During the Spring Fair of 1919 at the Vredenburg, radio pioneer Hanso Idzerda demonstrated a broadcast. The sound was successfully received 1,200 meters away. Even Queen Wilhelmina came to listen to it. Later that year, Idzerda received permission for regular radio broadcasts. From November 1919 he gave a ‘Soiree-Musicale’ twice a week from his hometown of The Hague. That lasted until 1924, when, with the support of Philips, the Dutch Signaling Factory (NSF) in Hilversum took over the broadcasting task. Meanwhile, more and more people wanted a receiver.
Two young men from Utrecht, one of German descent, saw potential in the new medium. In 1923, Antonius Cornelis Koot (1900-1980) and Erich Bruno Lehmann (1900-1952) started producing radio items (parts) in Koot’s home on Goedestraat. The company name LEKO was derived from their surnames Lehman and Koot. The latter had been trained as an instrument maker and had worked on telegraphy and radio technology during his military service.
Ready-made radio equipment did not yet or hardly exist; LEKO made parts for DIY radios, such as coils (components wrapped with copper wire). Those who did not want to do the work themselves could have the assembly done by suppliers, often bicycle makers. Due to increasing demand, LEKO moved in 1926 to a factory building at Abstederdijk 113, where the Utrecht Tricotage Factory Aviata and the Dutch Gietpakkingsfabriek had previously been located. The complex (eventually) extended to Notenbomenlaan.
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In the meantime, the public broadcasting system was established and VARA (Vereeniging Arbeiders Radio Amateurs) was founded in 1925. After a few years, that broadcasting association introduced a construction kit for members, the Varadyne device. They had to make a wooden cabinet themselves and the price of the parts was approximately 85 guilders, even without the Philips tube lamps. A manual with construction diagrams made installation easier. LEKO produced the coil set with the letters Varadyne for this ‘workers’ radio’. The VARA advertised: ‘You imagine yourself in the studio! And… a child can build it!’ LEKO also supplied parts for professional radio communication systems.
In 1932, Lehmann and Koot decided to convert their business into a public limited company and expand production to include bicycle lights and vacuum cleaners. However, the crisis years did not prove to be a good time for this: LEKO had to request a deferment of payment in 1934. Ultimately, the Dutch and German creditors waived their claims and the company made a fresh start. During the financial problems, Anton Koot had left LEKO; Lehmann would become full owner a few years later.
The factory was then able to benefit from the legal obligation for rear lights on bicycles that came into effect in 1938. In addition to the front spotlight, the LEKO Super bicycle lamp with 3 Watt dynamo could also power a rear light. The other products now included electric vacuum cleaners, knife sharpeners, irons, hobs and fans.
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Van der Heem and Philips
Erich Bruno Lehmann was naturalized as a Dutch citizen in 1938, but during the war he turned out to support the Germans. Winterhulp and the associated trade union NVV were active in his company. The LEKO factory was also expanded in 1941 for war production. After the liberation, the company came under the administration of the Dutch Management Institute due to collaboration. In 1946, the managers sold LEKO to Van der Heem NV from The Hague, manufacturer of Erres household appliances, among others. In Utrecht Van der Heem started making electric motors, hand drills, fans and parquet floor rubs and later also heating blankets and record players.
The Abstederdijk did not remain Van der Heem’s only Utrecht branch. From 1956 onwards, 200 employees produced vacuum cleaners and fans at the Keulsekade. In 1961, a small branch opened on Bloemstraat (in the former reformed district building) for measuring and control equipment and transmitter/receive installations. A new factory followed in 1964 on Zeelantlaan, especially for the production of heating blankets.
The staff magazine VDH-tje wrote about the Abstederdijk in 1965: ‘Characteristic of this Van der Heem branch is that behind the rather sober facade of this building there is such a healthy activity and that such an extensive machine park is housed in the limited space. The administration (including Payroll and Human Resources) for Van der Heem Utrecht is housed on the top floor. There is also a modest research area here for experiments with possible test models.’
The tour continued: ‘In the factory hall we see several foreign employees in the wrapping departments – including Spanish ladies – who, in addition to having quick, skilled fingers, also have a quick tongue.’ Elsewhere in the factory, work was certainly not done in silence: ‘In the Metalworking/Tool Making department we encounter an impressive machine park, but also craftsmanship and job satisfaction, sung by our own male choir.’
Van der Heem merged with Indola in 1965 and was acquired by Philips a year later. At that time, 280 people worked together at the Abstederdijk and 610 at all Utrecht locations. New construction plans at Lage Weide were canceled due to the takeover. In 1970, Philips production at the Abstederdijk came to an end. The factory buildings were demolished around 1980 to rebuild the site with the Abstederhof homes.
With thanks to Bert Poortman