Thursday, March 22, 2012

The CBS-Columbia Model # 5110 Radio

Image courtesy of the McCobb family archive

This story starts back in 2009 when I first found out about a radio designed by Paul McCobb from a teensy little mention in House and Garden.
"For those who like to travel with music, there's a perfect portable for $29.95. Designed by Paul McCobb, it's about the size of a pocket novel, weighs only 2 lbs. and has a carrying case with shoulder strap."[1]
Not much to go on... but now that I knew that such a thing existed I had to find out the rest of the story. So I hit the books, which in this case means I did a search in Google Books, that invaluable resource for the historical researcher, to see if there was anything that jived with Paul McCobb and Radio (I think it's important to mention that Google Books has gotten progressively better over time, back in 2009 it was kind of a bear to deal with).

The responses were few, with most of them referring to the better known Paul McCobb designed Bell & Howell Hi-Fi and it's built in radio, but there was one mystery reference  to "USA Tomorrow". Those of you who use Google Books frequently will know that the greater majority of book results have a bit of scanned text attached to them showing your search in context to the books text, which is really quite helpful, but every once in a while down at the very bottom of the list of search results there will be one or a few without any scanned text attached, the USA Tomorrow hit was one of "those" responses. 

Having eliminated all of the stuff which was clearly about the Bell & Howell designs I was then left with an exceptionally short list of potential sources of information about this other McCobb radio. Getting a look at "USA Tomorrow" was pretty high up on my list of things to look into for my McCobb radio research along with getting a look through the run of Industrial Design magazine which was already on my research priority list. After some misadventures with WorldCat I finally manage to track down a copy of "USA Tomorrow" in the NYPL Arts and Architecture collection, which was a really great thing with two big advantages for me:

  1. The library is freely accessible and doesn't require making an appointment in advance to view items in their collection 
  2. Even more important, it's local.

And in case anyone is wondering why they've never heard of USA Tomorrow before, it's because USA Tomorrow was an exceptionally briefly lived periodical lasting only two or three issues. It was in one of these few published issues that I found the best information about the McCobb radio thus far in my research endeavors 
"Personal portable radio and carry case designed by Paul McCobb for CBS-Columbia, WINS good design award, 1955. This is the first radio of this type that has ever been accepted by the Museum of Modern Art for the Good Design exhibit. Paul McCobb has achieved this within the restrictions of cost and engineering. Colors --Cabinets: Stone, Sand, Avocado Green, Cardinal Red. Secondary colors: Lemon Yellow, Charcoal. Leather Carrying Case in Luggage Brown and Black. Cabinet material: Polystyrene. Handle: Spring steel, 4" Speaker. Battery operated. Retail price--$29.95."[2]
The article also included a photo of the radio, the very same photo at the top of this post in fact (but not the same print). 

So now that I knew what the darn thing looked like and that it was included in the Museum of Modern Art's 1955 Good Design show. Thus equipped I put on my curator and collector hat and started scouring the internet in hopes of finding one. Part of the problem in searching for this is that I do not know, at this point, the model number of the radio, so I go about searching out any and all references to CBS-Columbia radio's on the net only to find precious little out there. Not only was I unable to find a McCobb radio sitting Un-noticed in some online radio boutique but I very quickly learned that CBS-Columbia radios are kind of hard to come by, irregardless of the model you're searching for. 

Only slightly daunted by this I created an automated search on Ebay and waited. It took quite a while before I got my first bite from this Ebay search but sure enough after about 6 months I land my first radio (stone) which once it gets delivered gives me the final piece of the puzzle, the model number of the radio. It is a CBS-Columbia Model #5110!

 A few months later a second color (sand) appears and is successfully acquired, it takes almost a year between these first two finds to score the third (cardinal red) with a partially complete 4th radio (case only in avocado green) arriving just recently. 

While I was busy collecting radios I was also occupied in continuing research on this subject which resulted in my acquiring a scan of a 1955 press release from Paul McCobb Design Associates (text reproduced below) for the radio's inclusion in the 1955 Good Design show. It's interesting to note that the USA Tomorrow text blurb is taken directly from the text of this press release.

Ironically about a year ago I got access to the Pratt University Library which includes a complete run of Industrial Design magazine, where the McCobb/CBS-Columbia radio is pictured and written up quite prominently at least twice... had I gotten there first this would not have been a very interesting story at all and certainly might have taken a lot less time.

[1] House and Garden December 1954 page 166

[2] U.S.A. Tomorrow June 1955 page 54