Beyond the News - FACT Analysis

The Golden age of Radios

Harjap Singh Aujla

Radio is not only now a household mode of entertainment but it is now a rage among youth as well. Did you know how it all began?

Here is the personal account by Senior Advisor to The Fact News sharing his personal experience of Harjap Singh Aujla

When I went to New Jersey in America in 1980, I saw a big more than three foot high, more than two foot wide and approximately one foot deep grand elegant looking, beautifully crafted and well polished, wood radio sitting on the floor of a coffee shop in West Windsor township of New Jersey. When I talked to the owner of the shop, he told me that this radio dates back to
early nineteen thirties, the days of his grandfather. It had a large twelve inch diameter speaker located towards its lower portion. Obviously in its hey days, it must have been churning out a very rich sound. The beautifully designed tuning dial was at the top.

He told me that this kind of luxury radios were the pride of the homes of the well to do families in America in late nineteen twenties and all of nineteen thirties. These radios were kept at prominent spots in the drawing
rooms (called living rooms in America), family rooms and master-bedrooms of the affluent Americans. Since these radios were seldom moved from their spot, they normally lasted two to three decades and were repaired in situ where they were installed. Normally the shelf life was
about twenty to thirty years. That particular radio probably died in late nineteen fifties, but the owner kept it as a relic of the past for his guests to enjoy. Even then it looked like a piece of art.

My chief engineer in America, John O’Dowd, under whom I served for a few years, shared some of the technical aspects of the old radios. He told me that the vaccum tubes, which combined together to reproduce what was broadcast miles away, were bulky and needed a lot of space to be installed. Some tubes were of the size of large electric bulbs. Moreover, small speakers of those days produced very poor quality of sound, the rich American will not buy inferior quality sound. John O’Dowd told me that the old radios had a combination of medium-wave and long- wave radio receiving bands. Later on during the nineteen forties long hop inter-continental shortwave transmission became very popular and that necessitated above the roof naked copper-wire aerials. Most of America installed such aerials to receive European broadcasts during the 1939 to 1945 World War II. The most listened to stations in America became the BBC
of London, Radio France Paris and Berlin. Philips Radio International could also be picked up.

As the nineteen forties dawned, the floor mounted radios were replaced by table-top beauties, which were as much bulky radios. Some early radios were still more in height than width, but with the passage of time, the width increased and the height was reduced. The radios of the
forties had more shortwave bands. The least expensive ones had two shortwaves. Some less sophisticated radios had one long-wave, one medium-wave and two shortwave bands. One shortwave band consisted of 13, 16, 19, 25 and 31 day light meter bands and the other had 41,
49, 60, 75 and 90 meter bands mostly used at night and in the tropical countries. The European broadcasts were received in America during day light hours, therefore 13, 16, 19, 25 and 31 meters were commonly used to pick up European stations. Some more expensive radios had
three, four and five shortwave bands, in addition to the other bands. I have seen a twelve band radio too. The Soviet union built most of the largest radio receivers with wide band widths.

Technological advancements don’t wait for an opportune time. During the nineteen forties, both Germany and the United States were sprinting towards a breakthrough in the technology for transmission of picture. As the TV technology got off the drawing boards, popular Frequency
Modulation (FM) sound propagation came along as its by-product. Frequency Modulation had serious coverage limitations like short point to point range, but the quality of sound, due to increased allotted band-width was amazing and due to very high frequency, the disturbances due to weather were non-existent on FM. Medium-wave and tropical shortwaves were prone to weather related disturbances. The sound was also wavy and at times dipped too low.

As the fifties arrived, the cold–war came along with the Soviet Union and the United States commencing their invasion of the whole world with their propaganda oriented super-powered shortwave transmissions. The Soviet Union beamed its broadcasts from more than one hundred super-powered transmitters located in all the Soviet Republics. America was rather
powerfully and effectively covered by the short-wave service of Radio Moscow from its Russian transmitters. America did not enjoy the Soviet advantage, because of its smaller land mass. It leased or purchased transmitting sites in its friendly nations to carry out counter propaganda. It
encouraged its electronic industry to undertake mass production of AM (Medium-wave) and FM radio sets. With this manufacturing trend the shortwave bands were avoided within the USA and the size of the radios came down. Both Germany and Japan kept researching and
producing miniaturized transistor radios along with all the shortwave bands, but most of the American customers preferred cheap homemade AM/FM radios manufactured among others by local brands Emerson, Zenith and G.E.. Today for most of the young Americans, shortwave is
an alien concept. It is confined to the shortwave enthusiasts only. High fidality sound appeared during the mid-fifties and single speaker was replaced by two speakers located on both sides
with a rich concert hall sound. This led to stereo sound, which is the prevalent trend these days.

According to an expert on shortwave propagation Jonathan Marks of the Dutch International Service in Hilversum, Holland, with the post 20 th Century un-popularization of shortwave and the replacement of valve radios with transistor radios with printed circuits, the romance of
America and the world with bulky world band radios is over. Now listeners are preferring huge TV screens, but the radio has to be miniaturized. We have very expensive radios equipped with state of the art DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) reception system manufactured for our luxury
cars, but the golden era of big stylishly crafted wood radios in our homes is certainly behind us.

I cannot afford to own vintage cars in working order. So I drastically scaled down my hobby to just vintage radios. The first radio in our family was a GEC (England) manufactured table top radio. It had a rare squarish shape, but it suddenly stopped functioning in 1966. It was given to a repair man, from who’s shop someone took it away, perhaps due to its rare shape and
antique value. But I still have a five band GEC HiFi 30 inch wide and 15 inch high radio, which I have improvised and converted to FM and USB use now. Its sound is still amazing. In addition I have a Philips Maestro II radio manufactured in 1966. This second one is a real beauty. On its dial are names of all the medium-wave radio stations working throughout India during the mid- nineteen sixties. Its tonal controls are beautiful. Its stereo sound still is amazing. Overall in my collection there are several vintage radios one each from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

There are 2 from the 2000s and one from 2010. Most are in perfect working condition. I keep using them occasionally. But the most artistically crafted beautiful radios in the world date back to the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The rarest of those can be seen only in the world’s finest museums. Very few of these radios are in working order. There is an engineer radio enthusiast
in Germany, who even now buys old radios and restores them. Finding parts is a very difficult task, but he does find what he needs. Vaccum tubes are fragile and rare and are no longer being manufactured. Retrofitting of an antique radio is also a time consuming hobby.

I think the finest craftsmen of wood should build replicas of old style radios and fit modern age transistors in those along with amplifiers and modern speakers, there will be nostalgic buyers for the replicas of old radios. Such fancy hand crafted radios can be manufactured in principle tourist cities like Srinagar, Amritsar, Jaipur, Varanasi, Agra and Kolkata. I am sure there will be world-wide market for these radios.