Business and Labor

Atwater Kent – The Vermonter Who Sparked The Radio Craze in 1921

Arthur Atwater Kent — Atty to his friends — gave up on college in 1896 to focus on his business designing and building car parts, but that isn’t what would make him a household name by the 1930s. That would be his radios, the most popular brand in the United States.

Kent began life in Burlington, Vt., in 1873. His father was physician and his mother an artist. The family left Vermont, however, about the time Kent turned nine to relocate to Worcester, Mass.

Kent was always drawn to technology, but he couldn’t make it beyond his second term at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Instead, he turned his attention to one of the burgeoning industries of the day, car making.

Atwater Kent and his radio

Atwater Kent and his radio

With a fascination for electricity, he went to work designing an ignition system that dramatically improved the way cars operated. He had started his company even before entering college in 1895, and the Kent Electric Manufacturing Company that started out making small motors and other electrical parts soon morphed into a major automotive supplier.

For 20 years he continued designing and patenting ignition components for cars, and his patented ignition coils – a small but essential part for every car being made – became the industry standard for decades.

Even before 1910, the pioneers of radio were experimenting with broadcast technology. Throughout the teens, the tantalizing technology was expanding and improving. Early efforts had so little power, they reached almost no one. Poor microphone and speakers rendered them little more than squawks.

But with each passing year, the technology was improving, and in 1920, it took off with the launch of commercial radio stations. KDKA in November, 1920 broadcast the election returns in Pittsburgh. The public imagination was captivated.

Workers at A. Atwater Kent's Philadelphia radio factory.

Workers at A. Atwater Kent’s Philadelphia radio factory.

A. Atwater Kent and his family in Maine.

A. Atwater Kent and his family in Maine.

By 1922, more than 600 stations were operating. Early radio was a chaotic affair, with broadcasters overlapping each other’s frequencies and scrambling for things to broadcast. In its infancy, there was no advertising, radio was viewed largely as a public means of communication – not unlike the early days of the Internet.

In this exploding new market, Atwater Kent saw an opportunity. In 1921, he produced a home radio for consumers. It was a kit that required a lot of fine tuning by the operator, but his customers were hooked.

Kent had an edge over some of his competitors in that he already had manufacturing experience, facilities and a distribution network.

He established his main radio factory in Philadelphia and he continued refining the product, creating attractive cases and cabinets and incorporating better technology. He stayed on the cutting edge of the industry and insisted on the best parts he could get.

His customers rewarded him. When he produced a new model, with better features, they would queue up to buy it. By 1925, Atwater Kent was the world’s largest radio manufacturer.

In 1926, he sponsored the Sunday night Atwater Kent Hour, which included broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. It had more listeners than anyone but Amos n Andy and Rudy Vallee.

Kent’s sales boomed, and his ads lavished praise on his customers for their discerning taste in buying his product.

“Our thanks to the ladies for telling one another…” one advertisement said.

In 1924, he returned to Vermont to receive an honorary degree from the University of Vermont in electrical engineering. In 1926, he collected his honorary doctorate from Worcester Polytechnic.

Throughout his career, he took great pleasure in explaining that he never took on debt and never sold stock in his company. It was his to do with as he pleased. In 1923, he toyed with the idea of closing down. Profits from his auto parts, and related war contracts, had already made him very wealthy by 40, with summer homes in Bar Harbor and Kennebunkport.

But he decided to double down on radios. His radio line would continue until 1936. That year, as the Great Depression continued to erode his sales, he faced a choice. Cut the quality of his products to lower prices, as some manufacturers were doing, or fold up.

He chose the latter course. He also put his life on a dramatically different course. Kent would fund many historical restorations in Philadelphia, but he also made great changes in his personal life. The diminutive and thrifty Vermonter would divorce his wife and leave his family in Philadelphia to move to Bel Air, Calif.

There, in a grand home, complete with 23 servants, he became a fixture in the Hollywood social scene. He threw hundreds of lavish parties for Hollywood stars, some of whose careers he had launched on his radio hour.

Dorothy Lamour and Vivian Blaine and countless other starlets would attend his bashes, festooned with balloons, circus animals, military equipment or whatever items he chose to accent the theme of the event.

Kent himself, at this point a vegetarian, would rarely eat the steak and champagne he served to his guests, often milling about in an oversized top hat and bowtie as he made sure to mingle with each guest.

Why the parties? “Just like to see the young folk have a good time,” he explained to one interviewer shortly before his death in 1949.

This story was updated from the 2014 version.

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