A brief history of Arthur Atwater Kent and his Company

Photo: Atwater Kent sales brochure 1927

Mr. Arthur Atwater Kent (1873-1949) was born in Burlington, Vermont, on December 3rd, 1873, to Prentis and Mary Atwater Kent. The family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1881.

Arthur enrolled in the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall of 1895, majoring in mechanical engineering. He was elected Treasurer of his class, but left after only one term due to poor grades. Arthur returned in the fall of 1896. He was elected President of his class, and successfully completed the first term. But elective office was not sufficient to insure his academic success, and he left the school again after the following term.
Arthur returned to WPI for a third time on June 18th, 1926, to accept an honorary Doctorate. Despite his short tenure as a student, Mr. Kent served as a WPI trustee from 1926 to 1931.

Although lacking in formal engineering training, Mr. Kent was a prolific inventor and engineer. At his death he held 93 patents on automotive ignition systems and electronics. The Electrical Engineering building at WPI is named in his honor.

Mr. Kent started making electric motors and fans at the Kent Electric Manufacturing Company at 18 Hermon Street in Worcester in 1895. This may have been in the back of his father's machine shop. After a brief period of other employment, Mr. Kent opened his second business, the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Works, in a rented loft at 48 North Sixth Street in Philadelphia. Initially making batteries and sundry items, the company soon expanded to making electrical parts for the fledgling automotive industry. In 1906 Kent developed the Uni-Sparker ignition system, which became an industry standard. The success of this product required a larger facility, and he moved to 4937 Stenton Street in 1912.

The company continued to grow due to success in the automotive electronics field and government contracts during WWI. In 1919 the company began building headsets for the nacent radio industry. Manufacture of radio components followed in 1922, and the first complete radio set was shipped from the factory in November of that year.

Photo: Atwater Kent sales brochure 1927
In 1924, the company moved to a new $2 million plant covering 15 acres at 4700 Wissahickon Street. This plant was later expanded with the addition of a similar building across the street to cover 32 enclosed acres. Atwater Kent was the largest manufacturer of radios in the country from 1926 through 1929. In 1929 they were producing a million receivers a year.

Following a decline in demand for high-end radios during the depression, and faced with unwanted union organization attempts, Mr. Kent closed his company in 1936. The Wissahickon Street plant can still be seen today.

The stock market crash of October 29, 1929, was not as much of a blow to Atwater Kent as it was to many companies, due to the firm financial control exercised by its founder. Mr. Kent felt obliged to allay the public's fears regarding the viability of his company, and issued this letter on October 31st, two days after the crash. It reads:

"The Atwater Kent Manufacturing Co. has never had any shares of its stock on the market. It owns outright its business and its manufacturing plant. It has been in business for more than twenty-seven increasingly profitable years, has always done business on its own capital and has never borrowed a dollar. All its resources and experience are concentrated upon just one thing -- the making and selling of fine radio instruments. Production in its thirty-two acre factory is scientifically controlled, so that Atwater Kent dealers always have enough radio on hand to meet the public demand, and are never overstocked. Its inventory is never excessive. Single-minded devotion to its one job -- the production of the finest radio that can be built -- has put the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company today in the strongest position it has ever held. Strongest in the excellence of its product -- Atwater Kent Screen-Grid Radio. Strongest in the confidence of the public. Strongest in stability, which is the keystone of permanence in any business."

Some interesting facts have become available recently in biographies available on the Internet. One such document quotes Mr. John F. McCoy, an AK employee, as saying that Mr. Kent had already decided to close his plant in 1923, and was winding down his operations. Apparently the success of his radio apparatus was sufficient to change his mind.
In a biographical article about Mr. Scobell Phippen, an engineer with AK in the 1920's, Mr. Gordon Symonds writes that AK closed his engineering department in 1931.
Photo: scenic postcard
Although Mr. Kent was a shrewd businessman, he also enjoyed life's pleasures. He maintained a vacation home "Sonogee" near Bar Harbor on Mt. Desert Island, Maine (photo left). The house, built for Mr. Henry Eno in 1903, was known for its marble staircase, vaulted ceilings, a foyer that opens onto the ocean, and its beautiful gardens. Sonogee was owned by the Vanderbilts before Mr. Kent acquired it. The property is now the Sonogee Rehabilitation and Living Center.

Mr. Kent also had a house at Kennebunkport, Maine, which he named "At Water's Edge". It is a rather small house, and quite literally at the water's edge. This house was also once owned by the Vanderbilts. A very interesting biography of Kent's early years and his activities around Kennebunkport is available here.

Mr. Kent's Philadelphia home was his "West Hills" estate in Ardmore, PA.

Photo: scenic postcard

Mr. Kent retired briefly to Florida, running a real estate business. He then moved to Bel Air, California, where he built a 32-room mansion named Capo di Monte atop the highest hill in Los Angeles (photo right). This estate was well-known as a venue for lavish parties, attended by numerous Hollywood luminaries. Capo di Monte is now the Bel Air Hotel.

A fascinating first-hand account of Mr. Kent's parties is provided by Mina Diamos in a two-part series published in NoHoLa News, available here: Part 1 and Part 2

[Information exerpted from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute biography , the
Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia History page (scroll down) and other sources.
And thanks to the visitors who have provided corrections.]