The influence of Marconi on Italian tube market before WWII

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The influence of Marconi on Italian tube market before WWII 
21.Apr.12 18:28

Emilio Ciardiello (I)
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Emilio Ciardiello

I came across this discussion on a Magneti Marelli radio, searching RMorg for the origin of metal tubes. I noted some perplexity about the use of American tubes in Italy in the years before WWII, probably due to misconception of this electronic market at the time. I would like to add some thoughts about. In the above discussion, Alessandro pointed out the role of Fivre, as licensee of RCA Radiotron tubes. The two ads below confirm this agreement. The first one, from ‘La Radio per Tutti’, January 1935, says: ‘From America to Italy = different brands but the same quality’. In the second ad, from ‘L’antenna’, December 1934, we read: ‘Fivre, the Italian Radiotron’.

But American tubes were also manufactured, may be just as replacements in some cases, by many Italian and European manufacturers. In Italy Zenith, later bought by Philips, listed the full lines of American tubes, while in the ad below we learn how save money, buying top-quality Tungsram American tubes.


There are some major factors that further explain why in Italy American tubes were at least as popular as the European ones. As in other Countries, electronic industry was considered strategic. Major tube manufacturers were persuaded to open factories here, even to avoid heavy customs duties. In the thirties most of the Italian tube market was shared among Fivre itself in Pavia, with its RCA license, and three foreign major groups, all with factories here: Siemens/Telefunken in Milan, Philips/Phonola/Zenith in Monza, near Milan and Marconi in Genova.

Guglielmo Marconi had a primary role here in Italy, just as before he had founded the Marconi Company in Great Britain and had co-founded RCA in America. Marconi himself was highly respected by Government and led to operate here in Italy. His Officine Marconi, in Genova, was one of the top suppliers here, both for components and for radio sets, while having more or less direct access to the lines of either British and American tubes.

It must be also underlined that Italian Government pushed for a high level of standardization either in commercial or military radio sets and in related tubes. Due to this policy, we see unified productions common to all manufacturers. So we find tubes as the popular 24 manufactured by Italian Telefunken, as RENS324, and even by Philips. Due to the same policy, some German tubes were built by other firms. For example, the Telefunken RS31g transmitting triode, used in military transmitters, was also manufactured by Zenith (Philips), as W31, and by Officine Marconi, as MT31.

Anyway the equilibrium among the four major firms was in favor of American types. This because, while Siemens and Philips pushed for qualifying their own lines, Marconi had interst in RCA tubes, no matter the brand under which they were sold. For each American tube accepted by radio industry, Italian Marconi anyway earned money whether selling its own G/GT tubes, or from any tube license-built by Fivre, or even from occasional production lots by Philips or Siemens plants.

It is possible to find some variants in certain commercial radio sets, due to shortage of parts or raw materials caused by the sanctions imposed to Italy by the League of Nations in 1935. Italy had to buy outside many of the materials used in electronics, as tin, copper, nickel, tungsten and even rubber. Anyway United States continued to supply components and materials until Pearl Harbor on the basis of the ‘Neutrality Acts’ of 1936 and, since 1939, according to the ‘cash and carry’ policy introduced by F. D. Roosevelt. However, as usually happens everywhere, strategic materials supplies were largely reserved to the aeronautic and to the military industries. I learned from Electronics that in the early fifties in America, the CRTs for television sets were all renewed, to eliminate the magnetic ion trap. This because of a shortage of nickel, used to fabricate magnets, that were reserved to magnetron productions for military.

The role of Marconi-Genova as leader in the electronic market, well beyond the Italian borders, was confirmed in the recent decay of the electronic industry, started around the early 1990s. In this case all the RCA spin-offs, as Harris, folded in the RCA itself, that was readily dissolved, returning back to its founders, GE and British Marconi. Few years later, many of the defense activities of this latter were bought by Italian Marconi, still surviving today, owned by Finmeccanica.

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