What was the very first electronic device that you remember listening to, used or owned?
The first electronic device I remember was a three tube AM radio that was powered by batteries and required a long wire antenna. The time was sometime in 1940.
My uncle Henry Peters moved from Washington County to Dallas, Texas during the Great Depression. He got a job at a company called North American Aviation. He started doing custodial work and moved up through the ranks to the position of Draftsman. As you may have already guessed North American Aviation built aircraft and during the early 40’s was gearing up to support the war effort should the US get involved.
Uncle Henry came to visit Grandma Peters and brought her a radio. We did not have electric service so the radio had to operate with batteries which were rechargeable. He set a pole that was about 10 feet tall in the yard and mounted the wind driven charger on top. It looked like a weather vane with a propeller. A wire ran from it to the batteries in the house.
The radio was a large box, rectangular and about he size of a bread box. On the left front was the speaker, at least that is where the sound came out. On the right front was a dial with a needle and some numbers. Also two knobs, one used to turn the thing on and adjust the volume. The other was for tuning.
When it was turned on you had to wait a couple of minutes for the tubes to heat up before it would work. The box got warm after a while and looking through some ventilation holes in the back you could see three glass vacuum tubes. They had some wires and other stuff in them and one of the wires glowed red hot.
Warmup took a couple of minutes. Then the volume was turned up and the radio tuned to find a station. In the 1940’s there were very few commercial radio stations. When one was detected a lot of tweaking was requires to lock in on the best signal. The signal would fade and then come in strong. When there was storms and lightning every strike came in loud and clear.
Uncle Henry got the thing up and running for Grandma. After he left to go back to Dallas it sat on a table in Grandma’s parlor. I don’t believe she ever turned it on. A couple of years later she went to live with her daughter, my Aunt Ida. I don’t remember what happen to the radio. She probably took it with her.
We got electric power in 1941. Mom and Dad got a radio and it did not need batteries. It was still AM and the sound quality improved some. More station were coming on air and Brenham got a station in the late 40’s,”KWHI, 1280 on Your Dial”, which is still going strong today.
Most of the stations at that time transmitted at 50 watts during daylight hours only.They could be received out to about 15-20 miles reliably, beyond that reception became iffy. The FCC licensed certain stations to operate at much higher power. They were called Clear Channel Stations and their assigned frequency was such that there was a minimum interference from other stations. They had to transmit at a minimum of 10,000 watts to retain the Clear Channel status. One such station was WOAI in San Antonio, Texas. We could receive it really clear during the day. Our radio was on and tuned to that station each day at noon. We heard the news, weather reports, farm reports, market news and Bob Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys play live for 15 minutes. Noon was the only time our radio was on.
At night the Clear Channel station would crank up the power. Many were transmitting at 50,00 watts and one in Laredo, Texas claimed they were transmitting at 100,000 watts. They did have a nice strong signal most of the time. Occasionally I was allowed to tune around looking for stations at night. Most of the time our radio was off. No one was in the house or too busy to listen and besides it used too much power and ran up the electric bill or so I was told.
The vacuum tubes in the radios would frequently burn out and the radio stopped working. It had to be taken to a radio repair shop where someone would replace the burned out tube. It didn’t take long before someone came up with a device that could be placed in retail stores such as grocery stores, hardware stores, five and dime, drug stores where the owner of the nonworking radio would bring the suspect tube/tubes to the store, plug then into the device and it would tell him if the tube was good or bad. If bad he check the number on the tube and looked for a matching one in the display rack to purchase. Vacuum tubes in radios and the first TV’s were Plug and Play hardware. The radio repair shop still had work because other things like transformers, capacitors and resistors also failed. When the radio quit working followed by a stinky burning smell it was time to go to the shop.
Typical tube tester. Find the socket your tube would fit into and insert it. Flip a switch and the meter would show if the tube was good (green) bad (red) or ? (yellow). If it showed a ? it was probably a good bet to replace the tube.