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GEC model BC4941

  • Object:

    Radio

  • Place of origin:

    Coventry (manufactured)

  • Date:

    1948 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    General Electric Company (manufacturer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Compression-moulded phenol-formaldehyde ('Bakelite'), electrical components

  • Museum number:

    CIRC.275-1976

  • Gallery location:

    20th Century, Room 74, case CA1, box 12

This battery-powered radio dates from 1948 and was manufactured in Coventry by the General Electric Company. It is made from green Bakelite (phenol-formaldehyde), a synthetic material commonly used for the manufacture of radios up until the 1950s. It has been speculated that its sculptural, monolithic, ovoid form was influenced by the work of Henry Moore. It uses miniature valves developed in the Second World War; these allowed radios to be made smaller and lighter, and therefore more portable.

Physical description

Battery-powered portable radio set of compression-moulded bottle green (now faded to brown) Bakelite (phenol-formaldehyde). The set is 'handbag'-shaped, with an integral handle at the top. Immediately beneath this is a rectangular tuning scale, coloured green and white, showing long and medium wave bands. There are three horizontal recessed edge controls on the front below the tuning scale.

Place of Origin

Coventry (manufactured)

Date

1948 (made)

Artist/maker

General Electric Company (manufacturer)

Materials and Techniques

Compression-moulded phenol-formaldehyde ('Bakelite'), electrical components

Dimensions

Width: 35 cm, Length: 32 cm, Depth: 17 cm

Object history note

Purchased by the V&A Circulation Department in 1976 from Patrick Cook, proprietor of Bakelite Radio Sets, Blackheath Road, London. On entry to the Museum it was noted that the case was slightly scratched and abraded, and that the plastic had faded. [RF 76/709]

Historical context note

The first successful radio transmission was made by David Edward Hughes (1831-1900) in 1879. Some years later, in 1896, Gugliemo Marconi (1874-1937) patented a system of electromagnetic radio wave communication which, unlike the already-established telegraph system, was ‘wireless’, meaning signals could be heard by anyone with a radio receiver in range of the broadcast. Marconi established the world’s first radio factory in Chelmsford in 1898, where sets were hand-built to high specifications for mostly scientific, governmental and military customers. Another early customer was Queen Victoria who in 1898 had a set installed at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, so she could communicate with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, as he convalesced aboard his yacht at Cowes.

Military applications meant that radio technology advanced rapidly during the First World War, and in the 1920s regular civilian broadcasting began, changing the domestic experience forever. The previously diverse parts of the radio; the valves, controls, wires and speakers, began in the mid-1920s to be enclosed inside a single cabinet. In this early period, radios were seen essentially as furniture and some companies employed cabinet-makers and well-known furniture designers. As radios were new to the domestic interior, their design had no precedent, which allowed manufacturers to design them creatively. This struck a chord in the late-1920s and 1930s with the expanding synthetic plastics industry; oil-based plastics were also a recent innovation, the first, Bakelite (phenol-formaldehyde), having been successfully synthesised in 1907. The collaboration between industrial designers and manufacturers gave rise to many very modern radio designs, particularly in America. Tastes in Britain remained, in general, more conservative, favouring wooden cabinets or Bakelite cabinets imitating wood. During the Second World War, the manufacture of civilian radios essentially ceased in the United Kingdom, with the exception of the ‘Utility’ radio (see V&A CIRC.678-1975), produced under government directive by 42 companies.

The transistor was announced in 1947-48, forever changing the way people listened to radio. The thermionic valves which had previously amplified incoming signals were fragile, heavy and consumed power at a fast rate. Transistors are light and use only a fraction of the power. This model dating from 1948 uses miniaturised valves developed during the Second World War. It was developed as an appealing, portable, second set for households, its 'handbag' form resulted from a perception by manufacturers that there would be a new postwar market for radios for women.

The General Electric Company (GEC) was founded in London in 1886 as G. Binswanger and Company. GEC was involved with lamp and radio manufacture during the First World War, and in 1919 was merged with the Marconi Company. By 1924 General Electric claimed to be manufacturers of ‘everything electrical’, and in the Second World War, they once again supplied the military with radios and other equipment. Wartime mass production of valves by GEC meant there was a potential postwar market for portable radios, of which this is just one model.

Descriptive line

model BC4941; English 1948 des. and man. General Electric Co.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Hawes, Robert. Radio Art (London, 1991)
p.106
Hogben, Carol, The Wireless Show!: 130 classic radio receivers, 1920s to 1950s, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1977

Labels and date

[20th century gallery]

GEC MODEL BC 4941
Designed and made by General Electric Co., Ltd.,
Coventry, Great Britain, 1948
4 miniature valves; Bakelite case
Circ.275-1976
This robust portable was one of the first to feature inset controls. It is an unusual model, having its case and handle moulded in one piece.
[]

Materials

Phenol-formaldehyde; Bakelite; Electrical components

Techniques

Compression moulding

Categories

Plastic; Audio equipment; Product design; Entertainment & Leisure; Household objects

Production Type

Mass produced

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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