Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 24
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: April 1986 Volume 24 Number 2, Pages 50–54
Club Members Remember Early Radio
It is my recollection that in the early days of radio -- and, in fact, not so long ago'-- some of the local stations would sometimes fade out. You'd be listening to some local station, like WCAU for example, and all of a sudden you'd be getting a station in Canada!
Without getting too technical, there is this layer of ionized gases in space, called the Heaviside Layer or Ionosphere. A radio signal will goup -- it doesn't follow the curvature of the earth -- until it hits this layer, and then it bounces back down to earth some place. Changes in the ionosphere cause the fading of the signal. WCAU isn't a good example, but a low-powered station, like WPEN, can be overrun by another signal from some other station as it bounces back to earth. Fading of the distant station could cause an intermittent drowning out of the local station. And while you could hear the station from Canada, it is probable that people between you and the station couldn't hear it..
Most of the radios today have automatic volume controls. With automatic volume control, the circuit itself increases the volume to compensate for that fading.
The frequencies that you have on the broadcast bands of radios are heard better at night and better in the wintertime. Because of this, some stations have less power at night, A local station may operate at 5,000 watts during the daytime, but, since it would interfere with stations at a distance at night, drop down, say, to 1,000 watts at night. So if you are listening to it at 5,000 watts and it drops down to 1,000 watts, you are probably not going to hear it as well. There are also some stations that broadcast only during the day; at night they sign off and go off the air altogether. WNAR in Norristown, for example, is one of them.
In the thirties the station having its transmitter closest to our two townships was WCAU. Its transmitter was in Newtown Square, and when I was a kid in Norristown and had a little one-tube set I built, I always got WCAU real loud.
I lived on a farm down near King of Prussia. Some of the seed companies advertised that if you sold so many packs of seed you'd get the workings for a crystal set.
So I sent away for one. I got an oatmeal box, and took all the copper wire out of a Model T Ford magneto -- it seemed like I had a mile of it! Then I soldered the wire all around the cardboard box to make the coil.
Using the earphones, I'd play with the set until I found a station. And then everybody would come in, yelping "I want to hear it". We found out that if you put the earphones in a real crystal bowl, everybody could hear.
We had a windmill, and when I hooked the ground wire to the windmill, you got wonderful reception every time that the pipe went down into the water, but when it got to the top it faded out. The best reception I ever got -- and I got a whopping for it too -- was when I took my grandmother's real silk "bumbershoot", as she called it, that she had bought from Sak's, and took all the silk off it and put the steel shaft into a pipe in the ground that we used for the clothes line. It gave me really good reception.
My first experience with radio was one day when I went up to visit Lou Burns and his wife, who had an apartment where St. Monica's School is now. We went into the dining room and they had this contraption in a corner. It was a crystal set, and they put the earphones in a cut-glass bowl. I've forgotten what we heard, but it was wonderful!
Later, when I was working in the post office, Pinchot was being sworn in as governor of Pennsylvania. I remember it was a stormy day, but I went up to Mr. Latshaw's to hear Governor Pinchot being inaugurated.
I heard radio for the first time in about 1922. A cousin, who lived in Pottstown, had a crystal set he put together with a component that his father had given him, using an oatmeal box to wind the wire on. When we were there at Christmas time he finally got station KDKA in Pittsburgh. I was about ten years old at the time.
Sometime after that we had summer neighbors named Dagit, of the Dagit architectural firm. They lived about a half mile away during the summer months, and I remember hearing the Dempsey-Tunney boxing match there on their radio. We were also invited at other times during the summer when there were musical programs, which my mother enjoyed. I am not sure of the year, but I think it was around the time of the Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia.
After that our neighbors, the Kulps, acquired a battery set to help pass the time for Mrs. Kulp's blind mother. We used to go over in the evening and listen to Lowell Thomas and Amos 'n' Andy and some of the other fifteen-minute programs which I don't remember now.
When we had electricity installed, we were given an old Atwater Kent, with a horn speaker and three dials, which had to be synchronized to bring in the stations. I remember tuning it for my mother, who was not mechanically inclined and could not understand why the dials had to be exactly the same. We then got a small set, with the speaker inside. It resembled a Gothic church window, pointed on top. It was easier to tune and my mother enjoyed hearing the music so much, especially the opera stars, and Mme. Schumann-Heink on Christmas Eve. She had worked in the box office at the old Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia before she and my father were married, and had met quite a few of the opera singers of the time -- Nellie Melba, Galli-Curci, Caruso, Schumann-Heink and others.
When she went to work for the Rosenbach company in Philadelphia in 1932 she was their only woman salesperson. Among her customers were Mr. and Mrs. Sayre Ramsdell. Mr. Ramsdell, I believe, was either the president or vice-president of the Philco Corporation at that time. One day he said he would like to give my mother a present to show his appreciation for her help and asked her what she would like. She demurred, but he was insistent, so she said she would like a radio. She thought no more about it until one day the baggage man at the Paoli station said that he had a crate addressed to her and asked if she would arrange to pick it up. It was about four feet by three feet by three feet! They had to hoist it up the steps to the parking lot and lay it across the back seat of our Lincoln touring car, with the top of the car down, and tie it in! It was the largest set that Philco made! It was so big that there wasn't a place for it in our living room. My father used to say that if we ever wanted to build an addition on the barn or the chicken house, that crate would furnish almost all the lumber we'd need.
Some of the early daytime serials (soap operas or soaps as they are now called) that I remember were One Man's Family, Ma Perkins, Stella Dallas, and My Gal Sunday. And of course there was Little Orphan Annie, and Ovaltine. I think there was also a program called Skippy, with Jackie Coogan as a youngster. They were favorites then, just as the soaps on television are today. I also enjoyed the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons with Milton Cross as the narrator, and some of the Pittsburgh Symphony and organ programs from Chicago. When I started to work full time in 1943 I really missed these daytime programs.
Our first radio was a gift from Lowell Gable. (Before Mr. Gable went into the business of restoring old Pennsylvania houses he was a Guernsey breeder. My father was also a Guernsey breeder, and that's how they met.)
The radio was in a console, a big piece of furniture that sat on the floor. But for some reason it didn't work too well; we couldn't get much volume from it, even with the volume turned up all the way.
Then we got a small set. My father was a Philadelphia A's baseball fan, and my job was to sit at the radio and get all the scores and write them down, so that he could see them and find out how the A's did when he came in from the barn for supper.
The prediction that radio could be used in schools certainly proved to be a good one. We didn't have "second-rate" teachers back when I went to school in Malvern in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but I can remember that every Friday we'd all gather in the double class room on the second floor to listen to the Walter Damrosch music appreciation program. Most of what I know about classical music I learned from that program!
And I think that the latest I ever stayed up when I was a little boy was one night when we were visiting some friends of the family in Beechwood Park. After they had finished playing bridge, and my brother and I had been awakened to go home, our hosts turned on their radio and started to listen in for distant stations, DXing. I still can remember how excited they were when they got a station in Kansas City, because that is where they had lived before they moved to the Philadelphia area.
One other recollection I have of radio fifty years ago is of walking down Walnut Avenue in Wayne at seven o'clock on a summer evening, and hearing the entire Amos 'n' Andy program. Just about every house had it on, and with the windows all open you wouldn't miss a word as you walked down the street.
I think almost everybody listened to Amos 'n' Andy -- the Fresh Air Taxi Company, Kingfish, Madame Queen, Sapphire, and all the rest of them.
On Sundays on WCAU they now have what they call the "Golden Oldies", and you can hear some of these old programs -- Henry Aldrich and the Aldrich Family, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Great Gildersleeve, Fred Allen and Portland, The Shadow, and so on.
From five to seven every evening we listened, first, to Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, sponsored by Wheaties; then came Little Orphan Annie, and that was sponsored by Ovaltine; and then Dick Tracy, which, was, I think, sponsored by Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat. I drank so much Ovaltine and ate so much cereal to send in the box tops to get my decoder rings and badges and compasses and all the other things you could get!
I was talking with Alice Siddal Stray, and she recalled that in her family they didn't have a radio when she was a little girl. So her early memories of radio were the disadvantage she felt at school. She'd come in and all her classmates would be talking about the programs that they had heard the night before, and she'd heard none of them. Or the teacher would say, "I want you all to listen to such and such a program tonight", and she couldn't do it because her family didn't have a radio. Her home wasn't one of the 18 million that had a set in 1934!
But it gives some idea of how important radio was, and how much we were affected by it back then.
Page last updated: 2009-07-29 at 14:31 EST