By Norris Chambers

             In the early thirties very few of the country folks in our area had a radio.  Most of those few who had bought one had it stored in the cellar or the smokehouse. The early battery radios were too expensive to operate. The typical battery radio required three large “B” batteries, one or two “C” batteries and a 6 volt automobile battery that had to be charged much too often.

            From the time I saw the first radio I wanted to know how they worked. I was fortunate enough to find a good used book that did a good job of explaining just about everything that was known about radios at that time. The section on detectors told how a galena crystal separated the radio signal from the carrier frequency and how the slider on a coil could select a radio station. The same thing could be done with a coil and a tuning condenser. A tuning condenser was a set of aluminum plates that meshed with another set and varied the capacity between the two sets. When connected across a coil of wire this made the coil/condenser unit select different radio stations, depending on how much of one set of the plates was meshed with the other set. The commercial radios had three or four of these coil/condenser units with tube amplifiers between them. All of the units had to be tuned to the same frequency by adjusting the knobs on the front panel.

            My interest turned to a crystal radio that used no batteries. The tuner could be either a coil with a slider that selected a different number of windings or a coil and variable condenser like the commercial radios used. The old radios were plentiful and not in use so I soon collected several for my experimental project. The crystal radio didn’t have any power for a speaker so it was necessary to use a headset or an old telephone receiver to hear the programs. Since I didn’t have a headset and old telephone receivers were plentiful, I used an old telephone receiver. The crystal radio was very simple. It only had a coil and tuning condenser from an old radio, a tiny condenser, also from the old radio, and the receiver. The important thing was a good antenna. The antenna should be as high as possible for good reception. The ideal length of the antenna wire was about two to three hundred feet.

            Clifton and I retired to our engineering office, the blacksmith shop, to plan the antenna erection. Since the oil boom had littered the area with two inch pipe in 21 foot lengths, we decided to use three at each end. This would allow us a good sixty feet after setting the pipes in the ground.  There was a tall post oak tree by the south end of the house and another one about two hundred feet toward the east. By fastening the long pipe joint near the top of the trees it would be easy to raise them and keep them anchored. We used a long piece of fishing cord and a cotton scale “p” for a plumb bob and located a sturdy limb high in each tree and directly beneath it the spot to dig an anchor hole. We attached the antenna wire, completely assembled with insulators at each end and a lead in wire long enough to reach inside the house, and with a long rope and a well placed pulley, we raised the poles into position and anchored them to the trees. Both poles were well anchored in the holes we had dug below.

            The crystal radio was quickly assembled. The total cost had been the 25 cents for the crystal and holder. We connected the antenna and a good ground and prepared to test the receiver. Ordinarily a crystal receiver didn’t perform very well in the day but picked up several stations at night. I held the receiver to my ear, meshed the tuning condenser about halfway with the knob and probed on the crystal with the “cat whisker”.  It was about one o’clock and the Chuck Wagon Gang from Fort Worth came in loud enough for Clifton to hear two feet away. It was almost too loud for comfortable listening with the receiver held against my ear! We had the first crystal set in the area that would get Fort Worth in the daytime! We tried it again that night and found several stations, some of them talking in Spanish. But there was a problem. The tuning condenser couldn’t separate the stations enough for good listening. There was plenty of volume.

            With a little more study and engineering we added another tuned circuit and this helped considerably with station separation but cut down the volume some. It was good enough for two country boys.

            Eventually we had several headsets and this enabled listening for several family members at the same time. We used the crystal set for about three years before radios were improved and batteries were affordable for country folks.

            There has been a revival in the interest in crystal radios. There are many clubs and individuals building and experimenting with the radios that operate without power. The radio waves transmitted by the station provide all the power that is needed. There have been many improvements. The tuning coils now use ferrite cores that slide in and out  of the coil to find different stations and the galena crystal has been replaced by high frequency silicon diodes that do not have to be probed with a sharp “cat whisker” to find the best spot for detecting a signal.

            The high, long antenna was the secret that made our crystal set useable. Did we have fun building the crystal set and putting up the tallest antenna in the county? We sure did. Perhaps you ought to build one some day!

            Everyone needs to have a little fun!