Introduction: This piece was written by my father, Nathan P. Nichols, and sent to me in spring 1996 with a note that he hoped it answered my question. My sister and I, aware of his declining health, were eager to hear more about his early life, years beyond our own memories. I had asked him how he happened to get into the hearing aid business. He had answered me briefly, but apparently decided after my visit to expand on his answer. He was by then 84 years old, retired, and living far away in California. Now (2007) I have scanned it into my computer and corrected a few typographical and spelling errors. My father often remarked that his spelling was terrible. I have preserved the un-edited version, in case anyone wants to see the original, but I think my father would have approved this corrected one. I did some research to verify the names he mentioned, and had fun learning more. I'll add a few links to photos or explanations that help tell the history. -- Sandy Nichols Ward
THE WORKING ADVENTURES OF MY LIFE!
by N. P. Nichols
How I slipped into the Hearing Aid business goes back to my early interest in radios, I guess I was hooked up, backwards from day one! I liked to build, innovate, and experiment with mechanical and electrical things while still in grammar school. "Popular Science" and "Popular Mechanics" were my favorite reading magazines in the Library. In the early 20's at age of about 10, I succeeded in winding coils on oatmeal boxes, using World War One earphones, and a "cats whisker" hitting a hot spot on a galena crystal, to make a home made a radio work. The first words heard were "The Lord be Praised" coming from WGY in Schenectady N. Y. to Montpelier! Later I found that you could even hear England with no batteries or power! I later sold crystal sets guaranteed to hear Chicago, at least if you have a good enough antenna and ground!
At Loomis I hollowed out a text book to hide a tiny crystal set so I could go to sleep listening to WTIC in Hartford, with wires supporting a ceiling lamp as a no-no antenna!
At Mass State College I passed my Amateur Radio Operators license, and made my first code and voice contacts, and was the first person to graduate with a full major in Physics.
I landed my first job as a "stock picker" at Lafayette Radio in New York City for $15 a week! After 6 months I had enough of city life and returned to Danvers producing radio tubes at Champion Lamp Works. When they went broke, I moved to Raytheon, pumping amateur and high power tubes. I later transferred to Hytron Radio in Salem, and helped my friend Ed Dillaby join Hytron too. He designed the first miniature radio tubes in USA to be small enough to make a wearable hearing aid practicable. At this time hearing aids consisted of a carbon type microphone and an ear phone with no amplification and poor hearing quality.
As my Aunt Oda had a very severe hearing loss I started making aids. My early "Pure Tone" models consisted of a crystal microphone, and a three tube amplifier housed in a playing card size box, made and refinished from "Mrs. McGregor's" nail boxes from the 5 and 10, a soup [soap?] dish size battery pack containing A and B batteries strapped to a leg or waist, and an earphone. My bedroom, then my father's specially built four room garage served up to six friendly employees! Gradually I built up a small business of fitting custom aids mainly on recommendations of local or Boston Doctors, and maintained a Boston office during the War.
I was draft deferred because of engineering work, first at Hytron, then at MIT. "Five Years at the Radiation Lab" tells the story of the crash development to Magnatron tubes that were so important to radar and winning the War. I am in a group picture in the tube engineering section.
After the War the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs revolutionized all radio products and inspired me to design a whole series of smaller and smaller one piece hearing aids. We outgrew the garage, bought an old roadside fruit stand on Route I for about $250, and move it down Maple street to its present location next to the Hathorne Post Office. We employed about a dozen people, adopted the name "Unex", and sold aids nationally thru established dealers.
About 1964 we built a new building on Route 1 and expanded to about 30 people. We made match[book]-sized pocket aids, and various headset, eyeglass and behind the ear aids in a rapid succession to keep one step ahead of competition. The advent of micro printed circuits lead to tiny in the ear aids and various miniature receivers, microphones, and telephone operator headsets. To produce our products we even developed a hand moulding machine and built a side business of custom injection moulding plastic parts for the Route 128 trade!
My interests were in innovations and not building a big company. I took in a business partner, Jim Woodbridge, who did double our business in about eight years, dropping hearing aids, and eventually selling the electronic products to Dodge Morgan and the Plastics Department to a Leominister group. It was a slow growing but interesting business, gave employment to a nice group of local people and friends, and I feel privileged to have lived to see such dramatic changes in my life time.
N. P. Nichols
Relevant links found on Internet in December 2007:
- Cats Whisker 1925 in World of Wireless website.
- Cat's Whisker by Anthony http://vintageradio.me.uk/crystal/catswhisker.htm
- Crystal Sets “ The Xtal Set Society, founded in 1991, is dedicated to once again building and experimenting with radio electronics.” www.midnightscience.com
- Crystal Sets (Wikipedia)
- http://www.crystalradio.net/ “Dedicated to the preservation, experimentation, and advancement of crystal radios.” Includes How A Crystal Radio Works and instructions for Oatmeal box radios.
- WTIC in Hartford (history)
- Lafayette Radio (Wikipedia)
- Mrs McGregor's Family Nail Box, made by American Steel & Wire Co. Photos at BizarreBazaar; photo on eBay [if these links don't work, try a Google search. These boxes are sometimes for sale as collectibles.]
- Magnetron: radar basics http://www.radartutorial.eu/08.transmitters/tx08.en.html
- What is a Magnatron? (WiseGeek)
- Schenectady Antique Radio Club
- WGY in Schenectady, NY. A 1923 quote from Schenectady: A Brief Social Study of an Industrial City by Charles M. Ripley [as found on the Schenectady Digital History Archive]: “The Schenectady clergymen address the largest congregations the world has known, for each Sunday a complete church service is broadcast from a different Schenectady church by the General Electric Company's Radio Broadcasting Station, WGY. Not only is the sermon sent out by wireless, but also the choir and organ music, responsive reading, prayer and congregational singing.“
WGY is still broadcasting. www.wgy.com
- Edwin Dillaby (photo standing by Hytron, Salem)
- MIT Radiation Laboratory, 1940-1945 (IEEE History)
- www.porticus.org/bell/belllabs_transistor.html (History of the Bell Labs Transistor)
- The Discovery of the Transistor (Andrew Wylie)
- Photo of 1969 UNEX JET moulding machine