily, I'm pleased with the final results. My little World's Fair radio looks good alongside its repwood companions and it plays nicely.

I haven't given up on finding a grille cloth that better matches the original. If you run across such a cloth, kindly send me an email. I would also be interested in buying an intact dial glass from one of the other 40X-50 series radios.

©1995-2017 Philip I. Nelson, all rights reserved