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The “Saucepan Special” and a radio revolution in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia)

10 April 2019

Part 1

David Clayton, University of York,
Funded by The Economic History Society, and The Leverhulme Trust

For consumers, the early years of international broadcasting were exciting.  Radio gave them ready access to global news and world music. Listeners huddled around sets in awe and wonder, as disembodied voices emanated from a talking box.

Listeners also experienced irritations with the new technologies. The airwaves were often congested, signal strength varied, and sets broke down with great regularity; valves and batteries were the ink cartridges of the age—parts to be replaced, often at considerable cost.

During the 1920s, it was ordinary people in high-income markets that experienced these twin features of the radio, wonder and irritation. Using hire-purchase schemes, working people acquired this must-have product, the radio set, displaying these status symbols in their homes. These were beautiful items, with electrical components, such as fragile valves, encased in wooden cases. On display in homes, they were listened to as a family, by women working at home, and by children, as depicted below.

Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs

During the 1930s the radio bug spread worldwide, first to the middle classes of Africa, the Americas and Asia. A major shift came in the 1940s and 1950s when the lower classes of the global south began to own or rent wireless sets for their homes. They also gained access via loudspeakers placed in the home and in public places, wired radio.

The photograph below shows an atypical system: a six-foot high dry battery shortwave receiver, one of 23 “rediffusion” kiosks located in the Gold Coast (now, Ghana) in 1952. Switched on by a voluntary attendant during peak listening times, it allowed passers-by to listen in to programmes in English and local dialects broadcast from Accra, especially news broadcasts.

Source: The National Archives, Kew. CO875/63/8 [probably from Corona (London: HMSO) the journal of the Colonial Service]

Western governments and western media multinationals promoted the development of radio in the global south, as did non-aligned governments and communist powers. Governments perceived international radio broadcasting as a civilising and controlling force, a media that would reach and transform the illiterate masses. They installed powerful short-wave transmitters to broadcast internationally.

Radio was such an important strategic and social good that in the 1940s and 1950s the British government even provided financial aid so that its colonies could improve transmitters and studio facilities. This is the equivalent today of governments using the aid budget to provide mobile phone masts for people in Africa.

This aid was used to augment networks of broadcasters across the empire. The BBC broadcast direct to colonial people listening in using short wave receivers. Colonial broadcasting stations also relayed or rebroadcast BBC-made programmes over medium or short waves. This led to new ways of viewing the wireless world, as shown below.

Source: BBC Written Archives, E2/92/3. BBC Copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

Northern Rhodesia (today’s Zambia) was a particularly important player in this story of how radio became the medium of choice for connecting the wireless world. Northern Rhodesia received British aid finance in the 1940s to install more powerful short-wave transmitters, and it pioneered the “Saucepan Special”, an experimental shortwave set.

This British Protectorate located in central Africa had rich deposits of a vital raw material, copper, which generated profits for multinational mining companies. In the 1940s and 1950s a commodity chain emerged. Northern Rhodesia exported copper, a vital metal for electrical components. Radio sets were made in Britain by an American multinational, Ever Ready, and exported back to British Central Africa. During a mining boom, the radio age came to Zambia.

Miners in underground copper mine in Northern Rhodesia, Information Department, Northern Rhodesia,

Ever Ready made this new set at its London factory. This cheap battery-operated set was the first electronic product made especially for Africans, and has thus gained mythical status. Graham Mytton, a BBC employee, called his survey of African broadcasting in sub-Saharan Africa, ‘From Saucepan to Dish: Radio & TV in Africa’. He even went on a pilgrimage to Hampshire, England, where late in his life Harry Franklin retold his tale, of how as Head of the Information Department in Northern Rhodesia he had worked with Ever Ready to create a set for Africans.  It was Franklin who wrote the first history of the set, ‘The Saucepan Special”: the Poor Man’s Radio for Rural Populations’.

Source: Peter J. Fraenkel, ‘Central Africa’s ‘saucepan special’, The UNESCO Courier, XII, 9, 1959, pp. 26.

The set was given further publicity by another insider, Peter J. Fraenkel, who wrote an article for a UNESCO magazine in 1959, ‘Central Africa’s ‘saucepan special’. This was followed up by the first independent history of the set published in 1984 by Rosaleen Smyth, as cited in the bibliography below.

These accounts inform us that the Saucepan Special was revolutionary because ordinary Africans could afford it and because it was a simple piece of kit made for tropical climatic conditions. By 1950 an African novice could gain access to the airwaves in less than a minute. This cheap set contrasted to expensive and complex equipment used by amateurs to transmit and receive point-to-point radio signals, vital for the conduct of warfare, and also being used by civilians. An Air Warning Wireless, used in the 1940s in New Guinea, is displayed below.



The Saucepan Special was easy to use. One knob switched the radio on and off and altered the volume, another provided two-speed tuning control to gain the required wavelength frequency, and there was a long aerial, essential to pick-up short waves in remote places, distant villages and copper belt towns. All parts were protected from the elements using plastic coatings, and the radio used a dry, ninety-volt, battery that provided 360 hours of listening time.


As with all new technologies, the set was far from perfect, a work in progress: it became a source of irritation to users. Valves burnt out or became disconnected. Plugholes in batteries were too small and connections became damaged when users forced them open. Heavy rains ruined components. Valves and resistors failed either in transit or in use. Most components were insufficiently robust.  

Battery life was a major problem. It promised a long battery life but in practice batteries had to be replaced far more frequently, a hidden cost to consumers, especially those living in remote villages. Most Northern Rhodesian’s did not live in towns, where consumers could acquire spare parts for their new consumer goods. Bicycles were probably the most useful consumer good during the radio revolution as they transported people and goods, as shown in the photograph below. The Saucepan Special by contrast merely transported listeners to imagined worlds.

Source: British Empire Collection of Photographs, Zambia, TNA, INF10/380

The Saucepan Special got its name because its components were encased in the chassis of a saucepan—the product was made on the cheap using standard components. There was a trade-off: reliability. An estimated 250,000 sets sold across the world in the 1950s but Ever Ready may have suffered reputational damage because the sets performed poorly.

The Information Department in Northern Rhodesia had an instrumental role in promoting the uptake of the Saucepan Special. The department liaised closely with Ever Ready at the design stage and tested prototypes. In 1950, it provided sets at subsidised rates to its employees, repaired them free of charge, and provided Ever Ready with free publicity.

The Northern Rhodesian colonial administration was determined to use radio to improve how it communicated with the illiterate masses across central Africa. At the time, African nationalists were agitating for the end of white rule and workers in the copper belt were demanding better pay and working conditions. This was a period of political uncertainty and social unrest. These turbulent times culminated in a short-lived federation with Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.


In 1950, Africans living in British Central Africa listened to Central African Broadcasting, based in Lusaka. A sister station in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, was broadcasting to prosperous and powerful white settlers. Central African Broadcasting broadcast in African vernaculars, Bemba, Kaonda, Lozi, Lunda, Luvale, Nyanja and Tonga. The main language of broadcasting alternated daily, with ‘simple’ English providing continuity. In 1950 Central African Broadcasting only broadcast for a few hours each evening, a truncated schedule divided evenly between news, music and state propaganda—public service announcements and talks. Each show tended to last 15 minutes.

Most radio listeners probably lived in a modern home, as depicted in idealised form in the photograph below. But the Information Department promoted the Saucepan Special as a product for rural dwellers and collected and published testimonies from those gaining access to Central African Broadcasting in villages.

Source: British Empire Collection of Photographs, Zambia, TNA, INF10/380


Continued in next post.


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