Nathan I. Daniel
September 23, 1912 – December 24, 1994
Danelectro Founder and SuperOutrigger Inventor
By Howard E. Daniel
A lot of people know about Danelectro – especially the now-retro-looking electric guitars, which have become collector’s items and have even given rise to that sincerest form of flattery, a company of the same name as the 1940s, 50s and 60s Danelectro, which manufactures reproductions of the original instruments, and another company that also issues reproductions, albeit without the name.
Fewer people, however, know much about Nathan I. Daniel, my dad – and the genius behind Danelectro. Nor is my father’s contribution to the history of electric musical instruments widely known. He was devoid of interest in fame or publicity, and after Danelectro closed down in 1969, he simply got on with his life. As a result, most of what has been written about Danelectro has focused on the appearance of the guitars, right down to the shape of their heads and the style of knobs, pick guards and tuning pegs.
I hope that for the people who admire, collect and play original Danelectro guitars and amplifiers (or the Silvertone and Airline products my dad also created), this tribute will give a new appreciation for these old instruments, because the essence of the Danelectro story is Nat Daniel’s lifetime of innovation.
Nathan “Nat” Daniel was born in New York City in 1912, a year to the day after his young parents arrived in the United States, immigrants who had come to this country to escape the anti-Semitism of czarist Russia, which then ruled their Lithuanian birthplace. The younger of my father’s two kid sisters, my Aunt Ray, tells how one of their parents’ first words in English was “learn,” and how, when they were children, their parents would take all three of them around to New York’s many wonderful museums, urging them to “learn.”
Because my father could not yet speak English when he entered school, he had to repeat the first grade. At some point during his second time around, as he later told me, “it was as if someone turned the lights on one day, and suddenly I understood everything.” A bright, mischievous child, hardly a devoted student, he nonetheless went on to skip several grades and graduated from high school ahead of his contemporaries. (My dad often ignored homework assignments but aced exams, much to the irritation of certain teachers – most notably a high school math teacher who wanted to flunk him but couldn’t because of his near-perfect score on the New York State Regents Exam.)
My dad developed an early interest in radio, still in its infancy during his teenage years. He built the first crystal radio set in his neighborhood. During the Great Depression, he dropped out of City College of New York and began assembling and selling amplifiers of his own design. It was during this period, in the mid-1930s, that he designed and began manufacturing a push-pull amplifier circuit that eliminated the input transformer that had made it impossible to achieve good high-frequency response. His amp tested “flat” (i.e., provided equal response across the full range of sound frequencies) to the limit of then-existing equipment. He did not try to patent his invention because he could not afford the expense.
My father’s first “factory” was his bedroom in his parents’ New York apartment. Later he moved his small manufacturing operation – Daniel Electrical Laboratories – to a loft in Lower Manhattan. His first big customer was the well-known guitar maker Epiphone, second only to Gibson at the time.
During World War II, Nat Daniel served as a civilian designer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Among the other problems he worked on at that time, he found a simple, economical way to equip military jeeps and motorcycles with shielding to prevent the electronic “noise” their engines generated from interfering with the reception of critical battlefield radio messages. Protected from the draft by the critical nature of his work, at one point he considered enlisting in the Marines. His boss – and my mother, Mollie – talked him out of it. As a kid, I once asked about his work during the war. His response: “I saved the government a million dollars.” Whatever the exact amount, clearly it was not a trivial sum.
At the end of the war, my father left the Signal Corps and reopened his amplifier manufacturing business in Red Bank, N.J., near Fort Monmouth. He called it the Danelectro Corporation (coined from “Daniel electric”) and over the next nearly two and a half decades produced what writers Jim Washburn and Steve Soest in the July 1983 issue of Guitar World called “an impressive number of electric instruments … distinguished in their design innovations [and] their quality at a budget price….”
After supplying Epiphone again for about a year, he won contracts to make amplifiers for two major national retail chains, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward…
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Note: Excerpt, reproduced here with the author’s permission, from a tribute to Nathan I. Daniel by Howard E. Daniel. Copyright © Howard E. Daniel, Pen-For-Rent, 2007-2009. May not be reproduced in whole or in part without the author’s express written permission. The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org