Wireless Without Worry
James William Barber, C.B.E. and the Brownie Wireless Company of Great Britain, 1923-1933
by Ian L. Sanders
The first Brownie wireless receivers were introduced in early 1923, shortly after the start of broadcasting in Great Britain. Manufactured by J.W.B. Wireless Supplies, they were crude, low-cost crystal sets catering to the growing number of “listeners-in” looking for an inexpensive way to tune into the British Broadcasting Company’s local transmitting stations which were opening up around the country. The new enterprise took its name from its founder’s initials – James William Barber, changing to J.W.B. Wireless Company a few months later. The Brownie Wireless Company was incorporated in 1925, absorbing J.W.B. Wireless and with Barber as Managing Director.
Barber received the C.B.E. for his contribution to cinematography as a propaganda medium during the First World War, and went on to become influential in the developing home cinema industry at the end of hostilities. In the early 1920s, he turned his attention to the new field of domestic wireless. Embracing Barber’s commitment to cost efficient manufacturing, Brownie Wireless pioneered the use of moulded receiver enclosures, in contrast to the classic polished mahogany and walnut cabinets then in vogue. And in a noteworthy patent dispute with the dominant Marconi Company, Brownie Wireless, lead by Barber, succeeded in reducing royalties on radio receivers for the industry as a whole.
Brownie Wireless produced a range of innovative wireless receivers and accessories for the next several years, but in the face of fierce competition, the Company ceased operations in 1933. For some reason virtually no records of the Company have survived. An enigmatic figure, about whom little has been written, in addition to his leadership of Brownie Wireless, James Barber served as Chairman of both the British Plastic Moulding Trade Association and Radio Manufacturers Association for several years and was Technical Advisor to the British Cinema Exhibitors’ Association. He was a forceful advocate for British industry in throughout his career. Barber’s legacy, in cinematography and radio, has gone largely unrecognised, as has the role of the Brownie Wireless Company in Britain’s early radio industry of the 1920s and 30s.