Engholm, Ben (1899-1945): Seattle's pioneering radio loudspeaker designer of the 1920s

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 2/06/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8923

At the dawn of the commercial radio industry in the early 1920s, Seattle became an unexpected early hotbed of technological innovation. No less than three different companies began producing radio speaker-horns in those years before more advanced "field coil" cone-speakers were invented around 1928. That trio of innovative firms were the Star Radio Co., Kilbourne & Clark -- and most importantly, Bernard "Ben" A. Engholm's incredibly successful Rola Company.

Although various esteemed early inventors -- ranging from Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) to Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931) -- had been struggling with limited results since the 1800s to create a speaker (for telephones and disc turntables, respectively) that offered a reasonable level of aural fidelity, it was young Engholm who seems to have independently engineered, in 1923, what was touted as the finest gooseneck-style speaker yet marketed.

Radio's Early Days

The United States' earliest commercial radio stations began making their initial broadcasts around 1919–1920. Entertainment-starved listeners in the state of Washington had their first chance to tune in with the arrival of Seattle's KFC in 1921, KJR and KTW in 1922, and Tacoma's KGB in 1922. 

A craze for radio began almost immediately, with amateur clubs forming, and various retail shops in Seattle did a brisk business selling outboard loudspeakers -- such as the ones made by the San Francisco-based Magnavox Company (1917), the New York-based Lektophone firm's Phonetron (1921), and RCA's Radiola (1922), or Winkler-Reichmann's Chicago-made Thorophone (1923) -- which were typically attached by wires to receiver devices (like the popular Atwater-Kent brand models). 

By February 1922 it was reported that: "In Seattle this development in wireless interest is manifest in every one of the ten or more shops which supply apparatus and parts. The majority of these shops are manufacturing their own and assembling parts of others' patented sets ... . The result of all this extraordinary demand is that certain shops have been obliged to close part of the day so that receiving set parts can be made up over night for the showcases or shelves the following day. Every clerk, of course, is a maker of wireless sets, or parts, and he has to be taken from the counter to the bench to meet the demands of the trade" (The Seattle Times). 

Ben Begins to Tinker

As an electrical engineer at one of Seattle's retailers, young Ben Engholm (who lived at 812 8th Avenue) was an enthusiastic radio buff who, like many others, was not too impressed with the then-current state of radio speaker technology. Convinced that "the reproduction of sound from early radios could be substantially improved by utilizing a device that would provide a listener with a wider range than was available with the early headsets and basic speaker designs of that day" (Perry & Paul) -- Engholm began tinkering in the shop's back room.  

“Engholm worked upon his radio set, and sought to develop a loud speaker, something which would meet his own needs, but would solve the some of the problems which confronted the earlier radio fans. Correct mechanical and acoustical details had to be perfected ... . Success finally crowned the efforts of this young electrician. A loud speaker was developed which was better than anything yet on the market.” Despite his remarkable achievement, the young man remained level-headed: "Mr. Engholm declared that his work cannot be called an invention, all he has done has been to solve some of the problems of mechanical construction and acoustical details which alone have baffled the radio equipment manufacturers in past years” (The Seattle Times, 1925). 

In other words, Engholm's design breakthrough was based on optimizing every previously invented component of a loudspeaker, rather than conjuring up some entirely new parts -- but that approach brought him great success. 

The Rola Re-Creator

It was the spring season of 1923 when -- as one account tells it -- Engholm “demonstrated a working model at home before a few of his friends. Present at the time was a well-to-do man who listened to it, and said, ‘I want one those, how much will it cost me?’ Ben thought, rather quickly, and said ‘$50.’ The man said, ‘Go to work’” (Perry & Paul). Perhaps that fellow was Henry S. Tenny (1805 11th Avenue W) -- the proprietor of the Northern Radio & Electric Company shop (606 Pine Street), which advertised itself as Seattle's "Radio Headquarters, Standard Radio Apparatus, Appliances, and Repairs." Tenny may also have been Engholm's retail employer. In any case he was certainly the man who kicked in $100 as start-up capital, and as a formal partner with the young whiz-kid and incorporated the enterprise as a business on August 4, 1924.

Seeking a snappy name for their nascent business, the duo opted to mine the very same concept as did such disparate corporations as Coca Cola (soda pop), Victrola (record players), and Rock-Ola (jukeboxes) -- not to mention those other music biz staples: Shinola (shoe polish) and Payola (pay-to-play bribery)!  The Rola Company was listed as being "Radio Engineers [and] Manufacturers of the Rola Re-Creator” in the 1924 city directory. And thus did the firm start down the path of what the Seattle Times would soon describe as “one of the business epics of Seattle and the Pacific Coasts” -- a firm that radio historians have acknowledged as "one of the oldest loud-speaker manufacturing companies in existence" (Perry & Paul). 

Building a Better Horn

Initially Engholm (now living at 1068 E Thomas Street) manufactured his horns' component pieces in a small rental space in Rainier Valley, and then transported them over to the Northern Radio shop for assembly. That was also where the new Rola Re-Creator loudspeakers were demonstrated to the approval of the area’s early radio buffs. 

Tenny proved to be so adept at marketing their horns that skilled mechanics were hired to assist in meeting the consumers' demand, and soon he was able to leave the realm of retail and join in full-time with Rola. Their expansion plans were ambitious, even as their luck was running out. They moved into a second-floor loft in a more spacious plant (308 ½ 1st Avenue S), purchased a heavy-duty drill press and a lathe, and began to really ramp-up their production pace.  

And then disaster struck. An illicit liquor still being run downstairs exploded one day  and burned everything down. Re-established at a new site (the former Skinner and Eddy shipyard headquarters at 34 W Connecticut Street), Rola trained a workforce of 62 and began cranking out the horns by running three shifts daily. It was a radio equipment business with the reported capacity to make "5,000 loud speakers monthly and [yet] this factory is [still] unable to take care of the orders flooding into the plant from distributors" (Dunn).

The Rola Legacy

On May 16, 1925 -- only a few months after a San Francisco-based firm won sole distribution rights to the factory's output -- Engholm and Rola relocated to Oakland, California. It was there that the ever-innovative company began producing another loudspeaker which featured a new "field coil" cone-style speaker attached to the back of a thin, flat, wooden -- and radically shaped, circular facade panel -- that was undeniably futuristic.  

In time the Rola Company, Inc. was restructured in Cleveland, Ohio, and by 1930 a corporate offshoot, the British Rola company, was formed in Kingston upon Thames (Greater London), where it eventually paired with Celestion to make speakers for that market. Rola's longstanding Seattle connection finally slipped away when Tenny let loose his shares in the company on July 1, 1931 -- and then, upon her husband's death in 1945, Engholm's widow sold out to Chicago's Muter Company. For decades, however, Rola's high-quality loudspeakers continued to be a popular component within many radios, televisions, stereos, Hammond organs, and guitar amplifiers (including early Gibsons, Epiphones, Oahus, Gretsches, Fenders, and Danelectros, among others). 

Seattle's Star Radio Co.

Those original Rola Re-Creator radio speaker-horns were so exciting -- and profitable -- that at least two other Seattle factories appear to have sprung up in order to market their own variations on the idea. One was the obscure Star Radio Company (1936 Westlake Avenue) that was run by J. Bogatin and an electrician, W. C. Brown (4239 University Way), and which advertised that they were the "manufacturers and distributors of the Star-O-Tone Loud Speakers."

This brand of horn -- quite reminiscent of the Rola Re-Creator -- featured a richly textured chocolate brown paint finish and were quite nicely made. Interestingly, they seem to have popped up in 1925 (intriguingly close to the moment Rola left town) and then disappeared by 1926.  

Kilbourne & Clark Manufacturing Co. 

The other Rola Re-Creator-inspired loudspeaker was produced by the Kilbourne & Clark Manufacturing Co., a firm that had originally been formed way back in 1899 by two electrical engineers Walter Gordan Clark (b. 1876) and Edward Corliss Kilbourne (1856-1959). Clark was a prominent engineer and Columbia University-based inventor. Kilbourne was a dentist, an owner of the Union Electric Company, and an early advocate for electrical upgrades to the town's infrastructure.

Clark parted ways with the firm in 1904, and Kilbourne did likewise in 1910. But the soon-to-be-bustling 75-employee Kilbourne & Clark company (based at 3451 E Marginal Way by 1921, and at 101 Spokane Street by 1923) forged ahead -- advertising itself as "Manufacturers of Electric Instruments, Radio Apparatus, Motor Generators, Electrical Specialties" -- and thus scoring a long string of successes in making and marketing such radio-related hardware.

Sources: "Radio Becomes Home Necessity: Salesmen Scattered Over Country Introducing New 'Fad' Have Been Called in as Manufacturers Have Waiting Orders," The Seattle Times, February 26, 1922, p. 8; 1924 R.L. Polk Directory, Seattle; "How a Youth’s 'Tinkering' With Radio Resulted in a Seattle Business Epic," The Seattle Times, January 4, 1925, National Weekly Section p. 3; "Ten More Plants Get Army-Navy 'E': Companies Are Honored for Excellence in War Production," The New York Times, September 21, 1943, p. 19; "Speaker Concern Changes Hands," The New York Times, September 21, 1945 p. 31; David Richardson, Puget Sounds: A Nostalgic Review of Radio and TV in the Great Northwest (Seattle: Superior Publishers, 1981), 9, 24, 27,31; Charles Perry & Floyd Paul, "History of the Rola Company (1923-1980)," The Old Timer’s Bulletin, September 1980, pp. 8-9; Steven E. Schoenherr, "Loudspeaker History," website accessed on December 4, 2008 (http://history.sandiego.edu/GEN/recording/loudspeaker.html); William Ganson Rose, Cleveland: The Making of a City (Kent, Ohio: Black Squirrel Books 1990), 940; Michael Doyle and Jon F. Eiche, The History of Marshall The Illustrated Story Of The Sound Of Rock (Hal Leonard: New York 1993) 129; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Edward Corliss Kilbourne (1856-1959)" (by Louis Fiset), http://historylink.org/  (accessed December 5, 2008); Men and Women of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporaries (New York: L. R. Hamersly & Company, 1909), 348; The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography: Being the History of the United States as Illustrated in the Lives of the Founders, Builders, and Defenders of the Republic, and of the Men and Women who are Doing the Work and Moulding the Thought of the Present Time (New York: J. T. White, 1910), pp.261-262; "Seattle's Contribution To Radio Are Many -- Local Men Pioneered New Science -- Old-Time Dealer Recalls Pioneering Done Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 16, 1928, p.E-3; and Peter Blecha  archives.

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