Antique Radio article May 03

An autobiography of a radio collector and amateur historian.

Robert Lozier – Monroe, NC; USA

1. Background

In the 1950’s & 60’s my hometown, in the Piedmont region of Southeastern USA, was primarily a town for farming and textile production.  The nearby big city, Charlotte, was (and still is) a center for retail commerce and distribution.  Manufacturing businesses for the support of the telecommunications industry and radio broadcasting seldom selected this area of the country for factories.  Prior to WW-II this area was considerably less well off than in the triangle between Washington, Boston and Chicago.  Therefore people had less income to spend on such luxuries as radios.  Relatively few people were exposed to such technical industry.  For these reasons, there have been relatively few collectors of vintage radio equipment in this area.  

2. The start of interest

Just after beginning my primary school education (1952) I almost died after complications from minor surgery.  My parents were advised that I was a frail child that should refrain from strenuous activity.  (Advice that would never be given today under the same circumstances.)  Therefore I did not participate in sports and eventually developed an interest in short wave radio listening after my father gave me a used Hallicrafters S-40 communications receiver for my eleventh birthday.   It was a wonderful gift to me from a father with very little money but lots of love for mom and the three children.  Soon I was sending off radio reception reports to the likes of Radio Moscow, the BBC and even RAI in order to receive their colorful QSL cards.  On the last Tuesday of every month I would walk for about a half-hour to get to Jones Newsstand; located across the street from the Union County courthouse square.  Here I would make a beeline for the new issue of Popular Electronics magazine and then go to the back of the store to pick out a comic book.  And, as time went buy, of course most of my thoughts were on how to sneak peeks inside the girlie magazines when the proprietor was not looking.

Popular Electronics always had features on short wave listening, “SWL-ing”, and plenty of articles on constructing all kinds of electronic equipment.  Along about 1964, there was an article titled “Restoreth Thy Relic”.  It presented instructions on how to return an early 1930’s vintage “cathedral” radio to good operating condition.  I read the article with some interest but did not have any idea where I could get such a radio for restoration.  This was a time when I had just graduated from High School and was working full time in a J. C. Penney Co. retail clothing store in order to save enough money to buy a used car so that I could attend a technical college in Charlotte.

By 1966 I had bought a baby blue 1959 American Motors Rambler station wagon and began Electronics Engineering Technology classes at Central Piedmont Community College.  Short wave listening was still of great interest to me and I was always going back through old magazines like Popular Electronics for information on project ideas.  I’m sure that I read, again, the “Restoreth Thy Relic” article.  By this time I remembered that I had seen an “antiques shop” on one of my outings to the countryside in my, new-to-me, Rambler.  The shop was called the Red Barn and was located about 12 miles south of town.  One fine Saturday morning I decided to go to the shop and have a look around.  There was plenty of glassware, old tools, general household furnishings and “old time” primitive furniture but not a radio in sight…. I finally told the proprietor that I’d like to find an old radio to fix up but did not see one in his shop.  He said that he had one in a building out back and invited me to follow him.

The building turned out to be two or three abandoned chicken houses filled to the rafters with more primitive furniture, old farm tools and machinery.  The houses had not even been cleaned out after the last truckloads of chickens had gone off to slaughter.….   The proprietor approached a bread loaf like mound of wood shavings and chicken manure and kicked some if it aside to reveal a radio cabinet!  It turned out to be an RCA Radiola 18 broadcast receiver of 1927 vintage.  Much to my surprise, the cabinet seemed to be fairly OK and most of the paint was still good on the two radio chassis.  I said that I thought it might be possible to get it going and asked him how much he wanted for the radio.  I think he said $25 and I remembered that I though the guy was insane!  But the old guy could see that I was hooked and stuck to his price.  After a couple of evenings work, I had the radio working and not long after the cabinet was looking pretty good after stripping, staining and several coats of polyurethane varnish.

3. I’m a collector!

Sometime around the start of the 1967 Fall semester at the technical school there were plans to have an “open house” where prospective students, their families and people active in local government and education would visit.  By this time I had about 20 vintage radios and decided to exhibit them in the electronics lab as a way of showing how far radio technology had advanced in less than 50 years.  People thought it curious that someone would actually want to collect such things.   I did not know anyone that had a similar interest.  It would be another three years before I learned of the Antique Wireless Association, Inc.  By 1973, I was making plans to attend my first AWA conference in Rochester, New York.

4. But all the good stuff is gone….

I will never forget the first visit I made to Bruce Kelley’s “barn” on a Thursday evening before the start of the conference.  Really a fine little carriage house filled to overflowing with the finest in radio technology from 1900 to 1930.  I could only go away in complete amazement thinking that guys like him must already have all the “good stuff”.  In 1973 it was already too late to ever think that I could assemble a collection of any consequence…..

5. Where I found it….

I was discouraged but did not stop collecting because I enjoyed fixing up the old equipment and also enjoyed going to Friday night and Saturday morning estate auctions.  As mentioned earlier, people in this area were not as well off before WW-II so few vintage radios were to be found locally.  However there were several auctioneers in my region that would contract for “pickers” to bring down trailer loads of antiques and collectable merchandise from Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Ohio.  For a period of about ten years I was able to buy many fine broadcast receivers at these local auctions that are still in my collection today. 

I was aware that some collectors specialized in military, commercial or amateur radio equipment.  I found this equipment technically interesting but seldom had the opportunity to buy.  That is when I decided that specializing in broadcast receivers for use in the home would be most productive.

Soon I was earning enough money to make one to three trips per year to central Pennsylvania.  There is an area there that was a virtual Mecca for collectors of all things vintage or antique.  As I began to meet other collectors I found that there were regional meetings for vintage radio enthusiasts so two or three of these meetings were added to my annual routine.  (To date I have attended something like 160!)

6. I’m an exhibitionist!

At the first AWA conference I attended in 1973, there was an exhibition of equipment brought in by participants at the conference.  Ribbons were awarded in various categories based on historical significance, rarity, quality of restoration, documentation, etc.   After a few years I thought I had a few items that were worthy of exhibition.  Every year I would come away with one or two ribbons.  By the mid-1980’s placing vintage equipment on exhibition was a major focus of my hobby.

The research necessary to properly exhibit radio items provided me with material to prepare a number of lectures on company history, political impact of broadcasting, early television history and articles on restoration and preservation techniques. 

I began to think differently about my collecting….  Was it really a good idea to “get the old gear running” if it required significant parts replacements? (No)…  Does the cabinet on an old radio need to look brand new? (No)…  Should I assume that people seeing the item know something about the history of the manufacturer and the times in which they were produced? (No)…   Should we have any interest in technology and products developed outside the USA? (Yes !)….  Should we devote time to educating new generations about the history of telecommunications technology, the people and institutions that made it possible for the equipment to be manufactured? (Absolutely !)….

I now believe that it is most important to keep equipment, as close as possible, identical to the way it was originally built.  This will often mean that the equipment will no longer work.  Capacitors go leaky or open circuit, resistors open or change value, tubes become weak, etc.  But if you replace these parts with new components, then future generations will no longer be able to know how the old components were made or why they fail.  In other words you are corrupting the historical record.

An old radio need not look brand new….  It is far better to properly conserve an item suffering only the usual signs of exposure to the decades.  Of course you will acquire items that are so badly damaged that conservation work will do little to make the item presentable.  In such cases, restoration is justified if you take the time to do the work correctly.  Remember my telling you about my first old radio?  The Radiola 18?  I did not properly research the methods originally used to finish the mahogany cabinet.  I should have used a rather heavy lacquer finish that completely filled the pores of the wood rather than the polyurethane varnish coating showing open wood grain.

I have enjoyed preparing my exhibitions to incorporate not just technical data on the item but to give interested viewers the opportunity to see what kind of advertising was used to promote the product.  If at all possible I give a brief history of the company that produced the product.  I try to assemble recordings of music, comedy or political discourse to play through a loudspeaker. (Almost always the loudspeaker can be operated without having to make repairs to the radio.)  I even try to give the exhibition viewer some idea of how the radio might have been placed in the home.  All these things help to place the equipment in the proper historical perspective.  Over the years my efforts at exhibition have been recognized by the awarding of many first and second place ribbons, Best of Show plaques, plaques for Best Restoration and Best Presentation.  The ARCA Museum Award and the AWA Houck Award for equipment preservation.

I have been able to team with other long-time collectors in the area, Ron Lawrence, Ted Miller, Ernie Hite and Stephen Brown to mount long term exhibitions at two museums in Charlotte.  We would all like to see a permanent exhibition of telecommunications equipment in our area but have not yet located sponsors or a large enough group of interested persons to make such a dream a reality.   There are very few places here in the US where students can see and learn, in any detail, about the history of man’s great technologies.  How can students determine fields of interest for their working careers if they have no sense of the paths of development in technologies?

7. Curiosity about things abroad….

As my knowledge of American broadcast radio history increased I began to be curious about how broadcast radio had developed in other parts of the world.  Just about this time I had the great good fortune to meet an Italian national who was working in the USA.  This amazing world traveler had developed an interest in collecting broadcast radios while in the US and I was delighted to have him visit my home a number of times and exchange hundreds of pages of letters and other information over the last 20 years.

Some 15 years ago he returned home to Italy but we remained friends…. By this time I was eager to acquire representative examples of European made radios to contrast to the designs and manufacturing techniques employed here in the US.  However I am not wealthy enough to be able to make cash purchases of collectible radios from European sources.   Another stroke of good fortune….  For this guy, trading is in his blood.  All I needed to do was to locate and trade interesting American made radios for European sets.

Still another stroke of good fortune was in the fact that he worked as a sales agent and technical representative for an Italian knitting machine company and this company maintained a distribution and service office near my home town.  With such international commerce connections, he could make arrangements to ship vintage radio equipment at very reasonable cost to both of us.  Thus we were able to trade dozens of items over a ten year period.

By now you may have guessed that this very interesting  gentleman is none other than Vic Franzoni who lives near Brescia, Italy.  He and his wife Maggie were kind enough to invite me to visit on holiday in June of 1989.  Vic made arrangements for us to visit many outstanding collectors and even to tour RAI’s Turino studio historical collection even though it was not then open to the public at that time.  With out a doubt, Vic, his wife and the collectors I visited made this the best vacation of my life!

As I acquired these interesting new additions to my collection, I needed to research their history and I therefore began my memberships in the British BVWS and the German GFGF historical societies.  This gave me the opportunity to meet other collectors and amateur historians from many other parts of Europe.  I’ve been able to take one holiday and two business trips to the UK with a number of great opportunities to visit fine collections and share great conversation.  I’m hooked!  If it were not for the bad economy of the last few years forcing a loss of a good job, I would be visiting collectors in Europe every year.  Hopefully the day will come when I can travel again.

8. Someone has to do it….

One other radio related activity that has been important to me for over 25 years is helping to run a regional conference for vintage radio enthusiasts.  On the third weekend of March the Carolinas Chapter of the Antique Wireless Association hosts a three-day event attracting over 300 collectors from 20 states.  The event features a flea market exclusively for vintage radio buying, selling and trading.  There are usually some 90+ vendors filling about 130 parking spaces.  There are lectures, an old equipment exhibition and two auctions.  A great opportunity to see old friends and make new ones in this hobby that remains small in  numbers even though the telecommunications industry has had a dramatic impact on the lives of virtually all the people of the Earth for the last 150 years.

9. Technology advancement never stops….

When I first began collecting, I thought the only broadcast receivers worthy of ownership had to be made during the 1920’s.  It was amazing to learn that literally thousands of companies, large and small, built radios at one time or the other in the 1920’s.  There were a tremendous variety of cabinet designs and hundreds of variations on circuit design.  As I became more familiar with these design variations, I developed a curiosity for whatever came next and therefore, after about ten years, I started actively seeking out radio designs of the 1930’s.  By the late 1980’s I found myself looking for items made in the 50’s and soon developed a special interest in early examples of transistorized radios.   I’ll even admit to having had fun collecting novelty transistor radios some five years before the boom in this sort of collecting.

I also had an interest in collecting representative examples of American televisions.  Of course these TV’s can take up a great deal of floor space.  I do have 15 nice items including three black & white projection TV’s of the late 1940’s, the Philco Predicta & Safari, two “porthole” Zenith’s, RCA 630 chassis set built by Air King, etc.

The most valuable item in my collection is not a radio but a television.  It is a circa 1930 Jenkins JK-20 scanning disk television receiver and matching Jenkins 60 line scanner.  This item appeared for sale at a large amateur radio “hamfest” in Charlotte.  Only one other extraordinary radio item has ever been seen for sale at that event.

An outfit like this is far too valuable to repair to working condition especially because there were never any modifications from the day Mr. Murphy of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania  built it.  However, I wanted very much to witness 60 line scan television pictures as would have been seen in 1930.  After much research on the subject I decided to design and build my own scanning disk camera and receiver.  I determined that the system must be robust enough to run for hours at a time while on exhibition.  Components over sixty years old simply could not perform under such conditions reliably.  (At an exhibition you do not have the luxury of making repairs on the spot.)  Therefore, while the mechanical components are faithful to original concepts, the electronics make use of modern solid state parts.  Great care was taken to insure that the fidelity of images produced are very close to what would have been received over the air under good conditions way back then.   I have derived great pleasure in demonstrating the equipment at several conferences and now keep the outfit set up for demonstration at my home.

The radio industry of the USA was the largest in the world for at least 45 years and therefore may well lay claim to having introduced 50% of all technical and design innovation during those times.  However that means that there still was a tremendous amount of innovation in the rest of the world.  Because of protectionism in world trade, limited exchange of technical information and business licensing restrictions in many countries; many American vintage radio collectors are poorly informed about this overseas industry. 

I have a great curiosity about this industry…  When looking at radios like the Loewe OE-333 with it’s single vacuum tube containing not only three sets of tube elements but also the resistors and capacitors necessary to for a complete detector and amplifier module; to American eyes, this radio could well have been designed and built on Mars!  There never was such an equivalent in American practice. 

There are sets like the 1937 Philips D-57 “mono knob”, a radio with unique cabinet design and method of control with audio quality unmatched in any American table model sets of the 1930’s.  The whole dramatic story of how the Germans and Italians produced cheap standardized radios to aid in indoctrination of the people.   The state control of broadcasting, usually supported directly by annual taxation on radio ownership, which encouraged the manufacture of simple radios with only two or three tubes.  The language barrier for the average man reduced the interest in expensive, highly sensitive and selective radios to pick up foreign broadcasts.

My present goal is to own one or two examples of broadcast receivers from each decade of radios manufactured in every country.  To date, I have about 30 countries represented with at least one radio.

10. A good job never lasts forever these days….

I worked on the engineering team of one electronic instrument factory for 25 years.  Some ten years ago it was acquired by an international electrical and electronics firm.  In 1999 we were told that the factory would be closed and the manufacturing consolidated at another factory about 500 miles away.  I was offered employment at the other factory but declined to accept.  About the same time my mother, who had lived in my home for twenty years, fell victim to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.  I decided that I would take some of the severance money received at my dismissal and spend time caring for my mother.  I located a fine woman near retirement age to come and care for my mother during the daytime Monday through Friday.  I used that free time to build my “dream workshop” for the conservation, restoration and research of vintage radio equipment. 

11.  My Dream Workshop

The project required 11 months of work since I did all the design and 95% of all labor with the exception of the electrical wiring.  I hired an electrical contractor to do the work in order to avoid problems with maintaining household insurance coverage for all my property.  I made it a point to document all the details of constructing this building and now have some 13 web pages available on the Internet to explain in photos and text exactly what I did and the reasons for the way the building is constructed.  You can see for yourself at:

When the contents of the closed factory were shipped to the other factory, there were items that were declared surplus to the on-going business.  My former employer made it possible for me to salvage commercial grade electronic workbenches, a computer work station, file cabinets, chairs, etc.  I also obtained a small milling machine and other miscellaneous goods that I converted into a very good parts storage module. The building is not large but it has proven to be a near ideal place to work.  Most visitors are impressed by the professional feel of my little facility.
12.  That’s all that comes to mind to date….

I recall reading that the majority of people maintain active interest in a hobby for an average of five years.  After 37 years with one hobby, I just cannot imagine loosing interest in vintage communication technology.  In the free time available to a person that must still work full time; I hope to fill out my remaining days conserving and documenting relics of radio history, collecting information for publication, lecturing and teaching, exhibiting equipment whenever possible and enjoying the friendship of others interested in perpetuating the knowledge of this most interesting endeavor of mankind.

Robert Lozier  -  October 14, 2003