Saturday, April 28, 2012

Radio Daze: My Crystal Radio

Until about 1968, all I ever listened to was AM radio.  There was a simple reason for this.   All we had were AM radios.  Actually, in the earliest years I can remember was that all we had was one AM radio.  Yes, one AM radio.   We also had only one car, one TV, one telephone, one phonograph, a one car garage, and only one bathroom.  That seemed to be the norm in the early 1960s in lower middle class part of Detroit where we lived.
We had that one radio.  No FM, just AM.  It was in the kitchen, it was a clock radio.   We used to listen to sports as every game was not on TV as we are used to today. We used it to listen to the Armenian Radio Hour which came on every Saturday evening.  We listened to it during dinner.  The Arab Radio hour came on at 4 pm, the Armenian Radio Hour ran from 5 to 6, and then the Greeks came on 6 pm.  I remember listening to all three though I am sure we were not eating three hour dinners. 
Our radio was mostly used for sports broadcasts, music, and the news.  In those days that is what was on the radio.  My Mother told us about how they used to listen to the radio the way we were used to watching TV.  There were regularly broadcast series that were dramas, comedies, or action/adventure shows.  She spoke quite nostalgically about the super hero shows.  I believe her very favorite show was The Green Hornet and The Shadow.  Either that or it is the only ones I can remember.   She had me longing for the heyday of radio and almost felt cheated that all I had was television.  There was a time in the 1970s when NPR would have readings of various books.  In 1976, I recall listening to, and being totally engaged, in the reading of James Michner’s novel Centennial.  It was very well done and a prelude to the books on tape craze which followed in the late 1980s and 1990s.
As odd as this desire seems today in the world of myriad electronic gadgets, I wanted my own radio.  I had friends who had crystal radios.  Some built them, some were given store bought ones.  I wanted one and figured I could probably get it more easily funded if I expressed a desire to build one.  My parents agreed to allow me to save some allowance to buy the materials.  I went to the library and got a book on how to make a crystal radio.  I copied the parts list down.  Instead of shopping for the parts or ordering them form a catalog, I gave the list to a close family friend, Araxie Vosgeritchian who we called Auntie Roxie.  She worked at an electric supply company and agreed to get me the parts.  She was a quiet but very sweet and thoughtful person.  She was more than happy to do this and then upon delivery she did not want to take my money.  I have never forgotten that gift and her kindness.
I built the radio.  It wasn’t a work of art but it worked.  I was so excited.
So what is a crystal radio?  They were very popular radios in the early days of radio and amongst young fellas like me when I was growing up.  I believe they were even more popular in the 1930s – 1950s.  The radios were made of very few parts.  There is a coil of copper wire used for tuning, the crystal that detected and rectified the radio waves, an antenna, and earphones.  Crystals were later replaced by diodes.  I am pretty certain the set I made used a diode in place of a crystal detector. 
One of the most interesting facts about crystal radios is that they required neither batteries nor other power source.  The radio was powered exclusively by the radio waves themselves.  Therefore, there was no volume control and the radio had to be listened using headphones or what today is called an ear bud.  I remember hearing about people who could faintly hear the radio simply from the silver fillings in their teeth.  Was it urban legend or the same principle as a crystal radio?
I used my crystal radio to listen to Detroit Tiger baseball games when I was supposed to be sleeping.  I kept the set that I had mounted on a wood plank on the bookshelf next to my bed.  I had a wire with an alligator clip on the end that I used as the antenna.  I attached the alligator clip to the gutter above the bedroom window thinking the bigger the antenna the better (thinking back now, that might have actually been the ground).  The Tiger games were broadcast on WJR, “760 on your AM dial, the great voice of the Great Lakes.”  They were the most powerful station in Detroit.  So it was relatively easy to dial WJR.  It was pretty cool though it had to be quiet to use a crystal radio.  If there was too much ambient noise the radio was useless.  I am pretty certain that would have a tough time using a crystal radio today on this side of fifty where my hearing is nowhere near where it was back then. 
You can still purchase crystal radios today.  Go to and search on “crystal radio kits.”  There are several of them priced in the range of $10-30.  They look like you could put them together in a few minutes.  You can find antique crystal radios on e-bay that look more like the real McCoy.  I actually thought about buying one.  I realized with all the electronic toys I have, I would play with a crystal radio for about ten minutes and move on probably never touch the radio again.  So, I kept my $15 which would be better spent on three gallons of gas.
I have no idea what happened to my crystal radio.  A year or so after I built it, the world changed.  The transistor radio hit the marketplace.  They were small, sleek, and as they used a nine volt battery, they had a volume nob.  The reception and volume were an incredible improvement.  As soon as I got one of those, I neglected and lost track of my crystal radio. 
That’s progress for you.  But, I will never forget the memory of the crystal radio I assembled myself or the magic of listening to the Detroit Tiger games.

1 comment:

  1. Crytal radios are great. I heard WJR down her in Kentucky