Western Historic Radio Museum
Virginia City, Nevada
It's squirreled away a couple of blocks off Virginia City's main drag, in the ground floor of the Old Catholic Rectory.
Henry Rogers, owner and operator of the Western Historic Radio Museum, has collected old radios since his 14th birthday in 1964. He opened the museum in 1994, and is curator and guide. Tourists head to Virginia City for the haunted saloons, low key gambling, Mark Twain and mining history -- probably not to hear the pre-transistor story of radio in the American West. It may be Virginia City's least known treasure. A guy we asked staffing the Chamber of Commerce two blocks away said he'd never heard of the museum.
We're accompanied on this trip by our buddy, Hank. He hoped to get his 1926 Grebe Synchrophase radio receiver (type MU-1) restored to working order. It's a family heirloom, and he'd been told Rogers is the go-to sparks guy.
This explains a lot about the museum, which mixes formal glass cases of artifacts with teetering piles of tech manuals, cables and radio parts. In no time, Henry has Hank's wood-laminate radio on a work bench and cracked open for diagnosis: "We can use an A53 coil, a replica of the old standcore a53 interstage transformer," Henry advises as a likely cure.
Then he gives us a tour. The museum is packed with items from a span of radio time spectrum -- 1910 to 1952, before the advent of transistors. There are horn speakers, ornate microphones, and scores of wooden and metal boxes -- transmitters and receivers with dials, knobs, and mechanical displays. The exhibits are set up in chronological order, the radios accompanied by cards providing the manufacture date, model, and original selling price.
Golden Days of Ham
To hear Henry describe it, the most exciting time to be an amateur radio broadcaster was from 1909-1911, before government regulation. As a ham radio operator, "you could do anything you wanted -- set up a home station with any power level and any frequency." Chaotic, and a thrilling time to build an amateur station and get on the air.
The government put a stop to that with the Radio Act of 1912, a federal law which made all unlicensed radio broadcasters illegal. "The idea was to make Hams behave," Henry said, "restricting them in power and frequency range." (The Radio Act also established rules about constant monitoring of ship distress frequencies -- in the wake of that year's Titanic disaster).
An exhibit in the museum accurately recreates a ham radio operator's set-up, circa 1912. It's the station equipment of a Marion H. Dodd in Reno. Henry said "We found the station packed away in a trunk in the guy's shed." Dodd had to take apart his equipment in 1913 because of the law making it illegal. It stayed in the trunk in pristine condition for 86 years until Henry found it (Photos that Dodd snapped in 1912 helped Henry put together the configuration).
Government Bans Radio
World War I was a period of great strides in radio technology, but perversely, the US public wasn't allowed to use it. "There was an outright ban -- you couldn't listen to the radio, you couldn't transmit," said Henry. During the war, all radio stations were temporarily shut down. And "that ban for receiving wasn't lifted until April 1919."
Henry is a font of facts and details about the evolution of radio. He talks about how spark radios were quickly replaced by tube radios. Models started to get designed for regular home use -- single dial tuning came along about 1926, instead of using three dials to perform elaborate gyrations in search of a signal. After some technological advances, radios started to "sound good" about 1929, but those from the 1920s were better constructed than later models, and are more likely to still work with their original parts.
Radios for Everyone
As a result of the Depression, 1930s radios "were redesigned to use absolutely the cheapest parts, they performed adequately, but they didn't have the longevity."
We enjoy perusing the Depression's cheap radio exhibit, and Henry points out that even during that period there was an upscale market for expensive gleaming chrome, custom-built radios, of which he has a few samples. "Favored by musicians -- the best radios you could buy. McMurdo Silver radio had your name engraved on the back."
Henry has focused his collection on the West, and one important company was the Gilfillan Brothers, who cut a deal with David Sarnoff to have exclusive licensing of RCA radios in the western states. According to Henry, for decades in that market, if your radio wasn't made at a Gilfillan factory it meant it was an illegal radio.
While there are many antique radios in personal collections or in museums, many are rare. In the 1930s, companies offered bounties for consumers to turn in their old radios, which were promptly destroyed -- so that they would buy new ones. The scrap drives of World War II claimed even more old radios, if not destroyed in flood or fire. "A lot of radios met their ends that way, " Henry said.
Facebook of the Airwaves
In the section of the museum devoted to Ham Radio Operation, the walls and ceilings are covered with postcards printed with cryptic strings of letters, numbers and symbols. "Those are QSL cards. In the 20s and 30s, distant Hams used to ask for your photograph and call-sign, and you'd mail and exchange photographs." Aside from written proof where a ham was located in the world, this may have been the first electronic social network, with a standardized card for postal mailing figured out by 1919.
"If you were a geek in the '20s, you were a radio guy," Henry said.
QSL cards are collected by hobbyists, and are still exchanged by operators today. Henry points out one to us. "There was a long period where any card that came from the Soviet Union always seemed to have an image of Lenin."
And there's more, more. Check out the shipboard wireless receiver, or the "portable" transmitter used by a radio station in Los Angeles for remote broadcasts. Ask Henry to flip on his WWII B-17 bomber radio so you can hear the dynamotors that powered its transmitter in flight. Inspect the sinister Nazi radio Siemens K-32 "Luftwaffe Koffer."
The Western Historic Radio Museum will fill your head with the soothing static of arcane knowledge.