Click the images below to view our current exhibits.
- Gallery 1: Wireless Beginnings
- Gallery 2: Birth of Broadcasting
- Gallery 3: Radio Comes of Age
- Gallery 4: Radio’s Golden Age
- Gallery 5: Post-War Radio
- Gallery 6: Rise of Television
- Gallery 7: How it all Works
- Portable Radio in American Life
Gallery 1: Wireless Beginnings
In the late 19th century, inventors and experimenters sought to send telegraph signals without the use of wires. They used the term “wireless telegraphy” (or simply wireless) to describe sending Morse Code (dots and dashes) through the air. Once wireless telegraphy was shown to be feasible in the late 1890s, experimenters worked to develop continuous wave transmitters that could send voices and music by means of wireless telephony. By World War I (1914-18) the term “radio” had come into common use in America to describe both wireless telegraphy and telephony. This first museum gallery displays some of this early equipment. The first wireless transmitters operated by generating sparks. When a “spark gap” is connected to an antenna and ground system, dots and dashes of Morse code can be transmitted as they are generated using a telegraph key. But spark transmitters can not carry voices or music because they don’t generate the continuous waves required. Arc transmitters and high frequency alternators were improved transmitters developed before World War I. Both could generate the continuous radio waves needed for radio telephony, allowing voice and music to be heard over the air. Beginning about 1920 they were slowly replaced with far more efficient vacuum tube transmitters that would dominate radio for decades. Initial wireless receivers used “coherer” detectors connected to Morse inkers, a device that printed out the dots and dashes on a paper tape. (We have a replica on display.) Later improvements included magnetic and crystal detectors, and later, vacuum tube detectors. Until 1920, radio was solely used to communicate “point-to-point,” often where it would be difficult to string wires. Ship-to-shore communication was one early application, as was communication between the mainland and offshore islands. Radio operators saw wireless as a way to undercut high rates charged by telegraph companies, such as Western Union. Amateur operators (“hams”) steadily improved their transmitters and receivers. Often highly competent technically, they formed a cadre of knowledgeable people to assist the U.S. Army and Navy in World War I, and to help popularize radio’s use in communities across America. The fact that anyone with a suitable receiver could “listen in” to wireless, however, was initially considered a serious disadvantage of radio as those sending messages couldn’t count on privacy! Only slowly did a few experimenters realize that this could actually be an advantage, and the idea of broadcasting to a wider audience was slowly developed by several people in widely scattered locations. When KDKA in Pittsburgh and a handful of stations elsewhere debuted on the air late in 1920, radio as a means for entertainment began to capture the public’s fancy. On the stairs leading to the museum’s second gallery, there are brief displays about U.S. Navy radio transmitter NAA that dominated the Potomac River in the early 20th century. This stairway also includes information about the museum building, and Bowie’s role in broadcasting.
Gallery 2: Birth of Broadcasting
Walking into the first upstairs gallery brings the visitor to exhibits about the inception of radio broadcasting. A handful of radio stations begin to offer a planned schedule of programs—mostly music with some talks—in 1920. They were typically on the air but an hour or two in the evening—daytime programming would take several years to develop. Of course, nobody knew what a radio “program” was at first, and different types were developed during this period. Most early announcers were anonymous and few people were paid to be “on the air.” Would-be listeners built their own crystal sets or, if they can afford it, vacuum tube receivers. Only the wealthy could afford to buy a ready-made multi-tube radio and the batteries and headphones it required—a really good receiver cost (in today’s terms) $1,000 or more. Virtually all early radios were complex to operate, with multiple dials and knobs resembling laboratory instruments rather than consumer devices. They usually required an outdoor wire antenna. By 1922 (the same year the first on-air advertisement was carried by a New York station), radio was becoming a widespread craze across the country as hundreds of stations squeezed on the air using the then available handful of frequencies. They caused considerable excitement as they magically pulled sound out of the air, but they also caused noisy interference and listener frustration. There was almost no government regulation—only a license for the asking and no enforcement power. By mid-decade, presidential addresses or sporting events were being carried on an occasional basis over multi-station link-ups or “chains” of stations. Two exhibits—a series of audio recordings of typical early radio programs, and a display of Radio Boy and Radio Girl children’s novels of 1922-23—help to illustrate just how popular radio was in this exciting era.
Gallery 3: Radio Comes of Age
Our second upstairs gallery highlights important radio developments in the late 1920s. Radio receivers became items of well-designed furniture, often in handsome wooden cabinets. And for the first time they could be plugged in, avoiding the need for cumbersome batteries. They were far easier to tune, too. Loudspeakers (and often phonographs) were built into console radios which soon dominated many of the nation’s living rooms. Helped by these improvements, radio’s audience rapidly grew from 24 to 60 percent of American homes in this brief period—and despite the Depression starting in late 1929. The first permanent national network, NBC, was formed late in 1926 and soon operated two networks (the Red and Blue); CBS followed a year later. Together they soon provided regularity to radio’s scheduling and program types—comedy, drama, variety, music and sports events. Advertisers become increasingly interested in the new medium’s selling potential, and their purchases of air time formed a growing portion of radio’s financial support. Advertisers wanted to know who was listening, and NBC sponsored the first national listener survey in 1928. Regular (though crude) market audience ratings first appeared in 1930. In 1927, Congress passed the Radio Act to form the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) to license and regulate broadcast stations. It was tasked with clearing up the interference on the air, and within a year or two had largely succeeded. In 1934, Congress replaced the FRC with the larger Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Gallery 4: Radio’s Golden Age
Thanks both to improving technology (such as smaller tubes) and the pressures of the Depression, radios grew smaller and more compact—and less expensive. While most were still in wooden cases, here we see some early plastic cases as well. And a few reflect the art deco movement popular at the time. All the radios in this room are for AM reception, though some feature several shortwave bands. Several innovations are represented in this exhibit, including an early automobile radio, some of the first clock radios, tuning “eyes” in some receivers, and the first wireless remote control—so large you surely won’t lose it in the couch cushions! The Crosley “Reado” is a very rare device from 1939–40. It utilized an early form of facsimile (using different technology than today’s fax machines), intended to receive and print out a morning newspaper. The thought was this would be a more efficient way to distribute papers than by having physical copies delivered to your front door. The experiment failed for several reasons. In addition to being ahead of its time, it was expensive (the receiver cost more than $1000 in today’s values), it did not print graphics or photos well, and it bumped up against the defense buildup of 1940–41 that made consumer electronics products increasingly hard to purchase. The 1930s saw the golden age of network radio (now dubbed old-time radio or OTR, among collectors). Comedy, drama, variety, music and even educational programs filled the broadcast day, most from one of the networks, though large city stations produced many programs. Radio became an accepted means of home entertainment as regular audience surveys made clear. By the late 1930s, network news divisions had formed to help report growing tensions in Europe and the Far East. During World War II, few radios were made and repairs were often difficult to get. But people everywhere listened to radio to obtain the latest war news (radio was so much faster than newspapers) or for entertainment in a tension-filled time.
Gallery 5: Post-War Radio
The radios (and a few early television sets) in this main floor gallery appeared in the late 1940s and into the 1960s as radio began to share audience time and interest with television. Regular network television service began on NBC, CBS, ABC, and the short-lived DuMont network in mid-1948, though live coast-to-coast television service only became possible in 1951 with completion of the coaxial cable and microwave network used to carry the signals. The two large glass cabinets display an array of post-war receivers. That on the left presents a selection of post-war plastic (and near plastic) table radios, demonstrating some of the shape and color flexibility radio makers could offer. These were inexpensive AM radio sets using four to six vacuum tubes. Note particularly the light blue pay radio used in hotels—a quarter would pay for an hour of radio time. Among the featured displays is the handsome Zenith Trans-Oceanic—the best multi-band portable receiver of its time. A multi-tube receiver that sold well into the 1960s (final models used transistors, not vacuum tubes), the Trans-Oceanic carried AM broadcast and multiple shortwave bands for tuning in foreign broadcasts. The right-hand display cabinet tells the story of FM radio, since 1979 the most listened to radio medium. Receivers on the top shelf were made before World War II and are for FM’s original frequencies (42-50 MHz). For a variety of reasons, the FCC shifted FM up to its present channels in 1945, just before lifting the freeze on station construction. By the late 1940s, there were about 700 FM stations across the country and FM seemed the coming thing. But FM stagnated for years in the 1950s as the country and broadcasters fell in love with television. The other large display cabinet shows a number of smaller post-war radios—including one designed to combine a camera and a radio (top shelf). The lower shelves provide a selection of early transistor radios. The first were sold in 1954–55, carried only AM broadcasts, were hard to tune and sounded pretty tinny—but they could fit into your shirt pocket. Thanks to the simultaneous development of rock’n’roll music, these soon became hugely popular among young people.
Gallery 6: Rise of Television
Here, in what used to be the living room of Harmel House, you will see examples from the first two decades of television development. In the late 1920s a number of inventors promoted “scanning disc television,” in which the picture was created by light shining through a rapidly spinning metal disc with a spiral set of holes punched into it. An actual 1931 scanning disc television kit made by See-All is displayed next to a demonstration model of the scanning disc television system of Scottish inventor John Logie Baird. Local (Washington, DC) inventor C. Francis Jenkins invented an alternative scanning system utilizing horizontal scanning lines. The See-All receiver and nearly all subsequent television receivers, from to the earliest black and white sets to modern flat panel digital sets utilize horizontal scanning. Next to the See-All is a large wooden receiver made by RCA in 1940. One like it was displayed at the New York World’s Fair. Why is the picture tube mounted vertically? Because early video tubes were very long and if the tube opened to the front of the receiver, it would be even further from the wall. The picture was electronically reversed so it would appear normal when viewed in the mirror. As with most early console television sets, this one included a radio as well. Only the wealthy could afford a receiver like this, made a year before the inception of regular television broadcasting. Another wall displays typical black-and-white television sets of the late 1940s and early 1950s. One small table-top RCA set dates from 1947 and was the most popular post-war set. Its ten-inch screen was typical for the time and the receiver cost about $150 when new (ten times that in today’s dollars). The console receivers that make up the rest of this wall were made in the early 1950s, one of them sold by famed retailer “Mad Man” Muntz who bragged of his low prices. Featured in front of the room’s fireplace is a famous example of television design, the Philco “Predicta” receiver of 1959. Not only did it look different, with the tube separate and mounted on the top, but it featured one of television’s first remote controls (you can see the cable, intended to pass under a room carpet, coiled up behind the receiver). Being able to change channels without actually getting up and going over to the receiver dials was a marvel in its time. Next to the fireplace are two large (and heavy!) receivers that demonstrate a landmark in television—the coming of color. These are two of the earliest consumer color sets and would have sold for about $1000 in 1954–55 (perhaps six times that in today’s values). Color receivers were not only expensive but they were notoriously difficult to tune. They nearly always required professional installation and a roof-top antenna. You will see several set-top antennas in this room, some of them classic “rabbit ear” antennas to aid in reception of nearby stations. When the receivers in this room were sold and used, cable television was almost unheard of. Most communities had only two or three channels from which to choose—only New York and Los Angeles had seven or eight. Until the mid-1960s, most programming and advertising was televised only in black-and-white. Displayed on the walls are games based on popular television programs of the time.
Gallery 7: How it all Works
The primary display here demonstrates a variety of radio sound effects. In the medium’s earliest days, any sounds had to be created by hand (such as network chimes, horses’ hooves, or an oncoming storm)—by the late 1930s, stations could purchase records with virtually any sound desired. Visitors can try their hand at many of these. Remember that over low-fidelity AM radio, the sounds would seem more realistic than they do to our ears today. Younger visitors especially enjoy the display cabinet showing novelty radios designed to look like something else. A wall display shows the development of electronics from the days of vacuum tubes to today’s modern printed circuits. Another shows the use of different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Portable Radio in American Life
“You Can Take it With You” the Portable Radio in American Life (December 2009–December 2010)
This exhibition traces the development of portable radios from the heavy “lugables” of the late 1920s to the high-quality miniature digital devices of today. Segments illustrate:
Early “portable” modes of wireless meant heavy equipment that only a horse or wagon could carry. Until regular radio broadcasting began in 1920, consumers had no need for a portable way to listen in. The first radios intended to be carried from place to place appeared by the mid-1920s. But with their required batteries, speakers and/or earphones, they were cumbersome and heavy—upwards of 40 pounds or more in many cases. You could take radio listening to the beach or on a picnic, but it took a lot of effort. And thus the portable radio was rare before 1930.
Take it Anywhere: To 1945
By the 1930s, some radios were dubbed “universals” as they could use batteries or home electricity. The modern portable—a small light radio intended for carrying about—appeared late in the decade as vacuum tube and battery technology improved and allowed smaller components. Smaller tubes also required less power to operate. But growing world tension also contributed to the desire to have radios that could work anywhere. Once war broke out (1939–45) listeners wanted to stay in touch with developments wherever they were, and the little tube-powered radios made that possible.
Four Decades of Zenith’s “Trans-Oceanic”
First introduced in 1942, the Zenith “Trans-Oceanic” receiver was for four decades among the best available portable radios. It’s changing design, transition from tubes to transistors, and from American to overseas manufacture mirrors the larger story of American portable sets. Every model combined several short-wave bands with AM broadcasting, only adding FM capability in the late 1950s. Several companies tried to compete with this leading Zenith receiver, though usually unsuccessfully.
Smaller and Smaller: Post-War Portables
Ease of portability forced designers to concentrate on making receivers as small and light as possible. Consumers saw (and made buying decisions based on) a set’s visible design and price. Few knew how the technical changes inside made such portability possible. Many portables were known as “lunchbox” radios as they were about that size. Others used flip-open covers to protect delicate controls. As radio began to face competition with television in the living room, so that watching became more important than listening, radio’s ease of portability became central to its survival.
Rockin’ Radio: 1950s and 1960s
The first transistor radios—one could easily fit into a shirt pocket—appeared in late 1954. They were marketed just as rock‘n’roll music was taking hold and the combination of take-it-anywhere radio and such performers as Bill Haley and the Comets and then Elvis Presley placed radio in the center of teenage lifestyles. Stations soon promoted their programs to mobile listeners. To suggest their capabilities, receiver makers advertised how many transistors they used in each model, often right on the case, just as radios once touted their number of tubes. In fact, because tiny size was their chief sales pitch, most early “transistors” were difficult to tune and suffered from poor sound quality. Colorful plastic and metal highlights provided a modern look.
Adding FM: 1970s and 1980s
Portable radios began to include the FM channels in the late 1960s as that service became more popular. “Transistor sisters” now went everywhere. But a more substantial change crept into radio as Japanese and other low-cost Asian manufacturers began to provide sets for the American market by the late 1950s. Many initially used tubes or circuits licensed from the U.S., and during the 1960s came to dominate the radio receiver market. By the 1970s, virtually no consumer radios were made in America as all were imported. Quality improved as did the listening experience. Novelty radios—those made to look like something else—became widely popular as well.
Competing Portability: Since 1990
Radio began to share the world of portable audio as consumers were given an expanding variety of devices, among them the Sony “Walkman” that would play music cassettes while on the move. And Sony was but one of the Japanese firms that by this point dominated the consumer electronics market. Sound quality was much improved, batteries lasted longer (some could be recharged), and headphone size was shrinking too. Over the past two decades, the digital revolution has remade radio and recordings alike. Digital technology makes for ever-smaller devices with multiple applications (broadcast radio is now merely one of many) and often surprisingly good sound quality. The ubiquitous iPod keeps users in tune with their music, though rarely with broadcasting signals. They are so tiny that they can be used anywhere—even (horrors!) in a classroom.