The Radio Corporation of America, better known as RCA, was founded in 1919. The RCA Bloomington plant opened in 1940 and manufactured radios. During WWII the plant was converted for wartime operations and the now-predominately female workforce made the top secret Madame X or VT fuse. In 1948 the first television set rolled off the assembly line, and the plant would continue to produce televisions and provide thousands of jobs for almost another fifty years. The plant closed in 1998 when all TV production was moved to Juarez, Mexico.
Backstory and Context
The Radio Corporation of America was founded in 1919 by the General Electric (GE) Company in an effort to keep technology developed by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America in the United States where it could continue to be used by the US Navy. David Sarnoff was a key figure in the leadership of the RCA Company, and in an effort to prove that there was a market for commercial radio, he assisted in the broadcast of the Jack Dempsy and George Carpentier boxing match in July 1921. Home radios were not yet common, and more than 300,000 people paid for admission to their local movie theaters to hear the match. People loved it and within 3 years RCA sold more than $80 million worth of home radio sets.
Though we think of RCA as being a manufacturing company, they were also influential in the creation of broadcast radio (and later television). RCA created the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1929.
In 1939 two men from RCA came to Bloomington, Indiana, looking for a site to build a new plant, and in response, Bloomington Mayor Loba Jack Bruner and other city leaders developed a proposal. realizing that having a RCA plant in Bloomington would be a lifesaver as the city recovered from the depression. RCA accepted the proposal and purchased the old Showers Brothers Furniture Company building on South Rogers Street in February of 1940. By June the first RCA Victor table model radio rolled off the assembly line.
The workforce was heavily female in the early years. Former plant manager, Gib Apple, said, “In the beginning only single 16 year old females with a high school diploma were offered jobs,” at the RCA plant. Women were preferred because of their small hands, which factory managers made it easier for them assemble of small parts-- they were also believed to be more responsive to repetitive assembly line work. Men were assigned to assembly tasks that required heavier lifting.
On September 5th, 1941, the plant achieved a production record when the one millionth Nipper radio was produced. However, production at the plant would soon change as the US entered the Second World War.
After the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, 1941, the RCA plant switched to war-time production, and by September of 1942, the RCA plant began to work on a secret project for the US Navy called Madame X. Madame X was a VT fuse, which is “a proximity fuse used to electronically detonate a projectile’s payload when it was in range of its target, as opposed to relying on a direct hit,” says Ernest Rollins in the Herald-Times. James V. Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy said, “The proximity fuse had helped blaze the trail to Japan. Without the protection this ingenious device has given the surface ships of the fleet, our westward push could not have been so swift and the cost in men and ships would have been immeasurably greater.”
Madame X technology was described as second only to the atomic bomb. The cost of the project was $800 million in 1945. The Bloomington plant was one of the first of five RCA plants to produce this top secret project, and it was awarded a special Navy flag for its work supporting the war effort.
After WWII ended in September of 1945, the RCA plant reverted back to peace time production, and five weeks after the war was over, eight new radio models were designed as the kickoff line. In 1948, televisions were launched at the Bloomington RCA plant—with the inaugural Berkshire series Regency Model television costing a whopping $3,250 in 1948. In 1952 all radio production ceased at the Bloomington RCA plant and it began to focus solely on television production. In 1954, RCA showed the public their first 15 inch color television set by broadcasting the Rose Bowl parade from Los Angeles. By 1956, the Bloomington RCA plant led the way in color TV manufacturing, and by 1960 black and white television production declined as color TVs became the new standard.
RCA Bloomington reached its peak employment in 1966, with 8,000 employees.
In 1985 it was announced that RCA was being sold to General Electric (GE) and many RCA employees saw this as the beginning of the end. Then in July of 1987, GE sold their consumer electronics business to Thompson SA.
On October 18th, 1990, the 50 millionth RCA color television was produced and the Bloomington RCA plant had a celebration. The plant shut down so that guests and employees could get together for a large party that national, state, and local dignitaries attended.. The celebration continued through October 20th, when former plant manager Gib Apple, and his employees buried a time capsule in the front lawn of the plant with the intent that it be opened in 2015.
In 1997 Thompson SA made a major announcement, stating that they intended to close the Bloomington facility on April 1st, 1998 because they were moving all TV production to Juarez, Mexico. The plant officially closed on March 2nd, 1998.
Apple, Gib. An RCA History, YouTube. June 7th 2018. Accessed August 21st 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEEyGSzZRIk.
Collier, Elizabeth. Rosies of Indiana, National WWII Museum. Accessed August 21st 2019. https://salutetofreedom.org/in.html.
Encyclopedia Britannica. RCA Corporation, Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 21st 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/RCA-Corporation.RCA: Brand History.
RCA Audio Video. Accessed August 21st 2019. https://www.rcaaudiovideo.com/history/.
Rollins, Ernest. "RCA is my home." Bloomington Herald-Times (Bloomington) January 25th 2019.