Audio

What Were You Doing In The 1950s?

The Heathkit CR-1

I’m going to take a journey off the usual beaten path this time. There won’t be any discussions about wireless, or Ultra HDTV, or how the profusion of display interface standards continues to muddy the picture for UHD imaging and beyond.

No, today I’m going to go back in time. W-A-Y back, like the end of the 1950s. (Remember them? Then you’re a Baby Boomer for sure….)

Every once in a while, I log into eBay and just cruise around their site, looking for unusual items. Most of the time, it’s to find old baseball cards, photos or programs, or other oddball baseball ephemera. But this time was different, and my search was initiated by a fortuitous eBay “suggestion,” one that grabbed my attention in a hurry.

The item in question was a vintage Heathkit crystal radio receiver, model CR-1. The Heath Company of Chicago and later Benton Harbor MI had been producing various kits since 1912, including a “build-it-yourself” television and even an airplane back in the early days. (The founder, Ed Heath, died in a test flight crash in 1931; so much for that idea….)

Those readers who hold (or held) amateur radio licenses, like me, know Heathkit intimately. Lots of us learned how to build electronic gadgets by assembling volt ohmeters (VOMs), signal generators, oscilloscopes (those were for the more ambitious) and numerous ham radio transmitters, receivers, transceivers, amplifiers, Morse code keyers and other goodies.

And of course, Heath also offered “hi-fi” kits back when that became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s. The company was sold in 1962 and again in 1979 (to Zenith), and eventually closed its doors in 1992 because it could not compete with other manufacturers of computer kits and the switch to microcomponents and wave soldering. (Plus, kids in the 1990s just didn’t think building kits was very interesting.)

The author and his sister, Mary, watching the TV/hi-fi that their father built. Photo is circa late 1950s.
The author and his sister, Mary, watching the TV/hi-fi that their father built. Photo is circa late 1950s.

Although Heathkit has been resurrected twice (the latest iteration in 2013 after a bankruptcy in 2012), it’s a shadow of its former self from 50 years ago. Back then, Dad would often buy a Heathkit product that he and Junior could build together (usually with Dad smoking a pipe, as the advertisements showed). It could be a new-fangled stereo amplifier or FM receiver with multiplex detector. Or perhaps a radio-controlled airplane or a remote weather station.

That’s what my father did. Trained as a chemical engineer in the 1940s and a WW2 veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers, he enjoyed dabbling in electronics now and then. In fact, he built his own integrated hi-fi system with Heathkit preamp and power amplifier (running 6550 tubes in Class AB, as I recall), and a Fisher FM receiver. A Garrard turntable and homebrew black-and-white TV rounded out the system, housed on top of, and inside, a wooden shelving unit with perf-board sliding doors to conceal everything.

We got lots of use out of that system for many years. And my apparent curiosity at a young age in “how does that work?” led him, in a moment of temporary insanity, looking at it from all these years later, to buy a Heathkit CR-1 crystal radio receiver that, together, “we” would put together.

Now, asking a six-year-old to build anything electronic is overly ambitious. I would not have trusted myself with a soldering iron back then, let alone installing electronic components on terminal strips. But the kit did get built, and it was just a short time later that a long wire antenna was installed outside my bedroom, with an overly generous ground wire running down the side of the house, through the garage below and over to a large eight-foot ground rod that had been hammered in previously for our rooftop TV antenna. (Remember those? Yep, you’re a Boomer….)

I spent many hours wearing the uncomfortable high-impedance ACME carbon headphones that came with the CR-1, dialing in nearby powerhouse AM stations like WOR (710kHz), WABC (770kHz), WINS (1010kHz), WHN/WMGM (1050kHz) and WNEW (1130kHz). The signals weren’t really loud, but I could hear them clearly enough in a quiet room. Top 40 hits, news, New York Yankees baseball games and legendary radio hosts like John Gambling, Scott Muni, Bruce Morrow, Murray the K and Jean Shepherd. I listened to all of them, even sneaking my headphones on after I went to bed and turned the lights off.

The author, about age 12, working at his first low-power radio station. The Dutch Masters cigar box under the Zenith radio is a crude mixer.
The author, about age 12, working at his first low-power radio station. The Dutch Masters cigar box under the Zenith radio is a crude mixer.

(For those of you who don’t know how a crystal radio works, here’s a quick explanation. The long wire antenna (the longer, the better), in combination with a pair of tuning capacitors and a rather large iron-core inductor, achieve resonance during tuning at different AM frequencies. So much RF energy is coupled into the L/C circuit that it can be rectified by a small geranium diode, usually a 1N34. The output of the diode is then coupled into a pair of high-impedance headphones (sorry, no volume control!) and, voila, you hear the broadcast as an amplitude-modulated signal. The beauty of crystal radio receivers is that they don’t need any power; if the signal from the station is strong enough, you’ll hear it.)

I loved that receiver. I used it every chance I got for the next few years, even though my parents tried to distract me with some “build-it-yourself” science kits that came packaged in round cardboard oatmeal-style containers. Yeah, I built a few of those (and almost killed my Mom when she tripped over the wires for the burglar alarm kit). But the CR-1 was still my first love.

A move to a new city and house a couple of years later led to the long wire coming down and the CR-1 winding up in a box in the basement. As my interest grew in electronics, I started building more ambitious kits. Then it was on to “phono oscillators” (look ‘em up on Wikipedia), crude wireless microphones and, by high school, high-power pirate radio stations on AM (1600) and FM (108). Not long after that, I got my first amateur radio license (WB2OHV, Technician Class).

After college, I was stringing antennas around my apartment. Then, it was a 40-foot tower at the first house I owned, with ham radio stations operating from 1.8MHz (160 meters) to 1.2GHz (23 centimeters). At my second house, a 65-foot Tri-Ex tower went up with 11 yagis on it for VHF/UHF and microwave operation. I communicated via satellites, bounced signals off the moon, carried backpack microwave stations up mountains, and went through pounds of Kester 60/40 solder building kits and my own homebrew projects.

Along the way, I lost track of the CR-1. I’m guessing I probably took it apart and used the components for something else, much as I did an electric guitar (to my father’s chagrin), a couple of stereos and numerous 1930s to 1950s vintage radios and hi-fi sets I salvaged during Junk Week in my home town.

Back to the present: I’ve been working in the AV industry for 37 years, and it’s been more than 20 years since I built a kit. The parts got a lot smaller and I need reading glasses now, so spending hours soldering doesn’t have quite the appeal it did 50 years ago. Even though I keep my ham license (Amateur Extra KT2B) active, I don’t do much with it aside from getting together with other hams at the annual NAB Ham Radio Reception.

But seeing the CR-1 on eBay lit a fire. And after my bid was successful, it showed up a few days later in my mailbox. I felt like a little kid again! (Yeah, it was dirty. I cleaned it up, tightened a few screws and checked for cold solder joints.) The previous owner had still been using it, coupling the headphone output into his stereo system, believe it or not.

Looking back in time, everything I’ve accomplished in the AV and broadcast worlds (and even cinema) is directly the result of my father buying that CR-1 many years ago. Who knows? If he had started me on a stamp collection, or gifted me with a fishing rod or a BB gun, I probably wouldn’t be writing this column. Maybe it’s time to update that Chinese proverb, “Catch a boy a fish and you feed him for a day. Build a boy a crystal radio and he’ll grow up to be an InfoComm Senior Faculty Instructor and SMPTE Education Director someday.”

How about you? What started you on a career in the wacky world of AV? Drop me an email; I’d love to hear your story! Send your thoughts to pputman@testa.com.

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