Crystal radio tradition a classic education in what constitutes as ‘music’
Once a ritual practice was to give every kid a crystal radio, Christmas often as not the occasion. To inform those who don’t know, a crystal radio receiver was an unpowered device sometimes referred to as the cat’s whisker receiver. No other power source was required than the energy of the radio waves themselves received however tenuously by a frail wire antenna.
Most of the recipients were initially disappointed in the crystal radio, hearing through unpowered earphones the barest murmur of what might have been music, repetitious static was also a possibility.
By my personal experience, I do sometimes wonder if the entirety of what is the jazz, rock, rap idiom is an essential descendent of that static sound we heard somewhere in the 1950s, nothing more or less than the nocturnal sound of the local universe.
The crystal radio was a classic education in what constitutes music in the first place, theory being Van Halen’s guitar was presaged by a thunder clap over Bevent that lifted that headset several feet from the victim’s head, said victim conditioned ever after to that “turned up loud” sense of the world.
The crystal radio did have one social benefit, never in that realm of electronic wizardry was there a device cheaper and by its singular nature closer to raw material science than was the crystal radio.
Described in its entirety; a rock of sorts, an empty thread spool, a cat’s whisker, add earphones and you’re in business. The rock was generally galena for which the town of Galena in that northwest corner of Illinois is named.
In its native state, “PbS” was also known as lead sulfide that since aboriginal times has been mined as a primary source of warfare and mass murder to the utter convenience of modern civilization. Galena is an igneous rock that when it comes out of liquid solution aligns in crystalline state of intricate atomic precision.
Depending on the trace minerals, galena can be arranged triangular, cubist or octahedral. Like any good presidential candidate able to alter their identity with a little doping to match the disposition of the audience.
Unknown to most of us who grew up with the crystal radio is that this self-same device is the singular source of what constitutes modern electronics; that primitive cat whisker detector is your basic semiconductor, a point-contact rectifier … even more cleverly known as a diode. This same semiconductor property what replaced vacuum tubes, to whit solid state conduction versus gaseous state conduction (vacuum tubes).
Was the crystal radio as sold for one dollar fifty in the back pages of Boy’s Life that made integrated circuits possible, made computers both possible and miniaturized, then on to ever more impossible dimensions of their very scale?
Officially, all this is known as the “Schottley barrier” to conduct an electric current in one direction and resist current flowing the other direction, hence called a rectifier, with this the ability to direct a radio signal, which the universe happens to be full of, convert alternating wave to pulsing wave, in turn extract an audio signal, known as modulation of the carrier wave where the cat’s whisker is the anode, the crystal is the cathode. This the crystal radio.
Out of this quaint apparatus the kid scientist teases and tickles the crystal with the wire whisker until a signal is found. An ever so precarious connection that even a slight movement of the whisker loses the signal. A crystal radio in its perfect form was a kid-frustrating device. As readily as a signal was found it was lost, to listen to a crystal radio was to listen in snatches and patches, parts and participles, it was magical.
The one true and terrific option of the crystal radio set was the utter magnificence of the antenna, whose sheer outrageous length is to gain the greatest possible intercession of signal strength. Our first attempt at an antenna ran from the bedroom window across the garden to an oak tree in the fencerow beyond. It was moderately successful.
Soon after came a second attempt at signal strength designed by what was now a crystal radio instinct, what the radio needed was a really, really long antenna. To this every untended wire spool, vagrant armature and unguarded field coil was unwound in search of copper wire.
These stray bits unwound, straightened and connected, one to the next, hazardously spanning the farmstead in ultra-large array. From the house to the granary, to the silo, to the barn, to the lightning rods across the barn’s spine. By this wire we believed we could intercept the secret of alien planets, decipher the Communists, and listen to the Grand Ole Opry.
What we didn’t know was resistance, we didn’t know every electric motor, every automobile, and every thunderstorm generated radio waves. Some still do not believe it is possible to electrocute a farmkid to death or incontinence through a set of earphones, they haven’t tried a crystal radio.
For the record it was Karl Ferdinand Braun who invented the point contact semiconductor and the cathode ray tube, for which he got the Nobel in 1909, hence ever after the father of radio, TV, radar and every microcircuit and diode to follow, all these of that cat’s whisker crystal radio.
Since has been my belief that every kid should at one Christmas in their life receive a crystal radio, this to comprehend the universe we live in. What they steal to supply their antenna wire is up to their own imagination.
We did, at least momentarily, believe when we connected our crystal radio to the electric fence, we could hear Martians talking. Never mind it was our dad, turning on the electric fence. I have been allergic to loud music ever since.