Time Warp: The Radiogram

As much a piece of furniture as an item of electronics, the radiogram aimed to combine all the modern, emergent technologies of the era – radio, LP records and, later, television – into one box, the result being a mammoth installation against the living room wall that formed a focal point of interest in itself, particularly true for the more opulently-crafted pieces that embraced the resurgent Art Deco design ethos.

Encased in high-quality polished wood, radiograms were available as portable units just over 30cm square up to enormous dining-room console styles nearly 2 metre long. The larger units would be large enough to provide display space on the cabinet surfaces and incorporate handy storage cupboards along with the electronics, thus fulfilling their dual purpose of furniture and home entertainment hub.

But radiograms weren’t just marvels of modern design; they also evolved with technological development. Early radiograms were a simple AM radio and record player, usually accepting 7, 10 and 12 inch records at one of four speeds of 16, 33, 45 and 78rpm. But later models, dubbed ‘stereograms’ incorporated dual speakers and playback to accommodate stereo records and then came ‘autoradiograms’ which introduced automatic record changers, onto which you could load eight or more 10 or 12 inch records at any one time. Models such as the Stella ST 120A and GEC BC9239 Console Radiogram even had an output for an additional, external loudspeaker.

In Australia, companies such as Titan and the Victorian record company subsidiary Astor Radio Corporation manufactured radiograms (the latter creating some distinction and notoriety for itself by being sued by Walt Disney after dubbing one of their radios ‘The Mickey Mouse’), but most of the enduring radiogram makers hailed from the Europe, including General Electric, Breuer, HMV, Stella, Marconiphone and Philips, some of which remain eminently collectable.

The General Electric Company (GEC) based in West London – the UK company that became Marconi, not the US one that was founded by Thomas Edison – sold the popular five-valve, two-waveband BC9239 for a princely 18 pounds (about $500 in today’s money) and German company Braun produced a series of gorgeous, minimalist ‘SK’ Radiograms nicknamed ‘Schneewitchensarg’, or ‘Snow White’s Coffin’ (pictured), on account of the translucent lid protecting the record player and radio, that are still coveted to this day by radio aficionados.

With the widespread adoption of FM radio, radiograms again evolved to incorporate the new waveband, and with the advent of television in 1936, TV became the latest technology welcomed by radiogram manufacturers, such as in the prescient HMV Television Autoradiogram 902 model released by the Gramaphone Co. Ltd that year which boasted an automatic record changer, four-waveband radio and ‘vision receiver’ for 126 pounds sterling – very roughly equivalent to a staggering $10,000 dollars today.

Killed by the advent of the transistor, which allowed manufacturers to make more compact home entertainment equipment, radiograms with a Blaupunkt, HMV or Braun badge on them are still sought-after collectors’ items commanding thousands. Cheaper, non-working or partially functional units can be found on the likes of Ebay and Gumtree for a few hundred dollars.

But it’s testament to their build quality and versatility that Radiograms can still be found in fully working order today, 50 years on, and their (now ‘retro’) Bakelite control knobs, Art Deco looks and handy storage spaces give them an enduring appeal.

Radiograms blazed a truly pioneering path in home entertainment, gathering momentum from a post-war frugality to enthusiastically embrace new technology as it appeared and they forged the way for the more compact, multi-function home entertainment systems we enjoy today.