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In the mid-1940's radio was king. Commercial radio broadcasts began twenty years earlier, but by 1940 nearly 90% of US households owned at least one radio. In fact, most popular shows were attracting 30 million listeners a week. Certainly, there was money to be made in radio, and a young seventh grader at Hamilton Middle School stumbled onto an opportunity.
On his way home from school one day, Lonnie Hephner found a fountain pen. It was a real beauty, too. When he showed it to one of his friends, the friend offered to trade Lonnie the fountain pen for a crystal radio set that he had made. Intrigued, Lonnie asked to see the crystal set. After the friend showed him how it worked, Lonnie agreed to the trade. "I was cheated," he laughs. The pen must have been worth a dollar and the radio about 30 cents. Hephner thought about the trade and resolved to be on the profitable side from then on. "I got to thinking that if he could make a crystal radio, then so could I," Lonnie recalls. Using the traded radio as a pattern, he began to make his own crystal sets from an old lump of crystal he found at his house. He began either trading the sets to his friends or selling them for a dollar or two.
By the time Lonnie reached eighth grade, these sets had provided him with a basic knowledge of radio theory. Soon Lonnie obtained a job at Southern Sound and Radio delivering radios on his bike for .25 an hour. Demonstrating an early aptitude for business, young Hephner diversified his ventures as he grew older. As a ninth grader, Lonnie persuaded a hospital supply firm to sell him test tubes for 3 cents each. He then took them to the YMCA swim classes where he sold them for a nickel each, marketing them as toy whistles.
Before long, R.E. Florence, the owner of Southern Radio, allowed Lonnie to tinker with the tube radio sets. Hephner's developing skills proved useful when his family needed a new radio for themselves. His parents, Lena and Irvin, had long been saving a dollar from every family paycheck to replace their aging tube radio. They were thrilled when Lonnie offered to build them a new 5-tube radio from scratch - saving them a lot of money. By the time Lonnie entered East High School, he eagerly enrolled in all the radio and electrical classes offered.
In his sophomore year of high school, Lonnie left Southern Radio to wire neon signs for Miracle Sign Company. He then went to work for Tarrant Electric Machinery Co in his senior year, rewinding transformers and motors. Besides working these formal jobs, Lonnie continued to pursue side ventures. Throughout his high school years, Lonnie always had at least two lockers full of government surplus electronic equipment to sell. He once sold the Board of Education 1,000 two amp fuses for their film projectors. Additionally, he began to fix radios for customers in his home on South Washington. His bedroom was soon filled with radio parts and tools.