The Exciting Days of Early Radio
The brief memoirs below are from the book A Serendipic Life, authored by Oscar Firschein (born 1927). Seren-dipity means “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” Since Oscar believed his life very much had this characteristic, he decided to use the term in the title of his memoir.
What follows are childhood recollections of his first radio (a “crystal” radio), his first vacuum tube radio kit and memories of the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast by Orson Welles in 1938 that created a panic when many people believed the Martians had actually landed!
The Magic Crystal Radio
When I discovered the crystal radio, it seemed like magic because it required no battery or other power to work. For twenty-five cents, you bought a crystal of lead sulfide that was in a small container, and a device into which the container would fit. The device had a handle that let you move a cat’s whisker, a stiff piece of wire, over the face of the crystal. You looked for a sensitive spot on the crystal that could “rectify” a radio wave so that the wave was transformed into an audio signal. You could then hear the audio by using sensitive headphones.
If the device was jostled, the cat’s whisker could jump off the sensitive spot, and the listener would have to start over again to find another such spot.
I used the metal bed frame as an antenna. For the “ground”, I attached an alligator clip that grabbed onto a radiator pipe. I couldn’t choose a particular radio station because you needed additional electrical parts for this. Instead, I heard whichever station was the most powerful, with the less powerful ones heard faintly in the background.
The fact that this device worked without any power source was most amazing to me. I could hardly believe that the radio signals, all around us and passing through us, had enough energy to power the headphones.
My mother, when I demonstrated the device to her, exclaimed, “Oscar, you are such a genius.” (But, then again, she said this about most things that I showed her.)
Lafayette Radio and Canal Street, Manhattan
When I was a kid in 1938, on Saturday my mother would give me a quarter, ten cents for the
round-trip subway fare from my home in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn to Manhattan and fifteen cents for lunch at the Automat. (The subway fare was five cents at its inception in 1904 until it rose to a dime in 1948.) I would walk around Manhattan to the free museums— the Museum of Science and Industry in Rockefeller Center (now closed), the Museum of Modern Art , and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But my most exciting visit was to the electronic parts “junk” shops on Canal Street and then to Lafayette Radio nearby.
Canal Street had block after block of stores that sold surplus radio parts displayed in open trays. I would wander down the aisles looking at the vacuum tubes, power supplies, connectors, condensers and resistors. Sometimes I would splurge and buy ten or twenty cents worth of parts for my electrical experiments at home.
Nearby the Lafayette Radio store had radio kits that you could examine, and amateur, shortwave radios, and radio hobby magazines. The amateur and shortwave radios were way beyond my means, but I still lusted after these kits that ran as low as $5.
One day I succeeded in dragging my immigrant mother to Manhattan’s Lafayette Radio and she bought me a two tube radio kit as a birthday present. The subway ride to Brighton Beach seemed too long; I was anxious to return home to start working on my radio kit.
Building My Radio Kit
This was much more advanced than my dinky crystal radio. The kit had two vacuum tubes, a metal chassis, some radio parts, earphones, and a roll of wire. My parents also bought me a soldering iron and solder for fastening the wires.
The instructions told how to connect the wires to the terminals. The terminals were small pieces of metal with a single hole distributed in the chassis. You cut the wire to size, trimmed off the insulation at each end, and then stuck each end into a terminal hole. Then you plugged the soldering iron into a wall plug. When the iron was hot enough, you melted some solder to secure the wire.
I worked for several hours, carefully following the instructions. I connected the wires to the terminals and soldered them. When I finished, I checked the wiring connections for accuracy. Then I plugged the radio into the wall socket.
Nothing happened! The vacuum tubes did not light up, and there was no sound in the earphones.
I felt crushed. I had no one to turn to. I checked the accuracy of the wiring again, but could find no flaws. I was almost in tears.
“Let’s go to the radio repair store downstairs and ask the owner,” suggested my mother.
“But I’m too ashamed to ask,” I replied.
“Don’t be silly. He is a nice man,” said my mother. So we went downstairs to the radio repairman.
He took the kit and wiggled some of the wires. Pieces of solder dropped off.
“You have cold solder joints,” he said. “You didn’t hold the soldering iron against the wire long enough until the solder fused onto the terminal. The wires are not making proper contact. You have to re-solder all the joints.”
So I went back to our apartment and re-soldered all of the joints. This time when I plugged in the radio, the tubes lit up.
I happily went to sleep with the beautiful sound of music coming through the headphones.
The Martians Are Coming!
It was 1938. I was eleven years old. It was Sunday night and I was listening to the radio while my parent spoke to the insurance man. He came every week to collect twenty-five cents as a premium for the insurance policies. I usually tried to speak to the insurance man, because he traveled around the neighborhood a lot to collect the premiums for each policy, so I thought he knew many things.
But this time I didn’t stay in the living room to listen to the insurance man because I was late for my favorite radio program, the Orson Welles Mercury Theater. When I turned the radio on, there was dance music playing. That was strange, because the program usually started with a dramatization. Then the announcer interrupted the music to say that there would be a statement by the President of the United States.
“There seems to be an attack on the United States by Martians,” the President said. “Everyone should keep calm. We have the situation under control.”
I ran into the living room, interrupting my parents’ conversation with the insurance man. I practically dragged them to the radio.
“Martians are now in New Jersey,” screamed the radio.
My parents and the insurance man were by now quite concerned.
“Should we run somewhere and hide?” asked my mother. But, after a few minutes more, the announcer came on again and said that the program was a Halloween prank. There were no Martians in New Jersey.
We were among the millions of people who had been fooled by the program. I will never forget how frightening it was.