This Place in History: Atwater Kent

Vermont Historical Society


At ‘This Place in History’ we’re in Burlington, Vt. with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“We’re at the corner of South Union Street and Main Street. Within the block behind us here was born a real innovator in the world of radios. We all know about Philco, RCA and Sony now. But, if you were alive in the 1920s, you wanted an Atwater Kent radio. It was developed and built by a guy named Atwater Kent, who lived right here,” explained Perkins.

“He came from a long line of Vermont families out of central Vermont. His dad was a doctor and that’s why they ended up here in Burlington. He went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a couple of years.”

“He went ahead and invented a starting coil for a car. It sounds kind of boring but if you think back to the early 1900s, you see those old cartoons or movies where they have to crank the car to start. The starting coil revolutionized that. You could now just turn a key with a battery. And, it made him a fortune as a very young man. He was then able to turn that money into his passion,” said Perkins.

“His passion was radios, this sort of new and emerging technology. He wanted to put a radio in everybody’s house. He saw that radio stations were starting to build up. He developed a system and machines for building mass-produced parts of radios. He built this huge factory and started pushing them out and making them in many different ways.”

“I have some of these original radios from the 1920s. So, I think maybe if we could go back to the studio, we can continue our conversation and I can show you some of those radios,” said Perkins.

“We’re going to start with this one. This is one of the earliest Atwater Kent radio sets. Kent realized what he could do was create machines that would make all the individual radio parts so that they could sell whole radios or sell parts to hobbyists and you could build your own. And so, this early piece here from the very early 1920s has this wooden base which became known as a breadboard and all the parts could bolt onto this pre-drilled breadboard, and the wires could run underneath. And, you had to listen to it with this fancy headset. Speaker technology wasn’t great in the early 1920s,” explained Perkins.

“This is a more consumer model, like you don’t want to build your own, so you buy this radio. It’s pretty much the same thing as this radio, just in a metal box.”

“My favorite part about his radios is that you could get them in these tabletops versions, but he also built them into furniture. He contracted with different fancy furniture makers around the country and he put them in everything from grandfather clocks to tables.”

“[It was the] number one radio manufacturer and the company stayed in business until the early 1930s. He retired to Hollywood, CA where he lived a life of luxury until he died in 1949.”

“I think he always had a very special place in his heart for Vermont. As I said earlier, his family was from the Calais area of central Vermont. In fact, an area called Kent’s Corner. He purchased the family home, a tavern, a church and all sorts of things in that area. He bought a number of those properties and paid to have them reconstructed and opened as a living history museum. And he also left an endowment for the Vermont Historical Society, so part of what we do is funded by Atwater Kent radios,” concluded Perkins.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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