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MAKES OF SET: EKCO    MAKES OF SET  BUSH  LISSEN  PORTABLES  AERODYNE  EKCO

 

Ekco are famous among British radio manufacturers of the 1930s for being among the the first - perhaps the very first - to introduce Bakelite as a radio cabinet material.*

By the early thirties, Bakelite was in use for various items, notably knobs and dial escutcheons but British makers had yet to employ the material in the mass-production of entire one-piece cabinets. Ekco had seen German bakelite cases and for the very earliest of their Bakelite housings they imported from Germany, where Bakelite radio cabinets had been in production for some time. Soon, however, the great presses - essential to the production of Bakelite mouldings - were installed at the Southend works and mass-production began. Freed from the constraints of timber, designers created some of the most innovative and complex shapes, shapes previously impossible to produce economically in wood and the finished cabinets were strong and elegant, often showing the influence of Art Deco. Perhaps the most famous of the many Ekco designs was and still remains the 'round' series, commissioned by Ekco from the avant-guarde architect and designer Wells Coates. Far less complex than the earlier designs such as the M23, the 'round' series was based upon the geometric forms of arcs, circles and lines, which may be the reason for their continuing popularity: timeless simple elegance.

What follows is a glimpse of history as seen by newspapers of the time. These are local to Southend, the town that was the base for Ekco Radio. For access to these clips I am indebted to my good friend Jools Zauscinski.

I also highly recommend a visit to his superb web site for all those interested in things Bakelite: 

www.bakeliteman.com

                  The story of how Ekco began (in brief!)

W.S. Verrells was only nine when his father died. He went to work and at the age of 12 toiled in a Welsh coal mine, studying at night school. With the start of the first world war, Verrells fought for his country. His lungs were badly affected (presumably by mustard gas?) and his health was so poor it was feared that his life would be greatly shortened. His doctor advised him to go to Southend - 'The ozone will do you good.' So he did and his lung condition improved. He became a writer and sent in an article to a Southend newspaper. E.K. Cole replied to it. 

Take your pick...

According to the Southend Standard of 25.8.1932, Cole was, in the mid-1920s, the proprietor of a small shop selling electrical equipment and had produced an 'improved radio'. When Verrells saw it he said 'I can sell those' and promptly went from door to door in Southend selling the Cole-produced radio receivers.

According to the Essex Weekly News of 16.8.1935, Verrells and Cole co-owned a small workshop and produced power units (eliminators) that Verrells sold. This version of the story makes more sense and also appears in 'The Setmakers', a review of which can be found under 'Things to Read'. It can be fairly safely assumed that to the non-technical newspaper reporter of the time the terms 'improved radio' and improved radio power supply' meant the same.

Whichever is the truth, seven years later - 1932 - the factory floor shown in the article in the Southend Standard is enormous, employing over 2000, the vast majority women. They worked the conveyor belt, soldering, riveting, drilling, assembling from tiny component parts often produced in-house by Ekco to the full radio receivers.

Although the bulk of the assembly work was carried out by an army of women, one bastion of male supremacy remained: the complex metal moulds needed for the Bakelite pressings were created by a skilled team of men. Three great hydraulic presses created the famous range of Bakelite cabinets, each operating at pressures up to 1000 tons or more, unique at that time in Britain for their capacity.

By 1935, the Essex Weekly News tells us that 'more than 3000 girls were employed in the enormous factory'. The paper comments 'Raw Bakelite powder is poured into moulds and electrically treated (sic**) dies bring terrific pressure and force on the powder, resolving it into a plastic substance. For a few minutes the pressure is applied - the workmen use an egg timer to judge the time -and the dies are released, and a highly polished cabinet results. Chromium fittings are moulded into place and in a few minutes powder has become polished perfection. The dies, tools and mould weigh upwards of 15 tons each... cut from solid blocks of chromium nickel steel... involve an expenditure of several thousand pounds before the first finished cabinet can be made.'

The seemingly inevitable decline

It is fair to say the Ekco's real heyday was in the decade preceding world war II. After the war, quality production continued but the innovation that in earlier years had so popularised the marque seemed in short supply. It was as though everything worth doing had been done and the new designs were really little more than improvements on these established features (revised and modernised valve line-ups, simplified cabinet detailing). Although the firm branched out into non-domestic electronics and other plastic production work, gradually but inexorably Ekco went the way of the rest of the British radio manufacturers and the depressing and ever-decreasing circle of take-overs and downsizing finally finished off the once-pre-eminent radio company. Only the brand name lives on, albeit in a sadly emasculated form.

**Treated = almost certainly meant 'heated' 


*Note that Philips used a form of thermosetting resin laminated board (Arbolite) for cabinets, but this material was planar, i.e. it could not be formed into compound curves and therefore cabinets made with it had to be assembled - built up - from separate sheets.    

 

 

 

The Bakelite moulding for the case of the M23/RS2 range (1931/2)

 

 

 

One of the famous 'round Ekco' cabinets

being produced on the hydraulic press

 

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