This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
THE 1945 CODE-O-GRAPH: A WAR CURIOSITY
by Stephen A. Kallis, Jr. © 2005
(From Radio Recall, February 2006)
The saga of Captain Midnight's Code-O-Graphs has been covered in Radio Recall, but there are always unexplained details. Code-O-Graphs were descendants of the Radio Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Pins; both originated from Ovaltine. The Orphan Annie pins were mostly badge-like, and equivalent cryptological premiums were developed for the Captain Midnight program.
Cryptological premiums apparently became an Ovaltine tradition, with one issued each year until 1942. In the Summer of 1941, the Code-O-Graphs for the 1942 season were manufactured, for distribution the following year. However, prior to their distribution, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the United States was plunged into World War II.
With the onset of the war, many things changed on the home front. One was that the government established a list of "critical materials" for the war effort. One of the materials high on the list was copper, which was used both in ammunition and uniform insignia. As it happened, brass, which is an alloy containing copper, was used in the majority of metallic radio premiums. Rings, wings, badges, and Code-O-Graphs were of such a low priority to the government bureaucrats that no copper was made available for them. During the war, many premiums were made of paper, including cardstock and cardboard, or cloth.
Probably by coincidence, he 1942 Code-O-Graph was a good design for a wartime premium. Its disk (rotor) had no knob. Excluding the pin, it was the thinnest Code-O-Graph, and thus very easy to conceal. It looked rather military: I've seen 1942 Code-O-Graphs auctioned by people dealing in militaria. And, like its predecessor, it was undated.
The 1942 Photo-Matic Code-O-Graph was retained for use in the 1943 and 1944 seasons. The Secret Squadron Signal Sessions, the time reserved at the close of a program episode, once a week, were retained.
In late 1944, the radio program introduced a new Code-O-Graph, the 1945 Magni-Magic model. It was the first dated unit, had a built-in magnifier, and was in the usual badge form. It had a plastic rotor ("dial"), and a radial aircraft engine design motif. In 1944, the copper restrictions were still pretty high. So how did Ovaltine manage to offer a new Code-O-Graph?
Traditionally, since well before their sponsorship of Little Orphan Annie, Ovaltine came in cylindrical containers made much like tin cans, save that they had a lid that could be pried up. Although the sheet steel they were composed of was a rationed material, it was much less "critical" than copper. (Copper was so critical that during the war, for one year -- 1944 -- pennies were made of steel, which were silvery and easily mistaken for dimes.) Before the war was over, Ovaltine was sold in brown glass containers.
It's interesting that the 1945 Code-O-Graph body was composed of sheet steel, overcoated with "gold" paint. Is it unreasonable to believe that much of the sheet steel provided to Ovaltine was diverted to stamp out a number of Code-O-Graph bodies? There would have to be some steel remaining to make jar caps, but that would leave a lot for badges. The badge was arguably the most marginal. Its plastic "dial" was actually cast as one piece of clear material. The annulus (ring) with the alphabet on it was painted red; the plastic used was not the highest quality, and has become brittle over the years.
Ovaltine must have realized that the number of Code-O-Graphs made this way would be less than the usual number of such premiums. For that reason, the new cipher (scrambled) alphabet was nearly identical. Only two letters were switched from the previous alphabet: P was interchanged with B; F with E... "Master Code" (Cipher) keys on the 1942 model used number settings on the badge back; the 1945 unit -- and most later models -- used a letter-number combination. This meant that as long as P, B, E, or F weren't used as key settings on the 1945 model, those who didn't have one but who had the earlier model could glean most of a Signal Session message. ("PAIL OUT APOVF OCFAN," to use a 1942 message, would be understandable to anyone with the wrong model.)
One of the few surviving recordings of the program has the announcer pleading with listeners not to send in for Magni-Magic Code-O-Graphs because they'd run out. This was the only season where that ever happened.
The successor, the 1946 Code-O-Graph, provides a sharp contrast. The war was over when it was manufactured, it used brass for the body and much higher quality for the "dial" elements. It had 24K gold flashing, and an Art Deco style, though retaining the aviational elements in the form of propeller tips on the badge body. It looks less crude than the 1945 unit, but perhaps that was a "peace dividend."