St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Radio on the farm

Radio on the Farm

We four Hanson boys always pestered Dad and Mom to let us take apart anything that looked interesting. We especially liked mechanical things. Because we were already used to dressing and butchering steers, deer, squirrels, chickens and cleaning fish, we had ample opportunity to study biology close up. However, cases that contained motors, springs, tubes and gears were fascinating and harder to come by. Our parents knew that whatever we were given was destined for the dump after our "repairs", so only passed along things that had no possibility of being fixed or needed in the future (now they would be valuable antiques).

Old wind up alarm clocks, an old battery radio that ran off of the Windcharger on the roof, old appliances, motors and almost anything that needed radical surgery fell into our repair shop. As we got older, our tools changed from hammers and crowbars to screwdrivers and wrenches and amazingly we actually started getting some things to work again, or at least to understand what was wrong with them.

The Sterling dump was a wonderful place to find things to take apart. We tried to make a weekly trip and scavenged for everything mechanical and electronic. As our reputation for an occasional miracle repair grew, our relatives and neighbors passed along things for tinkering.
Uncle Lloyd said he had a crystal radio that he had gotten as a soldier during World War II. He used the clothesline in the barracks for an antenna and his metal cot for a ground. It didn't use batteries or plug into the wall current. It had an earphone. He said "Don't take it apart, just try it out. It worked the last time I tried it in the barracks 20 years ago."

In those days we had two radios: the barn radio entertaining Dad and the cows with WCCO Cedric Adams, Joyce LaMont and Halsey Hall and the house Radio playing Eddy Arnold and Mairzy Doats. The idea of having our own radio was exciting!

Dad helped us hang an antenna wire from my upstairs window to a nearby tree using electric fence insulators and the old wire from the yard light pole. We pounded a rod into the ground and ran another wire, the ground, from that to my window and into my room upstairs.
Lloyd's radio had four connectors: two for the small earphone and one for the antenna and one for the ground. Lloyd had told us the sound would be very faint. On the top of the case was a knob with several metal points to tune it and something he called a cat's whisker crystal. It was an adjustable tiny spring wire that you poked into a galena crystal trying to find a hot spot. All of this was totally new to me, but Lloyd had demonstrated how it worked so I followed his instructions.

I could just barely hear a faint hint of a radio station on the earphone. I wasn't sure if it was real or my imagination. Lloyd said it worked best at night. Late one night I managed to poke the cat's whisker into a hot spot and got clear channel stations from Little Rock, Chicago, along with WCCO; stations fading in and out. Then it quit totally. I thought "maybe it is just a loose wire inside the box." I carefully took the 4 screws that held the black Bakelite top to the small wood box and carefully lifted it off. I knew better than to do anything more than just look with Uncle Lloyd's radio. I saw only a coil of wire wrapped around some cardboard tubing, with some of the wrappings having come loose.. I guessed that might be what was wrong.

I carefully put the top back on and gave it back to Uncle Lloyd on our next visit. I just told him I couldn't get it working, not wanting to admit to looking inside the box for fear he would think I wrecked it. He said, "It worked pretty good. They didn't let us have a radio when I was in the Army, but this little one let me hear the news and helped me get through some long nights. I suppose the crystal is bad."

I was fascinated by the idea of a radio that didn't need any power. I looked in the Sears Christmas catalog and sure enough there was a plastic Crystal Radio Kit for $8.00. That amount was in the range for a Christmas present--so I said that I would forgo all the underwear, socks, and clothes and just wanted this Radio Kit. Mom and Dad were always encouraged when they saw their sons wanted something other than just toys, so sure enough on Christmas morning the kit was under the tree.

It was a blue plastic molded box about the size of two match boxes made to look like a little radio. It had some fine enameled copper wire, something called a diode and a small earphone that poked into your ear.

I followed the instructions. Wrap the wire very tightly and carefully around the coil form sort of like wrapping the fish line on a casting reel only one layer deep and perfectly coiled. Then use a little sandpaper and sand one narrow band along the coil cleaning off the enamel insulation. Then assemble the radio so a little round metal ball slid along the bare wire of the coil to tune the radio. Screw in the diode to one end of the coil and the other to an earphone connector. Connect the antenna and ground and the earphone and then listen carefully as you slide the tuner back and forth slowly.

Miraculously, I heard faint music immediately and as I tuned it I found several different stations! I found WCCO radio out of the Twin cities was the loudest. I got my brothers in and each listened in turn and was amazed too. But they left soon to go back to Marvin's room where he was listening to his brand new plastic 4-tube GE Clock Radio that he had gotten for Christmas. Bill Diehl was playing songs on WDGY from that nice young Ricky Nelson, approved of by the pastor (unlike that wriggly Elvis).

I wanted to learn more about radio. The school library had nothing. Mrs. Irving (Marie) Olsen, my teacher, said that we could write to the Madison to the Free Traveling Library that mailed out books to rural areas not served by libraries. I wrote a letter and asked for books on crystal radios.

A couple of weeks later, a book named "The Boy's First Book of Radio" came in the mail. It told all about Crystal Radios and how to build one yourself and suggested where to get the parts. Everett and I got enthused about the radios and over the next few years worked our way through building radios with tubes into radios with transistors--each time getting more advanced books from Madison. We mail ordered parts from Modern Radio Labs, Allied Radio and Philco. We put up longer antennas -- going from the house to the barn. We set up a telegraph to send Morse Code from my room to his room (poking only a very small hole through the plaster walls). We had to learn electronic circuit diagrams and soldering to build radios, burglar alarms, timers and all sorts of electronic items. We knew we needed better radios.

We had seen some of the old floor model radios from the 30s and 40s that had short wave bands in neighbors living rooms. Everett put an ad in the local paper "Wanted: Old Floor Model radio with short wave band." He got many replies often like "Help me get it out of the attic and it is yours." We collected several and with our extra supply of Sterling Dump Radio Tubes, soon each had a good radio working. Later Marvin and Byron also got into old radios too--so we each have a few too many now!

My favorite was a Zenith table model that came from the Cushing Feed Mill through Uncle Maurice. It had quit working and was 1/2 inch deep with feed dust. A thorough cleaning and a replacement tube and it worked great. Everett liked his Airline 25 tube model that had magic eye tuning and used so much current the whole house dimmed as it started up. We still have have them.

With the short wave bands we could hear radio from across the whole world. We could listen to Radio Netherlands, the BBC, Canada and if we were feeling particularly adventurous, Radio Moscow to get the latest Communist Propaganda. We continued to collect old radios as we got older, only quitting when they got up to the exorbitant price of $10.00 each.

At a garage sale a year ago I ran across "A The Boys First Book of Radio and Electronics" and paid a quarter for the well used copy. It is fun to re-read the book that helped move me to a career in science. I wonder if I can trade two #80 rectifier tubes to Everett for the twenty feet of double cotton covered copper wire and a cats whisker to build the Boys First Radio. The tubes are pristine—haven't been used since retrieved from the dump in 1956.

copyright Russell B. Hanson 2008