RCA 94BP1 Tube Portable (1939)


Have you ever bought a radio as an act of mercy? When I found this old portable in a Minnesota shop, it didn't look promising. The dial glass appeared to be missing, the airplane-cloth case was pretty beat up, and it was sitting in an "as-is" room at the back of the shop, along with piles of other stuff that most folks would be ashamed to own. I paid the asking price of $8 primarily to save it from the trashcan. When I got the set home, I felt better about my rescue. The dial glass was still there. It had simply slipped down, and the chassis inside looked like it had just come out of the factory.

Made in 1939, this set was manufactured during a time when portables enjoyed a surge of popularity. New, low-voltage tubes allowed radios to be powered by relatively small dry batteries, rather than the heavy acid-filled batteries that powered earlier "farm" sets. It became practical to build a reasonably-priced portable set, which didn't cost an arm and leg to use, and manufacturers responded by turning out many new portables similar to this RCA.

Compared to shirtpocket transistors of the next generation, this radio is still quite a handful. But it's not hard to imagine its proud new owner of 1939 carrying it to the beach or a picnic, and listening to swing music or news of the expanding war in Europe. Who knows, maybe this very set played historic broadcasts throughout World War II.

Although designed as a portable, this kind of radio could also serve as a economical primary set for families on farms that hadn't been hooked up the national power grid.

As found, the radio still had three batteries inside, one 11-volt A Wizard battery, and a Coronado battery supplying B and C power of 45 volts and 22.5 volts. Those old dry cells have been flat for decades, but they're much too cool to throw away.

The antenna in this radio appears pretty old-fashioned in comparison to the flat loops seen in later tube radios. In the internal photo, it is the brownish rectangle seen to the right of the chassis. Although you can't see it from this angle, it's nothing more than a couple of notched wooden sticks glued into an X shape, with wire wound around the corners of the X and simple metal straps mounting it onto the side of the chassis. You can tell that it's factory made, but antennas of that type that were made by many experimenters in the early years of radio.

The dial indicator in this radio is unusual. Instead of the usual moving pointer, it's a green plastic disc with a white stripe painted down the middle, and connected directly to the shaft of the tuning capacitor. It's a neat solution, incorporating the pointer with a colored background in a single part that's both rugged and cheap to produce.

I haven't done much to this radio, other than to remount the dial glass, polish and re-lacquer the brass dial bezel and RCA nameplate, and scrub up the case. The linen covering is too far gone to salvage. Perhaps one day I'll find matching fabric and recover the whole cabinet.

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