Tuned In to the Early Romance of Radio, TV

By John Kelly
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Before there was XM or the iPod or flat screen high-definition TV, there were plain old radios and televisions. Somehow, people survived.

"Radio was such a new and thrilling thing [when it was invented]," said Brian Belanger, executive director of the Radio & Television Museum in Bowie, as he showed me around the joint. "The word 'miracle' was used a lot in newspaper articles back then: 'It's a miracle. You can sit in your living room and hear without wires.' "

There are some surprises at the museum, a labor of love by members of the Radio History Society that opened in 1999. Who knew that the fax machine was invented in 1861? Or that in the 1920s you could buy a kit to make your own TV set? Or that the first videophone call was made in 1927 by Herbert Hoover? (The lights needed to accomplish this feat were so bright they set Hoover's hair on fire, possibly the only time the stodgy politician could be described as "hot.")

It's like finding out that Noah had a cellphone.

Of course, by today's standards, stuff was pretty crude back then. On display is what may be the first boombox. It's a circa 1924 battery-powered radio. Made of dark, varnished wood and about the size of a golf bag, it weighs 60 pounds, not including the ear-trumpet-like speaker you'd have to lug around. On top of it was a contemporary magazine clipping headlined "Radio in the Great Outdoors," which showed a happy family sitting on a blanket with its portable radio. I'm sure the picnic ended with drawing straws to see who had to haul the sucker back home.

But even hernias couldn't dim the early romance of radio. Children's authors rushed out thrillers such as "The Radio Boys at Ocean Point" and "The Radio Girls on Station Island." Radio serial characters such as Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, and Captain Midnight entertained millions -- while selling breakfast cereal and decoder badges.

The radio itself went from heavy piece of furniture to colorful, transistorized bauble.

It's nice to know that Americans have always been lazy. The 1939 console-style Philco Mystery Control radio came with the world's first clicker. There was no danger of losing it in the couch cushions. The wooden remote control -- topped by a rotary-telephone dial -- was about the size of a shoe box.

The bulk of the museum is devoted to radio, and I got the feeling that the radio buffs' hearts are more in that subtle medium, that TV is sort of gross and obvious and not nearly as interesting. But there is a room full of old TVs, 18 in all, their glass tubes that peculiar shade of olive green.

It was in that room that I reflected on how brave those early adopters must have been. In 1940, an RCA TV/radio combo was about the size of a refrigerator and cost $450. (For 100 bucks more, you could have bought a new Chevrolet pickup that year.)

Stuff took awhile to warm up back then -- literally. There was a sort of low whoooomph sound after you turned on the radio or TV, then the smell of burning dust as the vacuum tubes inside warmed up. Everything's instantaneous now, except, oddly, computers. (I spend five minutes each morning turning mine on, entering various passwords and swearing not to violate the law.)

In many ways, though, things haven't changed at all. Scattered atop one TV were a bunch of 1954 TV Guides. "Problem for New Congress -- TV Crime," announced the headline in one. "Lawmakers to discuss its part in juvenile delinquency."

They still are.

There was a VCR in that last room, too, set up to show old TV programs on old TV sets. The clock was flashing "12:00," just as it probably will be 100 years from now.

The museum, at 2608 Mitchellville Rd., Bowie, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays, 1-5 p.m. weekends and by appointment. Admission is free; donations are welcome. Call 301-390-1020 or visithttp://www.radiohistory.org.

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