Vintage Radio

Late 1920s Atwater Kent Littlestove radio
Credit Paul Litwinovich

In this occasional series, WSHU Chief Engineer Paul Litwinovich explores aspects of vintage radio. The subjects will range from the radio sets themselves to the people and technology that made it all possible. He'll talk about collecting, dating, and restoring these relics of yesteryear. Each article features a different vintage set with information about its place in the development of the electronic age. Some of the sets featured are from his own collection. 

Comments and questions are welcome at paull@wshu.org

Atwater Kent

Nov 18, 2014
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, photographer unknown.

I could not write articles about vintage radio without including Atwater Kent, both the man and his radios. He is a legend among vintage enthusiasts and radio collectors, revered with near deity status.

P. Litwinovich collection

Last month, in part one of Radio Prepares for War we looked at the National HRO receiver, which set the bar for the standards required by military radio communications.  The HRO was a superb receiver for land or ship based use, but it was too large and heavy for use in aircraft. It also would have been difficult to redesign it for use on 28 volt aircraft power systems. The HRO also was relatively difficult to operate in a fast paced combat environment. It required changing coil packs to change from one group of frequencies to another.

P. Litwinovich collection

As the roaring twenties came to a close, radio technology would continue to evolve with significant improvements to consumer sets, particularly in the area of shortwave reception. Read my past articles for more details as to how this transpired. The price of radios would continue to fall as availability continued to increase. Herbert Hoover could have added "a radio in every home" to his famous "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" campaign slogan. This radio boom would continue right up until December of 1941, when the first bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor.

Library of Congress, collection contributed by Murray Becker

The Hindenburg disaster was not the first time that radio influenced the way or the speed by which news was delivered to the masses, nor was it the first major event  to be given live coverage. To look at radio’s influence on news delivery of breaking events, we need to go back to the Titanic disaster.  Although the Titanic’s  plea for help was monitored only by other ships, a small handful of commercial shore stations, and perhaps a few early amateur operators, it did mark a turning point in media communications. Newspapers featured the story on their front pages and in special editions the following morning. Were it not for wireless communications, the story probably would not have reached the newspapers for several days. Other events marked the coverage of news live as it happened. KDKA, the nation’s first licensed broadcaster, went on the air with the coverage of the Harding/ Cox presidential election in 1920.

P. Litwinovich collection

Last month we looked at radio at the start of the Great Depression and how RCA’s President David Sarnoff made the decision to license the heterodyne circuit to any manufacturer willing to pay royalties to use it. The heterodyne circuit, combined with the new developments in vacuum tube technology, allowed manufacturers to build affordable radios that performed far better than most of the high end sets from just a few years prior.

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