Brunswick Panatrope Radio Phonograph was the First Multi-Disc Record Player

The 1929 Brunswick Panatrope turntable, tone arm, record volume control, needle cup and record storage bin with a Brunswick record. (Photo: Spin Alley Vintage Phonographs and Radios)

I bought my first MP3 player last week. I know it’s old technology. Apple introduced the iPod in 2001 and I’m just getting on-board. Call me a late adopter. I bought my first home computer in 1986 and my first cell phone in 2001. I still don’t have a smartphone. I did, however, finally cut my telephone land line.

The 1929 Brunswick Panatrope with Radio. (Photo: Spin Alley Vintage Phonographs and Radios)

I gained some perspective on my personal technology deficiencies while sorting through boxes of old family photographs. In one photo, my grandmother sat with my mother at her feet, listening to the radio on their 1929 Brunswick Panatrope Phonograph with Radio. In its day, the Panatrope was a state-of-the-art home entertainment system. It operated electrically, played all three available record formats, and had a radio (AM).

In 2013, when technology becomes bigger-better-faster with each passing year, I’m astonished by the obstacles that had to be overcome before that Panatrope could sit in my grandmother’s living room.

In the 1920s, most of America didn’t have electricity. There was electricity in big cities, but electrical power companies weren’t interested in investing in the generators and power lines that would electrify rural America. At that time, “rural America” was most of America’s geographical area. Because the rural population was shrinking, electrifying the countryside was too big an investment for power companies. Farmers, too, found that the expense of running power lines across their fields was prohibitive. So, electricity didn’t start to become available to rural America until 1935, when Roosevelt signed the act creating the Rural Electrification Administration. The act provided low-interest loans and other incentives to power companies to encourage them to invest in rural power transmission. My grandmother’s family in Hendersonville, N.C., (down the mountain from Asheville) got electricity earlier than most. So, the Panatrope was a viable purchase for her family.

Prior to having access to electricity, phonographs were exclusively acoustic. Acoustic phonographs worked on a principle similar to a string vibrating on a guitar: the vibrations created by a phono needle tracking in a record’s groove were transferred to a diaphragm in the needle’s tone-arm. The diaphragm amplified the vibrations and transferred them to a sound horn, which projected the sound into the room. The entire system was driven by a crank that compressed several springs. As the springs unwound, the turntable turned. Eventually, the entire system would run down and the springs would have to be re-cranked.

Phonographs had been around since 1877 when Thomas Edison was granted the first patent on one. But, it takes time to build a manufacturing base and develop markets for a product, so phonographs weren’t commonplace until after the First World War. Early phonographs used cylinders instead of records. When records were developed, there was no standardization; there were several types of record formats available. Records varied in size, according to manufacturer, and each required a different-length tone arm in order to track properly. Since tone arms were fixed in length, no single record format could be played on all available phonographs. In modern terms, it would be like trying to run Mac software on a PC, or play a Betamax videotape on a VHS system.

The Brunswick Decal. By the time the Panatrope was produced, Brunswick had expanded by partnering with the Balke and the Collender companies. (Photo: Spin Alley Vintage Phonographs and Radios)

The Panatrope was unique in that it had an adjustable tone-arm that could play all available record formats. This ability greatly expanded the amount of music that could be played. As it is today, artists would contract with certain record labels, and if the records of your favorite artist couldn’t be played on your phonograph, you were just out of luck.

In the decades before Brunswick began making phonographs (1916), it manufactured a variety of cabinet products. Begun in 1845 as a carriage shop in Cincinnati, founder J.M. Brunswick was determined to build a diverse woodworking company that would survive the ups-and-downs of the economy. In the 19th century, Brunswick was famous for its bar-backs, billiard tables and bowling equipment. In the early 20th century, in anticipation of Prohibition, Brunswick ceased building bar equipment and diversified into piano and phonograph cases and rubber products. Initially providing phonograph cases to the Edison Company, Brunswick decided that the phonograph business offered a good opportunity for expansion. The company began to produce a line of phonographs under the Brunswick brand.

Brunswick’s sizeable woodworking plant gave them a strong competitive advantage. It could make a lot of machines quickly, and it already had an established retail network. Another competitive advantage was Brunswick’s product range. Brunswick produced a variety of phonograph cabinets to appeal to every price point: free-standing and console models, period models, and custom-built models that featured hand-carved ornate cabinetry. All models featured enclosed speakers; Brunswick never manufactured an external-horn model.

In 1922, Brunswick capitalized on its market position in the phonograph industry (it was number two, just behind Victor) and started its own record label. Early recordings of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway were offered on the Brunswick label.

Brunswick magnetic pickup. (Photo: Spin Alley Vintage Phonographs and Radios)

The radio dial and knobs. (Photo: Spin Alley Vintage Phonographs and Radios)

As America became “electrified,” Brunswick teamed up with General Electric to produce the first all-electric phonograph, the Panatrope, which could be purchased with or without a radio. When the first Panatrope with Radio rolled off the assembly line, an anxious marketplace was ready to buy, and orders came in quickly. Brunswick had seeded the market with lots of pre-release publicity, including a “Name the Phonograph” contest in which participants were encouraged to create a name and a slogan for the new product. A prize of $5,000 was offered—a huge sum in those days. The contest was won by Mildred Bux of Melrose Park, Pa., who submitted the name “Prismatone” with the slogan “The Instrument of Colorful Music.” Brunswick gave her the $5,000 prize but ignored her suggestions and named the phonograph Panatrope.

The interior electronics of the Panatrope. (Photo: Spin Alley Vintage Phonographs and Radios)

Today, the Brunswick Panatrope with Radio is a sought-after collectible. The Panatrope is considered to be the best example of the radio-phonographs of its day, and when properly restored, offers surprising clarity of sound for a radio-phonograph of that period.

The units are scarce, though, and acquiring one is not without problems. Since most Panatropes are now pushing 90 years old, it’s costly to restore them. The old vacuum tubes are hard to find and are expensive. Collectors and restorers say that although the cabinets are well-made and beautiful, the electronics are problematic. In the 1920s, radio electronics was a new industry and components like resistors and capacitors were inconsistently made. Fluctuations in electrical power supplies would sometimes burn out components. Over time, the tone arm’s magnet would lose its power and a unit’s speaker cones and rubber components would dry rot and disintegrate.

Panatropes are sometimes seen on eBay with the radio, the phonograph or both missing. Such units usually sell in the $200 range. Collectors and restorers will sometimes purchase such units to cannibalize for parts. Some dealers will cannibalize units for parts and then dispose of the cabinets. Used Panatrope parts are regularly seen on eBay.

Restored, Panatropes may sell for several thousand dollars. Considering that some units originally sold for more than $1,000 90 years ago, that’s a pretty fair price. For collectors of old records and vintage radios and phonographs, a Brunswick Panatrope with Radio is a real find, and the prize of any collection.

Thanks to Spin Alley Vintage Phonographs and Radios for help with this article.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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