I take a fond liking to some of the big names people would commonly purchase on their products years ago. I guess it’s part of my attraction to all things mid 20th century. They also reflect back to a day when everything was built here in America. These are some common name brands that our parents had in their homes on audiovisual electronics that you still see around, but don’t have any connection to their past.
In the past, there were hundreds of technology companies founded in America. Today, very little of these exist today in their original form, but the brands are frequently still seen on store shelves on new products. I have done some research into many of the common brands you remember that pop up on new products. This is good information that will also help if you like collecting old appliances and electronics. You will have a good feel for what era products came from and when the brand fell out of greatness. In a greater perspective, it is rather chilling to see how much we have lost here in the USA. Many Asian manufactures now either own the rights, or license these familiar nameplates to sell their electronics to wary Americans at discount stores and other shops that used to be on high end items
RCA: Radio Corporation of America
was started in 1919 at the end of World War I with government owned patents. In 1929, RCA purchased the Victor talking Machine company and became RCA-Victor. The name seen on most of their products well into the 1960’s. The Victor Talking machine Company is where the familiar logo of Nipper the dog listening to “His Master’s voice” in front the record player came from. Nipper has been the mascot of RCA since then.
RCA became the largest electronics manufacturer in the United States building everything involving radio and televisions from the sets people had in their homes all the way to the broadcast equipment. Not only did RCA build the equipment, but they operated it too. RCA owned NBC networks, and even had their own record label. RCA did not invent radio or television, but they made broadcasting a commercial viable business, and their radios and televisions were highly regarded up to 1986.
1986 was when General Electric bought RCA, and disassembled the company. This was after loosing considerable money on the “Selectavision” video disc system. The record/ music production company was sold to BMG, which was then bought out by Sony entertainment, and the name is still used by them. GE only kept the NBC network but that was just recently sold to Comcast. The electronics division was bought by Thomson AG of France. RCA and GE products continued to be manufactured at their current factories, but quality went downhill and the brands earned a poor reputation. Likewise, they slowly closed factories as demand dwindled. In 1998, they closed the Bloomingtion Indiana plant that had manufactured televisions since the beginning of the industry. Thomson continued to manufacture broadcast equipment under the “Grass Valley” and “videotek” brands, and not the RCA brand. General Electric held onto the trademark rights to the RCA nameplate and licensed it to Thomson.
Today: Thomson sold the consumer electronics business in 2004 to TCL corporation of China. In 2006, rights to the RCA nameplate was sold to Audiovox, a USA company. Audiovox now uses the nameplate on parts and accessories manufactured by themselves, but also licenses the nameplate to just about anyone who wants to stick it on a product. The RCA nameplate used to show up on products sold at Radio Shack stores, but has also been seen randomly at discount stores on low-end electronics, and accessories
My favorite RCA stuff: I tend to like many of their products made prior to 1986. The newest “Colortrak” televisions made in the late 70′;s and early 80’s were their top of the line product. Their “Dimensia” line during that same era was the integration of home audio and video products, and the beginning of home theater. Their “VistaColor” televisions from the early 60’s were very well made televisions from the beginning of the color TV era. They were a marque of the upper class during that era when color televisions were very expensive. These sets are very well made and easy to work on. RCA also made some very nice console stereos and HiFi sets during the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s as well. RCA invented the 45 RPM record in the early 50’s and their small tabletop record players are highly collectible. I also like their plastic “all american five” vacuum tube radios.
This company was founded by George Westinghouse prior to the advent of electricity. George Westinghouse first technology success was in 1872 with a fail-safe railway air brake system….something not even electrical in nature. Each rail car brake could be applied simultaneously. This was a significant improvement in the safety of rail travel. He founded the company ” Westinghouse Air Brake Company” with this invention. Later, he teamed with Nickola Tesla who invented the alternating current electrical system that we currently use power distribution to this day. The first success of this system was sending power from Niagara Falls to New York City.
Westinghouse Electric had a litany of technology breakthroughs under it’s belt. For example, Westinghouse was a primary player in the development of nuclear power generation. Westinghouse also developed the first fully automatic elevator. Westinghouse electric also owned some radio broadcasting in the 1930’s, and also built gas turbine engines. The Westinghouse name showed up in homes mostly on large appliances, like refrigerators and washing machines, but was also found on small appliances like blenders and toasters too, and they also made electronics.
The beginning of the end of this company started in the late 70’s Westinghouse Electric sells it’s home appliance industry to White Consolidated Industries (IE the name White-Westinghouse) Then, throughout the eighties and nineties, began selling off various divisions like their lighting, elevator, power distribution, etc. It’s nuclear power division was sold to Toshiba. Westinghouse acquired CBS in 1998, signifying it’s switch from a technology and industrial company to a media company. The next year, the company was renamed Viacom. CBS still owns the Westinghouse name, but does no manufacturing.
Today: CBS / Viacom licenses the Westinghouse name to different manufacturers, Including Electrolux, where it shows up on appliances, Nordyne, which manufacturers HVAC equipment. Westinghouse Digital manufacturers LCD televisions is a Division of Golden Star electronics …otherwise known as LG electronics (South Korea). The company’s division is stationed in California, but manufacturing is in China and other Asian countries.
My favorite Westinghouse stuff: Any of the major appliances made by Westinghouse prior to the “White Westinghouse” selloff are made particularly well and are rather collectible, like their “Laundromat” front loading washers from the 1950’s and later. Small appliances with the Westinghouse name are about as common as GE small appliances and can frequently be found in thrift stores, garage and estate sales, and many other places. Pre 1970’s era Westinghouse small appliances are very stylish and built exceptionally well. They could be put into daily duty in your home. Electronics like TV’s and radios with this brand are particularly rare, as they were not a big player in this business, so finding one is a really score.
Zenith was a well regarded electronics manufacturer throughout the 20th century. The company began as a builder of amateur radio equipment in Chicago Illinois in 1918 with the name “Chicago Radio Labs”. The name was changed to Zenith Radio Corp in 1923, and it came from the owner’s amateur radio callsign, “9ZN” Zenith had many “firsts” in the radio business throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s including a radio that would run off of AC line power (previous radios were all battery powered)
Zenith was a much smaller company than the above businesses, but they did own several radio stations until the late 1970s. They concentrated mainly on consumer electronics. Zenith invented the remote controlled television in the late 1950’s called the “space command” system. Zenith was one of the first manufacturers to go to a fully solid-state chassis in the early 1970’s in their televisions. Zenith acquired Heath company in 1979, famous for the “Heathkit” product line, and also got into the computer business from them at that time, but sold this division in 1990 to stay afloat. Zenith was a big player in HDTV development, and hoped to develop technology that would save the company.
Today: Zenith toiled throughout the 1990’s continuing to build high quality, but expensive televisions in the USA, but was loosing money. In 1996, LG electronics of Korea purchased 50% Zenith, and in 1999, filed for chaper 11 bankruptcy. LG electronics purchased the remaining share of the company. Any products seen today with the Zenith name is manufactured by LG. Zenith also made products under the “Admiral” name, which is still used today.
Zenith stuff I like: I like just about all the stuff made by this company up until some of their lower quality sets of the 1990’s Their “Trans Oceanic” shortwave radios work very well and perform great. Likewise, these are highly collectible. Their “Allegro” home stereo and HiFi brand has been largely forgotten about until recently when records became popular again. An old Allegro all-in-one stereo is an excellent alternative to the poor quality record players built today, and can be had used for under $50. Vintage televisions and radios made by Zenith in the pre-transistor era are all made exceptionally well and are very stylish.
Magnavox was founded in 1917 as a speaker company. They were the inventors of the moving-coil speaker that is the basic design that pretty much every audio speaker we know of today is based on. They also created the first electronic phongraph pickup in the same year.Magnavox speakers were frequently used in other brands of radios prior to World War II. More recently Magnavox invented the first home video game console, called the Odyssey in 1972.
In 1974, Magnavox was acquired by the dutch company Phillips, who also uses the Norelco name. The merger of the two companies created an electronics juggernaut that also made semiconductors and sold products and components around the world. Beyond this time, the Phillips-Magnavox name was used exclusively on most of their electronics products both sold and manufactured in the USA in the 1990s. They are known for laserdisc technology, and partnered with Sony in developing the Compact disc audio format. In the 1980’s, they also acquired other common American nameplates, Sylvania, and Philco. At this time, they were headquartered in Knoxville Tennesse and manufactured in Greenville. They manufactured televisions at this location until 2005.
Magnavox also had a big defense industry along with their consumer products. This division did not merge with Phillips, and partnered with Rayethon. The defense business was later bought out by Hughes Electronics in 1995.
Today: Much of the Magnavox products you see on store shelves are manufactured by Funai of South Korea. Philips however still owns the nameplate. Philips branded products are also manufactured by Funai as well, with the Philips brand being used for higher end products. Most of the manufacturing of these brands is performed by TPV technology out of China.
Magnavox stuff I like: Magnavox stereos and HiFi consoles were one of the better made ones in the late fifties and early sixties. They featured Collaro turntables with a unique feature where they would tap the side of the record to sense it size. You could stack records on the changer of different sizes and it would play them. Magnavox televisions from the 50’s and 60’s are less common than their audio products. Magnavox radios are also relatively rare, but Magnavox speakers can be found in many old radio sets
Sylvania begain in 1939 with the invention of the Fluorescent lamp. The company was a big player in the manufacture of vacuum tubes and other electrical and electronic components that found their way into other branded products throughout the middle 20th century. The Sylvania nameplate is also found on electrical distribution products In 1959, they merged with General Telegraph Electronics, or GTE. Sylvania has been a big innovator in lighting technology since their beginning. With GTE, the company was also a big manufacturer of telecommunications products as well
Sylvania made picture tubes and other vacuum tubes in electronics, but also manufactured complete products as well. They created the famous Sylvania “halo” television that had a ring of light around the picture that was supposed to soften the difference between the dark room and the bright picture on the screen. Since Sylvania was acquired by Philips electronics in the middle 1980’s, this idea transferred to them and was used on their Philips branded flat-panel TV’s as the “ambilight” television that had a backlight installed behind it.
Today: You may be familiar with the brand Osram-Sylvania. Sylvania sold off their lighting division to the German company Osram in 1993. It operated out of Dandbridge Massachusetts and is one of the largest lighting companies in the world. Sylvania branded electronics seen at discount stores however are not manufactured by this company, but hold the licensing to the nameplate. The Sylvania nameplate was used by Philips (see above) and is also built by Funai of South Korea, along with Sylvania’s other divisions, Emerson Electric
I wanted to include Eastman Kodak, although not a TV or stereo manufacturer, is a well, known name in visual technology that has recently fallen on hard times. Kodak was the undisputed king of chemical photography throughout the 20th century. They started with the invention of their “disposble” camera, where you bought it, took pictures, then sent the camera to them to get the pictures printed. They would send you the prints, and the camera back with a new roll of film in it.
Although Kodak cameras have largely been targeted to consumers, with their popular “instamatic” and “Brownie” cameras, They have always been a big part supplier of films and other photographic materials throughout the years. Kodak played a big part in the motion picture equipment business as well, both selling cameras, film, and even some projectors. Kodak invented digital photograpy in the late 1990’s and held several patents in the field. Although Kodak did manufacture digital cameras, they mismanaged and did not capitalize on the potential on this invention like they could have. They went into bankruptcy at the beginning of 2012
Today: Kodak still exists today, but is a tiny shade of it’s former self. The emerged from bankruptcy in late 2013. The kodak name can be found on a handful of consumer products like digital inkjet printers, headphones, and batteries, but no cameras. These are all made by Funai of South Korea. Kodak still manufactures large document processors and printers, and also still manufactures motion picture films themselves today.
Cool Kodak Stuff: Instamatic, and Brownie cameras are fun items to collect, only problem is that the film cannot be found in either 126 or 110 formats anymore, so unless you are serious about reloading cartridges by yourself, these are merely knickacks. Super 8 movie cameras are one of the more fun items to play with however, and Kodak is still making super 8 movie film. Super 8 movie format came out in 1965, along with several cameras by Kodak since then.
Most people recognize the Polaroid name with cameras that would instantly develop a picture when taken. This technology however became irrelevant when digital cameras were created. The company’s origins is in glasses and lenses that would polarize light, hence the name.
Polaroid Corporation, as was previously known went into bankruptcy in 2001, and the company was liquidated.The name, and the assets of the company tossed around for several years. The production of instant film stopped in 2008
Today: The Polaroid names lands on many lower end smaller flat-panel televisions, digital cameras, and electronic photo frames sold at discount stores. These products are made by various Asian manufacturers A company called Summit Global Group currently holds the license to the name, and patents to the instant film. They actually plan to start manufacturing the instant film again.