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Why the Tube Shortage
June 1946 Radio−Craft

June 1946 Radio-Craft

June 1946 Radio Craft Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Craft, published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

"Why the Tube Shortage" was not a question being asked by Radio−Craft magazine editor Hugo Gernsback, it was an explanation. It is similar to the present day situation with the "Global Chip Shortage" in all the headlines being blamed on the Wuhan Flu plandemic (sic) causing a worker shortage. It has affected everything from the production of smart watches to kitchen appliances to cars and trucks. In 1946, however, the cause of the vacuum tube shortage was a multi-faceted ordeal according to investigative work by Mr. Gernsback. Service shops were accusing tube manufacturers of favoring radio production companies while radio production companies accused the tube manufacturers of favoring service shops. The truth, ostensibly, was that the federal government still laid claims to a large portion of tube manufacturing for post-war defense needs, and at the same time labor strikes were crippling production lines. There was also a shutting down of many of the widely dispersed manufacturing sites across the country as companies sought to consolidate production. As the old saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Why the Tube Shortage

The present tube situation is one of great complexity.

During the past few months we have received a number of communications from radio dealers and service people. The following is a good example:

Editor, Radio−Craft:

"If I were running a radio magazine serving the Serviceman, I would try to find out why the tube situation today is worse than it was during the war and inform the serviceman and the public just what is the truth.

"It would seem to me the customer, who supports the radio industry, should have first call on tubes, not the factory, who would only sell them more radios when they have enough and all they need is tubes to make them work.

"When so-called radio tube companies advertise batteries, pilot lamps, etc., and avoid mentioning radio tubes which is their main article, I know something is rotten. We don't want pilot lamps, batteries, what we need is tubes! Tubes! Tubes!!!

"They were d--n glad to sell us tubes in prewar years when the factories gave them next to nothing for them, but now, there must be a black market, with greasing, etc., to get the tubes that the public needs.

"They promised great things when the war was over, or is it?? Is the army still taking most of the tubes? Is that what they feed the men? Every ad you see has something else, but no tubes."

Chambers & Son,

Radio Repairs,

Upper Darby, Pa.

Radio−Craft contacted a number of radio tube manufacturers, among them the largest in this country, and has gathered some information on the subject. This may serve to explain the present acute shortage and give an indication when it may be relieved.

To begin with, officially the war is by no means over. Very large numbers of troops are still gathered in many former war theatres from Europe to the Pacific. The Army, Navy, and auxiliary forces still maintain in use for communication purposes a great deal of radio equipment. They still consume large quantities of radio tubes, be it for new and more modern equipment or for replacement purposes.

Then, too, new trainees are still being inducted into the various services. Routinely they require large amounts of radio equipment. The Navy also still has a sizable portion of equipment afloat making it necessary to use practically all its shore radio installations. Naturally the military not only uses up millions of radio tubes, but also has priority on such matériel.

Strikes in many industries have slowed up many manufacturers - among them radio tube manufacturers. They have not as yet recovered from this slow-up, though the condition is being relieved slowly as this is written.

The complexities of modern radio tube manufacture is another reason given for the slow-down in tube production. Manufacturers have many divisions, or "units," which process different stages of production. Thus we have glass-blowing units, exhaust units, assembly units, etc. According to tube manufacturers contacted, present-day inefficiencies or shortage of certain supplies may cut output of a single unit as much as 20 percent, thus creating a bottleneck which may hold up other units which are not in themselves suffering from inefficiencies or scarcity of materials.

A rather large percentage of all labor employed in the production of radio tubes goes into the "mount." This term describes the already assembled part of the tube, comprising cathode, plate grid, etc., which is put together before the envelope is put on and the tube is ready for exhausting and sealing.

To obtain sufficient labor, during the war, it was necessary for tube manufacturers to establish so-called "feeder plants" in localities where quantities of skilled labor was available. These plants in many cases were relatively distant from the main factories, and their establishment and operation increased costs to a point that - now the war is at least unofficially over and the manufacturer has to face O.P.A. price regulations and a competitive market - consideration had to be given to closing them.

Let us now turn to the present receiving tube market, as compared to the prewar market. Prior to the shut-down of radio receiver production in 1941, the radio industry used approximately 100 million tubes for equipping their new radio receivers.

At that time the average requirement per set was 5 1/2 tubes. The replacement market in prewar years averaged one out of three tubes required for set production, or nearly 35 million tubes per year.

It now appears that the radio industry is geared up to produce some 25 million radio sets per year, if and when the necessary materials become available. With FM and Television in the postwar picture, it looks as if the requirements for the original equipping of such sets will increase to approximately seven tubes per set as against the 5 1/2 tubes per set in the prewar period.

From the calculations of these trends and other factors involved, it becomes evident that radio dealers and radio servicemen in the United States alone will probably absorb approximately 100 million tubes per year. These requirements would be three times greater than those of the prewar period, making it necessary for the serviceman to turn away two out of three customers.

The radio tube manufacturers feel that it is in the best interests of the industry to serve the set manufacturer first, because basically the radio receiver has made and will continue to make the tube market. Not even a radio serviceman without a single tube on his shelf would contradict the axiom: "no receivers, no tubes." Another important point: it is better at this state of our national economy to produce a number of tubes to go into a new receiver, rather than produce them to repair a worn-out antique which should be junked on account of old age. Consumers want tubes; but new sets too.

For these and other reasons tube manufacturers feel that new receivers should have first call on tubes; and accordingly they have allocated their production on the basis of three tubes per new radio receiver and one tube for replacement. Radio receiver manufacturers are and will continue to be the biggest customers for radio tubes. This is true in normal times and today too.

It is idle to pretend that all, or even the greater part of the approximately three million tubes a month allotted to repair and maintenance reach the serviceman, even were these quantities actually produced at present. Radio−Craft is well aware that large numbers of these tubes "disappear" through intermediate commercial channels on their way from the factory to the ultimate consumer, the radio serviceman.

Throughout the whole industry, it is too well known that small radio, set makers-the so-called "bedroom manufacturers" have no credit standing with the tube manufacturers, who therefore won't sell them. But the small set makers - there are hundreds of them - move heaven and earth to secure the precious tubes. They make "raids" on wholesalers, radio stores, department stores - yes they even buy tubes from the larger service establishments at fancy prices! This is a feature - albeit an unlovely one - of the present economic setup, and one that apparently can be relieved only by time and the natural play of economic forces. The radio serviceman is no worse off in this respect than retailers in other fields.

After weighing all the facts, Radio−Craft estimates that the tube situation will probably continue unsettled for the rest of 1946. There may be quite a bit of improvement toward the end of the year, but the situation will not become entirely normal till sometime late in 1947. This analysis is based on the premise that there will be no unpredictable political or industrial crises or bottlenecks which would introduce totally new and upsetting factors.

Taking all the facts into consideration, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that it will be some little time before the situation will revert to a prewar normality, with sufficient tubes available to meet all demands.



Posted September 15, 2021

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