Radio Lamp Company of America Radio (1939)

              

This handsome brass table lamp has a radio in its base. It was manufactured in the late 1930s by the Radio Lamp Company of America.

Description

Here is the restored radio lamp:

The radio is divided in two parts, with the chassis in the base and the speaker in the bowl-shaped enclosure under the glass light diffuser.

The next photo shows the radio's simple controls: one knob in front of the translucent tuner dial and a second knob below it for power and volume. Peeking from the rear of the base is a rotary switch that independently controls the light.

A decorative cast metal bezel surrounds the dial scale. The double row of heart-shaped openings provides ventilation for the radio chassis, with grille cloth to keep out the dust.

The Radio Lamp Company of America must have been a pretty small outfit. It is not listed in the Riders service manual index and no other radios are attributed to this company in my collector books. Send me an email if you have found any ads, dealer brochures, owner's manual, or other literature from Radio Lamp Company of America.

These radio lamps were produced in several styles, all with the same base. Different models had various styles and colors.

My radio is a Model 100 and it originally sold for $35. In a second style, Model 95, the center section has a different shape and portions of the case are painted an ivory color:

A third style, Model 500, was described as the "Executive Office Lamp." It is shorter, with a tapered center and a metal umbrella shade.

There was even a model 3000 with center parts made of light onyx.

Except for the Model 500 with metal shade, all of these radio lamps were originally sold with a fabric shade that sat on top of the glass bowl. The fabric shades were pretty generic looking. I haven't placed one on my radio because I like being able to see the entire metal case.

Like most novelty radios, this one has a basic five-tube chassis. The tube complement is conventional for a late 1930s set, with types 12A8GT, 12K7GT, 12A7GT, 35L6GT, and 45Z5GT.

The radio lamp uses a long wire antenna. Its all-metal case precludes an internal loop antenna, and this design has no spare room inside, anyway.

With simple electronics and a small speaker, don't expect high fidelity or powerful long-distance reception from this set. High performance is not why people bought these in the first place. They are attractive table lamps that happen to include a small radio.

Restoration

I purchased this radio lamp at a second-hand store in 2003. It was complete and undamaged, but the brass finish was in poor shape.

I began by disassembling the radio, a complex job compared to the average table set. To make sure I could put it back together correctly, I photographed key details.

The radio lamp is disassembled from the bottom up. In the next photo, I have removed the knobs and wooden bottom plate and slid the chassis partway out of the base.

The radio chassis is insulated from the metal lamp body by wooden blocks. In a series-string ("AC/DC") type chassis like this, the chassis may be connected to one leg of the AC power line, so isolating the chassis reduces the shock hazard. For added safety, you might also want to operate the radio from an isolation transformer.

Next is a top view of the no-frills chassis. The layout is very compact, generating lots of heat in a small space.

The base and other main parts are secured to a heavy central pipe with stout nuts and lock washers. Wires for the speaker and lamp socket are threaded up through the pipe.

Working upward through the lamp body, we finally reach the speaker at the top.

        

The upward-facing speaker grille was stuck onto the speaker bowl very tightly. After removing the perimeter screws, I had to tap it free using a small hammer and a screwdriver blade, taking care not to score the metal.

The speaker cone has been repaired in the past, but I won't freak out over that until I hear the set play. This type of radio didn't produce high-fidelity audio even when new, and often a little glue won't change the way it sounds.

Whew! The radio lamp is disassembled at last. Notice the support pipe still attached to the speaker bowl near the right.

Some of the brass parts look pretty corroded, but I'll soak them in vinegar for a while and then assess whether they can be cleaned and polished. If too much brass is gone, they'll need replating.

The crude fabric covering the speaker grille and vent openings must be a slapdash replacement. It looks like heavy upholstery material, and it's ugly to boot. Out it goes!

After treating the brass parts with vinegar, it was evident that some were too corroded to polish back to normal appearance. I reloaded my wallet and brought them to a local shop to be replated.

While the brass was out for replating, I restored the simple electronics and put the chassis and other parts in a box.

Replating is not cheap. I paid more for replating the brass parts than I had for the radio itself, but the results were stunning and I did not regret the investment.

Fast Forward Nine Years

That's where the project stood for about nine years (!). The set was restored and ready to reassemble, but I got distracted by other projects and forgot about this one.

In the spring of 2012, I vowed to catch up on neglected projects. After finishing my Mitchell Lumitone, this radio's turn came at last.

A brief treasure hunt in the back shelves uncovered the box of replated parts and this second box containing everything else. Let's make a radio lamp!

  

Replacing the Grille Cloth

Time to deal with the grille cloth. Picking a compatible pattern from my stock of spares, I gave the new cloth a spritz of starch and ironed it. I made paper patterns from the old pieces and pinned them to the new fabric and then cut them out.

     

Gluing the strip of cloth inside the circular base was a little tricky, but the installed cloth looks great. Its color compliments the brass nicely and the pattern is unobtrusive.

  

Reassembly

Next, I did a test reassembly to make sure all that the parts fit correctly and that I could put them back together with no leftover bits. Nine years is a long time, photos or no photos.

Everything went smoothly except for replacing the grille piece on top of the speaker bowl. During disassembly, the grille had fit the bowl so tightly that I had needed to carefully tap it off. Now, with a fresh brass plating covered by thick coats of new lacquer, these parts were impossible to fit together!

Pounding the grille piece back on seemed like a bad idea, likely to cause damage. The only alternative was to enlarge the joint between these too-tight parts. Using a little sanding drum on a Dremel tool, I carefully ground down the lip inside the top piece, and a matching band around the rim of the bowl, until at last they could be slipped together.

Prior to reattaching those pieces, I had drawn the wires for the lamp socket and speaker down through the center pipe that holds everything together. Reassembly proceeded from the top down. In the next photo, the entire cabinet is reassembled and we're ready for rewiring.

Here, the lamp and radio have been rewired. I'll test them both before reinstalling the chassis. All of the power cord wiring is new.

In the next photo, the chassis has been installed. It took a couple of tries to get it right. In this extremely cramped space, care is needed to tuck in all the wires so that they don't block the pilot lamp, interfere with the movement of the tuning capacitor, or get in the way of the wooden mounting blocks.

The wooden base plate is held to the blocks with wood screws and then the plate is secured to studs in the base with four brass ball screws. The scallops in the plate admit air for ventilation.

When I got to this stage of reassembly, I wondered if I had mislaid the original feet for the cabinet. This is a heavy item and all of its weight is born on the tips of the brass balls that touch the table. That's a lot of stress on four tiny spots, but when I zoomed in on other photos of these radios, I could see the brass balls peeking from underneath, so I guess that's how the set was designed.

If you own one of these sets, resist the temptation to put a cloth under it, especially a thick cloth that might block the scalloped vent openings in the wooden base plate. A tightly packed radio like this needs all the ventilation it can get!

Final Thoughts

Here are two shots of the restored radio lamp, plus a photo of my other radio lamp, the Mitchell Lumitone.

     

Novelty radios aren't for everyone, but I like this set a lot. The radio is discreetly incorporated into the overall design, and it's a gorgeous lamp, even if you don't care about playing the radio.

For fun, I created an animated .GIF image showing the radio lamp in different lighting.

Of the various radio lamps made over the decades, I consider this design one of the most successful. For a less successful attempt, check out the Philco 53-706, a clunky marriage between a lamp and a wooden radio, with a clock thrown in for good measure.

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