Grandpa's old radio
Locals collect the receivers of yesteryear
Saturday, Dec 17, 2011 06:00 am
I’ve always been fascinated by Grandpa’s old radio. The big brown box has had a prominent place in our basement for as long as I can remember — its well-weathered wood still shiny after all these years.
My dad tells me that it spent a number of years crooning away by the pop machine in Saskatchewan’s Kandahar Steakhouse. It never played when I was growing up, but that didn’t matter to me. It was big! Shiny! It had knobs and switches and dials and stuff!
Antique radios have a mystique about them that you don’t find in today’s sleek MP3 players, and hold a special place in the hearts of many people.
One of them is Edmonton’s Gordon Wilson. Now 80, the Edmontonian recalls growing up on the farm listening to one of these vacuum-tubed oldies with his brother, thrilling to the adventures of The Green Hornet and The Thin Man. “We’d be scared to go to bed!” he chuckles.
He went on to become a radio technician for what is now Nav Canada, collecting radios as he criss-crossed the nation. Now, his basement is crammed full of roughly 500 vintage radios from the 1920s to today, almost all dusted, sorted and functional.
The sheer number and variety of receivers down here is mind-boggling — at one point, I ask him if there is anything here that wasn’t a radio. He’s got radios in clocks, desks, ships, books and cannons; ones shaped like apples, pop cans, violins, asthma inhalers and Elvis.
“This is a portable radio,” he says, indicating a box the size of a truck toolbox. You put the Thermos-sized batteries in here, he explains, removing a side panel, and you carried it down to the beach — presumably with a forklift. “You were strong [back then], I guess!”
Wilson is a member of the Canadian Vintage Radio Society of Alberta — a group of about 55 radio enthusiasts dedicated to the receivers of old.
Most of its members grew up listening to the radio, says club president Murray Dickerson, and have carried that nostalgia with them into their later years. He himself recalls experimenting with radios when he was in his teens before getting a career in the industry.
St. Albert’s Tom Savage says he started tinkering with radio when he was in his teens, eventually learning enough about electronics from them to breeze through his first year of college. “It’s been a part of me ever since I was little.” He has a small collection of vintage radios that include a 1930s-era Victor RE27 — a 300-pound refrigerator-sized monster with a built-in microphone and phonograph. “It is one heavy beast,” he says, and would have cost a fortune back in the day.
Savage says he’s picked up his collection over the years, and still has many from his youth. Most vintage radios run for about $50 to several thousands of dollars amongst collectors. He specializes in ones that use exotic kinds of vacuum tubes — the giant one takes $150 ones the size of a 60-watt bulb.
Giants of old
Radio got its start in the 1890s. Most credit Guglielmo Marconi for its invention, but Dickerson notes that many of its key principles were discovered by others researchers, such as Nikola Tesla. “It was Tesla’s genius which probably has to be given credit for the invention of radio,” he says.
But it wasn’t until the 1920s that people started producing radios commercially, Dickerson says. “As soon as people realized that you could tune into a distant station and hear all the news as it was just happening … radio became an instant success.”
The earliest radios were essentially breadboards with the components bolted to them. Wilson points out one on his wall that looks like a gentleman’s science-fair project — all dials, wires and tubes. These often had three dials, all three of which had to be twiddled to tune into any one station. “When you found a station, you wrote down the numbers so you could come back to it.” No speakers, either, he notes; you used a gramophone horn instead.
Eventually, manufacturers started putting components in cases. This 1920s Mercury Super 10 is typical of that era, Wilson says, opening the top of the dresser-drawer sized device. It’s big, wooden, and cumbersome, and features external speakers the size of dinner plates. “See the plug-in coils?” he says, indicating a black puck next to a line of vacuum tubes. You had to swap coils whenever you wanted to change the station, he explains.
Radios were the principle source of news and entertainment in those days, which meant families were willing to put a lot of money into them.
“The radio really represented the major investment that a family would make,” he explains. “It became a style statement as well — a piece of furniture that became the centrepiece of the family living room.”
That meant radios had to look good. Elaborate engraving, embroidered speaker covers, and even gold inlay could all be found in this era, Wilson notes. Larger radios tended to be built into desks or grandfather clocks. Smaller ones came in stylish cases shaped like cathedrals or tombstones.
Radios from this period usually have better reception than modern ones, Savage notes. He says back in the 1920s and 1930s, there weren’t many radio stations so receivers needed to pick up ones from far away. Whereas old radios could easily pick up Chicago stations from Edmonton, modern ones struggle to detect ones in Calgary. The sound was better too, he says — modern speakers sound tinny compared to the tube-based ones of old.
They also had much bigger components.
“This is a 3,000-ohm resistor,” Savage says, holding a green baton that would have been used in a radio transmitter decades ago. “And so is this,” he adds, picking up its modern, grain-sized equivalent. “You’ll never see something like that again!”
Commercial radios went into a lull during the early 1940s, Williams says, as almost all production went towards the Second World War. But the end of the war brought a major change to the industry: plastics.
Plastics can be any colour you want, so the brown and black wooden radios of the past gave way to red, blue, pink and green ones. As tubes shrank in size, radios went from mammoth monoliths to tiny toasters.
The 1950s through 1970s saw the introduction of transistors and even smaller radios, Dickerson says. Round was out, and modern, square corners were in. Chrome was very much evident. Smaller and cheaper, people started buying multiple radios for different rooms in their house instead of having one big one in the living room.
Tuning into the future
Today’s radios tend to be sleek and modular, Dickerson says, with some getting their signals from satellites instead of transmitters.
“Radio really has made one of the most profound impacts in the history of mankind,” he says, yet you can buy them today for a buck and a half. “It really, for the first time, brought the world together in an understanding of distant events.”
Young people today didn’t live through that history, he notes, so few have an interest in vintage radio. Still, he thinks there’s a place for radio in today’s world.
“It’s not so much passé as it has become so fundamental to the nature of our civilization.”
Grandpa’s radio still has a place of honour downstairs — a monument to a distant era. With a little work, perhaps it will surf the airwaves again.