I feel privileged to have experienced the heyday of radio in the 1940s. Although radio was still important into the 1950s, it no longer had the excitement and wonder of a new media. And, too, I was older by then and not as impressionable.
The magic for me was in the radio itself. This was a guy thing—my sister’s interest stopped at listening to “Let’s Pretend” on Saturday mornings. Our radio was a mahogany-veneered Philco console in the corner of our living room that some jokingly called “the talking furniture.”
On a typical winter evening all that could be seen was the radio’s yellow dial glowing in the dark corner. The only other light came from a dim bridge lamp on the far side of the room that someone was reading by and from light spilling out of the kitchen doorway on the other side of the dark, adjoining dining room. Electricity was not something to be squandered.
I liked to slide in behind the radio in the darkness and look at the electronics that were right at my eye-level. From the back, it seemed alive, like a purring cat, with its radiating heat and low sixty-cycle hum. The muffled sound of the broadcast itself came from the loudspeaker in the section below and seemed detached from what I was seeing.
The electrical parts were protected (or I was protected from the parts) by nothing but a stiff piece of cardboard with large cut-outs and many inch-wide holes to let the heat escape, but this also let in quantities of dust attracted by the static electricity. As I brought my face close to the holes I could feel the heat on my eyes and smell the hot dust with faint overtones of Bakelite. It is still perfume to me. If you have smelled the back of a radio—all radios smelled the same— you know.
The tiny cathodes inside the tubes glowed bright cherry-red like shining windows of a distant cityscape in the night, and you could see the incredible intricacy of these tiny structures protected under glass, made as precisely as the inner workings of my grandfather’s pocket watch. Even the glass of the tubes were a work of art, gracefully expanding toward the top, then arching over and up again to form a small dome. Some tubes were large, some were shielded with metal cylinders reaching almost to their tops, and some were in matched pairs. Etched into their sides were cryptic identification numbers—6SJ7 designated a common audio amplifier tube—and some had a separate metal connection fused into the top of the dome. No skyscraper was more beautiful.
On the far side of the tubes were the curious plates of the tuning capacitor, about ten half-circles of metal that rotated between ten other fixed half-circles of metal (so close, yet not touching) positioned right behind and directly rotated by the tuning knob on the front. Above them was the circular dial that turned in unison with the plates by a dusty cord looping over several pulleys and knotted to a spring to keep it taut. All of this was dimly lit by light leaking from around the shielded bulb of the dial.
The dial itself was carefully and beautifully designed to convey a sense of precision. The illuminating bulb shone through two translucent sheets. The first stationary one had a cut-out of an arrow and the second rotating one was marked in black with the frequency scale. The result seen from the front was a small square showing curving black numbers and tick marks on an evenly glowing yellow background with a bright yellow arrow pointing to the exact frequency tuned in. The scale was logarithmic, so the tick marks became progressively closer as the frequencies rose, and this added to the sense of precision. The space above 160 was marked “Police Calls,” but I never heard any.
Coming from the back was a bare antenna wire that I knew was copper but so tarnished it looked like lead. I could trace the wire up the wall behind me and out the bottom of a small window near the ceiling that closed tightly against it. I knew from other times this was the same wire that came out of the window high above our driveway, stretching along the outside wall, carefully held away from the stucco by white ceramic supports, and then jumping off in a graceful, hanging arc to the peak of our garage roof at the rear of our backyard.
Somehow, during the black, winter nights, these were all working together to capture the sounds of big bands, comedians, and audience laughter occurring at that very moment in big cities hundreds of miles away, events that somehow interacted with that ice-covered wire swinging in the freezing wind.