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Vintage Radio
WSHU Chief Engineer Paul Litwinovich explores aspects of vintage radio, from the radio sets themselves to the people and technology that made it all possible.

But are they really antiques?

Paul Litwinovich

This is one of the common questions that I am asked whenever the subject of vintage electronics crops up, which is often since I am an avid collector of antique electronic equipment.

Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "antique" as 1: a relic or object of ancient times or of an earlier period than the present. 2: a work of art, piece of furniture, or decorative object made at an earlier period and according to many customs laws at least 100 years old. 3:Made in or representative of the work of an earlier period.

There are several schools of thought regarding antiques in general. If one follows the customs laws that imply that the item must be at least 100 years old, then early radio sets are rapidly approaching that age. Some devices such as early telephones and telegraph equipment may be well past that point. Many states will issue "antique" auto tags for vehicles over 25 or 50 years of age. Some collectors will only consider the ancient such as Egyptian art or a Ming vase to be truly an antique.

I prefer the definition " Made in or representative of the work of an earlier period". Furniture has been around for more than 3000 years, so a 75 year old table may not be of much monetary or historical value. Radio on the other hand, has been around for a little less than 100 years and television for less than 70 years*, therefore a 75 year old radio or 58 year old TV represent excellent examples of a technology at its early stages. There is no doubt that vintage electronics are collectable. Do a search on E-Bay for "antique radio" and it will return a several hundred items. Type in vintage radio, and you will get a couple of thousand items, not to mention search results for specific brands, models or types of sets. The more savvy dealers list by specifics rather than generalities as the more serious collectors will seek them out. While they won't fetch six figure prices like some colonial furniture, I've seen rare sets sell for several thousand dollars, some rare sets fetching more than $10,000.  On line auctions are not the only place to find antique electronics. There are dozens of on-line shops featuring both restored and unrestored pieces. Spend an afternoon visiting antiques shops and you can't help but stumble on a few of these old sets. Don’t overlook the flea market or the church rummage sale.   Vintage electronics are certainly displayable. There are dozens of museums and hundreds of websites dedicated to the subject. Do an online search for the ones in your area.

I think of these old sets as more than just nostalgic, they are a part of history, the birth of the electronic age. More important than the sets themselves are the milestones that they represent and the information that they conveyed. Imagine monitoring the CQD** call from the Titanic on that fateful night, listening to Roosevelt's "day of infamy" speech, or watching the World Series for the first time on a 6 inch black and white  round screen. They remind me of the engineers who designed them in a market where every innovation was as important then as being first to introduce a new computer chip is today. I think of people who built them in factories, some of these covering many acres of land, some working under high standards, others in sweat shops. They also bring to mind the early days for live radio programming and the birth of broadcast journalism.

*Television as we know it (using picture tubes for display) premiered in 1936. Early forms using mechanical scanning discs and modulated light sources were developed as early as 1924, and were conceptualized earlier than that.

**CQD preceded SOS as in international distress call. It is derived from Morse code slang for "seek you" (CQ) which meant "calling any station, the D was added for “distress” It is coded as : -.-.  --.-  -..