Let’s go back to a time when you could get a custom radio built for maybe 45 cents, and it needed no batteries nor did you need to plug it in. It was environmentally friendly to say the least. And you could be sure there wasn’t another one like it in the world.
I grew up in a remote area of Georgia with little to do other than roaming the woods and damming creeks, recreation staples of most boys’ youth. I spent every moment I could outdoors. Climbing trees and roaming the woods with a slingshot or BB gun whiled away many a day, but the nights were long and other than reading a Hardy Boy mystery, there was little to do. And then an elementary school friend showed me true magic.
My classmate and friend Skipper Hardin turned me on to building crystal radios. Skipper and I took a lot of interest in science back in the elementary grades. It was the era when the United States wanted to catch the Soviet Union in space technology. Sputnik had caught the U.S. with its rocket man pants down, and a mad rush ensued to beat the Soviets to the moon. A lot of us got caught up in science. A lot of us got into building anything connected to the technology of the day. Some of us built radios.
Oh, we tried our hands at various science projects but somewhere from my Lincoln County dustbin of history I resurrect memories of the simple radios I built that took power from the sky for free. Radio stations farther away than the moon it seemed beamed powerful watts at me and I gladly collected them on a long copper wire hooked to oaks and sweetgums. Through screen and into the window that long wire came, ending up attached to a plain board of pine.
No longer were my nights boring enterprises. I was now in touch with a world far beyond not just my life but also the entire state of Georgia.
Guglielmo had nothing on me.
You can praise today’s high-tech products all you want but a crystal radio from the 1950s holds its own. That oh-so-simple radio, called a cat’s whisker radio by some, had one moving part and it needed no power. Sure it only caught one or two stations and those would fade in and out driving you mad, but it was a radio you built yourself.
Building your own radio made you feel good about yourself and that is always a good thing. (A lot of today’s kids would be well served by building something from scratch with their own hands. Oh, you disagree? Well, check the news about kids and their troubles today.)
The heart of the radio was a simple crystal, not a glowing vacuum tube. The transistor had yet to be made available; no way to use it yet. All I needed was a rock. A small piece of the mineral, galena, could somehow play a radio signal and it needed no power! Think about that. Not only was that about as green as you can get but it was one pure magical moment for a boy with maybe a few pennies in his pocket. From the depths of childhood poverty I built a radio straight from the ground.
The main economic stumbling block was the earphone. Too young to apply for a grant to buy one I depended on the generosity of my family. Otherwise, I made everything from scratch. There was no kit to buy, not that I knew of anyway, and even if there were, buying the kit was out of the question. And so, I turned to local resources: pine boards, trees, copper wire, and a man named Bobby Parks.
Dad would drive me up to Bobby Parks where he worked on TVs. He also loaded 45 RPMs on jukeboxes and was one of two local wizards when it came to matters involving radio and TV. The other was Carl Stump. Both possessed those magical crystals known as diodes today.
Bobby would look around in a box and with a hand that seemed as big as a ham hand me the magical crystal. If he had handed me the keys to a ’57 Chevy complete with tuck-and-rolled upholstery it would have been no more earthshaking. With that magic crystal in my hand, nothing could stop me from being an electronic genius. Soon I’d be tuning in radio stations from places afar.
Now I needed a small pine board to build the radio on. Heck that was a breeze here where Southern yellow pine is as common as grass, Coca Colas, and white-faced cattle. Copper wire came easy too. I’d get it from spent armatures and coils in Dad’s repair shop. Fortunate son I was.
A long copper wire antenna stretched through oaks and gums made an antenna. Lightning bolts? I didn’t give them a thought. Many a summer night while storms raged, an ungrounded wire ran from a grove of trees right into my window. Foolish me had the earphone in my right ear, a path to disaster.
Copper wire wound around a spent toilet paper tube made the tuner. Shoot, it didn’t matter where that tube had been or what sights it had seen. I didn’t care that it was a toilet paper tube. It was free and readily available, and it represented the true spirit of recycling only none of us thought that way back then! A length of narrow flat copper sheet metal sliding across the coiled tube tuned in stations, well, one or two. Just slide it up and down the old toilet tube and the stations came in … scratchy, faint and fading always.
What could a crystal radio catch in Lincoln County in the late 1950s? WLS out of Chicago where a crazy DJ by the name of Dick Biondi dropped needles on the pop tunes of the day. And I could tune in WOWO in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That clear-channel blowtorch took me to “Wowoland” every night. It came in strong and pure. I’d listen in my bedroom risking parental court martial.
Lights out meant sleep, no reading, no nothing. But I’d lie under the covers listening to whatever I could catch. It didn’t matter what the program was. What mattered was that I had built a radio from a piece of pine board, copper wire, a used toilet paper tube, and an earphone deciphering what my tree-slung antenna pulled from the night sky.
Was I proud of my creation? You bet. I wanted everyone to listen to it. When my Granddad Walker listened to my little radio on a square of yellow pine blessed with copper wires and a crystal, he gave me a dollar. And he did not so easily part with greenbacks. His was one of the dollars among many, many I’d earn through the decades. But to this day, it’s the one dollar I recall. He handed it to me, soft, worn, and wrinkled but a dollar nonetheless. It sat at a 45-degree angle across his hand, unclenched, there for the taking. He did not hold it; he offered it.
I took it with a trembling hand. Up until that point in my life I had only earned dimes and nickels for chores. That dollar was, for a young boy, a fortune. J Paul Getty probably knew how I felt.
That was a long time ago in a world where Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio amazed us. Tracy’s radio morphed into our cell pone and radios of all types emerged to make our lives so much more interesting. Remember the Walkman? Seems ancient now doesn’t it.
A crystal radio designer one upon a time, I realize I, too, am a dinosaur. While writing this piece, no one I talked to knew much about crystal radios. One woman asked if it was a figurine that goes on a dresser.
And so, when I wrote this column, I did a bit of research, which is a bit like a scavenger search. I never know what I’ll find but I’m always glad to find it. Preparing for this column, I read that the U.S. government used to give people instructions on how to build crystal radios since few people could afford “real” radios back in the day. Seems the government wanted folks to be in the know. Well all I know is I loved anything I heard on my magical crystal radio.
Back in the day, Skipper Hardin and I built crystal radios. What magical radios they were … what simpler times those days were. Sure, I remember my first transistor radio and I remember my first “real” stereo system. The speakers were as big as travel trunks you’d have found on Conrad’s Congo steamer and a slick reel-to-reel recorder came with the system. Best of all it had a cool FM receiver that caught so many stations I got bored tuning them in. I was my own Muscle Shoals. I could record the Rolling Stones on the radio and, voila, I had a bootleg tape.
Later I had a CB radio. Breaker, breaker 1, 9 and it provided company on long, lonesome trips to Charleston, West Virginia, and other destinations.
Today I have Pandora Internet radio and XM Satellite radio, but of all the radios I’ve owned, my crystal radios reign supreme. What memories they left me.
I made them with my own hands and in a way they made me. I didn’t catch much on them but I caught a glimpse of myself I liked. And that was something that stuck with me, something that never faded like those old pop tunes of the late ’50s did.