Philco was once one of the most trusted and well-known brands for home appliances and consumer electronics in America. Over its decades of operation from 1892 through the 1970s, Philco pioneered key innovations in radios, refrigeration, televisions, transistors and more that helped revolutionize the appliance and technology industries.
Though the Philco name has changed hands several times through acquisitions over the past few decades, the innovations of the early Philco corporation continue to impact modern home appliances and electronics to this day.
Origins as Helios Electric Company
The origins of Philco trace back to 1892 in Philadelphia, when brothers Thomas and Frank G. Spencer partnered with Frank S. Marr and two other associates to establish the Spencer Company. Their initial goal was to manufacture carbon-arc lamps, an early type of electric light.
After purchasing patent rights from the Helios Company of Germany, Spencer Company was renamed Helios Electric Company later in 1892. Frank S. Marr served as the first president of Helios Electric, with Thomas Spencer taking on the role of plant superintendent.
Helios struggled financially in its early years, even shutting down operations briefly in 1893 due to lack of sales. By 1895, the company had rebounded and began advertising itself as the dominant maker of carbon arc lamps in the United States.
However, the decline of the carbon arc lighting market in the late 1890s pushed Helios Electric to the brink once again. By 1899, sales had dropped dramatically. Thomas Spencer departed the company around 1905.
Pivoting to Batteries and Automotive Parts
In 1906, Helios Electric Company officially incorporated as the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company. While Marr remained president, the focus shifted to manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles and automotive parts like starters and lights.
This pivot by Philadelphia Storage proved to be a lifeline, helping the company gain stability through military and commercial contracts. An engineer named James M. Skinner joined Philadelphia Storage around this time and quickly rose through the ranks.
By 1919, Philadelphia Storage Battery Company was ready for a change. With Skinner now in a vice president role, the company adopted a new name – Philco. The Philco brand was selected through an internal company contest won by engineer Donald T. MacGregor.
"The switch to battery manufacturing solidified the future of the company’s existence. Philco was able to gain military contracts to supply battery storage and other products."
Philco swiftly expanded its manufacturing and distribution worldwide in the 1920s, opening locations in Canada, Great Britain, Argentina and other countries.
Leader in Radio Technology
While Philco continued making batteries and other automotive equipment, the 1920s saw the company make an influential shift into consumer electronics through radio.
Engineer James Skinner recognized the potential of the fledgling market for battery-powered home radios. He pushed the company to begin producing "A", "B" and "AB" batteries to power these sets.
In a crucial breakthrough for radio adoption, Philco engineer Ralph D. Kannenberg developed the rectifier tube in 1928. This technology enabled radios to be powered directly from household wall sockets rather than relying solely on batteries.
With this innovation, Philco was positioned perfectly to capitalize on the radio craze of the late 1920s. The company exploded in the radio market, claiming 30% market share of all radio sales in the US by 1930. Iconic Philco innovations like the "cathedral" style radio-phonograph combination sets led the industry.
By the 1930s, Philco had become a household name across America through its radio technology. As consumer interest in radio began to plateau by mid-decade, Philco was ready with its next big expansion.
Home Appliance Innovations
Leveraging its manufacturing expertise and consumer brand recognition, Philco entered appliance markets in the 1930s starting with home air conditioning units in 1934. Refrigerator production soon followed.
Philco releases over the next several decades included many landmark home appliances:
- 1934 – First home air conditioners
- 1939 – First refrigerators with foam insulation
- 1947 – First home freezer units
- 1953 – First combination washer-dryer
- 1954 – First refrigerator-freezer with automatic defrost
Philco refrigerator designs were considered highly innovative, introducing new materials like plastics and recognizing the needs of American consumers. Under engineers like W. Paul Jones, Philco claimed over 17% of the refrigerator market by the 1950s.
Beyond appliances, Philco was also an early pioneer in transistor technology. Their researchers developed some of the earliest practical transistor designs, including the surface-barrier transistor in 1953.
"Philco refrigerator designs were considered highly innovative, introducing new materials like plastics and recognizing the needs of American consumers."
This transistor work laid the foundations for Philco‘s later entries into computer technology in the 1950s and 60s.
Early Television Development
Alongside its radio and appliance work, Philco was also an early developer of television technology. As early as 1932, the company operated an experimental television station, W3XE, from its Philadelphia headquarters.
Philco produced its first commercial TV set, the Model 48-1000, in 1948. Priced at $375, equivalent to over $4,000 today, the Model 48-1000 had a unique angular cabinet design housing a 7-inch cathode ray tube screen.
Philco‘s television engineers were vital contributors to the National Television System Committee (NTSC), which helped standardize American television broadcasting in the 1940s and 50s. By 1953, Philco had sold over 1 million TV sets.
Transistors and Computer Technology
Philco‘s experience with consumer electronics like radios provided an ideal foundation for the company to enter the nascent computer industry in the 1950s.
The development of the surface-barrier transistor in 1953 was a major breakthrough. These transistors were some of the fastest switching transistors available when computers relied on discrete components rather than integrated circuits.
In 1955, Philco launched its TRANSAC (TRANsistor Automatic Computer) line of commercial computer systems. The TRANSAC S-1000 was the first model, designed for business and government clients who needed high-speed data processing capabilities.
Over the next decade, Philco constructed some of the most powerful computers in the world for military and research use, including:
- Philco 2000 Model 212 – Used in Cheyenne Mountain military bunker
- SDS 910 – Installed at NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Center
- SDS 920 – One of first solid-state computers, over 5,000 transistors
This experience with advanced computer development positioned Philco as a major player in the technology revolutions of the 1960s and beyond.
Later Years and Acquisitions
The Philco brand name continued to appear on innovative consumer products like the Safari portable TV introduced in 1959. However, foreign competition began impacting Philco‘s finances through the 1950s and 60s.
In 1961, Philco was acquired by the Ford Motor Company and operated as a subsidiary for over a decade. Ford helped facilitate Philco‘s production of the Courier 1B communications satellite, launched in 1960 and used for NASA‘s Project Mercury.
The Philco brand was purchased by GTE in 1974, who also acquired the Sylvania electronics company later that decade. In 1981, Philips Electronics purchased rights to the Philco name for use in the United States and Puerto Rico.
While no longer the electronics powerhouse of the mid-20th century, the Philco name lives on through licensing deals on appliances and electronics. The company‘s pivotal early work on radios, appliances, transistors and computers helped pave the way for the modern consumer technology industry.
Philco‘s Most Important Innovations
Throughout its history, Philco introduced dozens of new technologies and products that revolutionized electronics and home appliances. Here are some of the most important Philco innovations:
This key radio component invented by Philco in 1928 enabled household radios to be powered through wall outlets rather than batteries. It triggered the rapid adoption of home radios in the late 1920s.
Philco‘s first TV receiver for the consumer market, released in 1948. Its unique angular design housed a 7-inch CRT display, selling for a pricey $375.
Surface Barrier Transistor
Developed in 1953, Philco‘s surface barrier transistor enabled faster switching speeds than earlier transistor designs. This positioned the company to enter the computer industry.
The world‘s first active communications satellite, built by Philco and launched in 1960 for NASA‘s Mercury program global tracking network.
TRANSAC Computer Line
Philco‘s influential line of commercial computer systems first launched in 1955. The S-1000 model pioneered transistor-based computing for business and government.
Philco Predicta TV
Released in the 1950s, the Predicta featured a unique cantilevered picture tube mounted on a swiveling base. It symbolized space-age TV designs of the era.
The Enduring Legacy of Philco
Though no longer the dominant force it once was in consumer electronics and appliances, Philco‘s legacy lives on through the technologies it helped pioneer and bring into the mainstream.
From the humble carbon arc lamps of its 1892 beginnings, Philco was at the forefront of pivotal 20th century innovations like household radios, refrigerators, transistors and computers.
The company‘s engineers and researchers understood the needs and capabilities of emergent technologies. Their drive to keep Philco on the cutting edge yielded products that define consumer electronics and appliances to this day.
And while the Philco name has changed hands several times, its history stands as a testament to the immense contributions of American computing and engineering talent during the decisive early decades of the electronics revolution.