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Basic Radio Question

Discussion in 'Radio' started by poetman, Apr 17, 2012.

  1. poetman

    poetman A-List Customer

    Forgive the tremendous ignorance in advance, but I've been growing interested in vintage radios lately and am wondering: did they all
    plug into outlets or were some battery operated. I frequently see pictures of smaller desk bookcase ones that don't appear to have cords. Can someone fill me in on the basics of their operation? Are there any good links you might recommend?

  2. Before 1926, all radios were battery operated, and thruout the Era there were sets using large specialized batteries for use on farms where there was no electrical service. Portable sets using batteries became very popular around 1939 -- these were about the size of a small suitcase or a lunchbox, and usually had a fabric or leatherette covering. After the war, colorful plastic portables became popular as well.

    All tube-type battery radios used two batteries: an "A" battery to light the tube filaments and a "B" battery to provide high voltage for the tube plates, either as separate battery units or as a single "AB" battery pack. These were expensive, so batteries were rarely used in radios at home. Nearly all the commonly-seen tabletop sets, both wood and plastic, were AC or AC/DC powered, with the exception of farm radios. If you don't see a cord, it's likely that they wadded it up and stuck it in the back before putting the set on the shelf.
  3. Undertow

    Undertow My Mail is Forwarded Here

    Great info, Lizzie. I've also been looking at ads for old radios and dreaming of a day when I can actually own one.

    Unfortunately, there's not a lot of hope in finding those old batteries. I'm fairly certain you can't find "A" or "B" batteries (not to be confused with A cell or B cell...both of which you can no longer find, either, haha).

    Here's a link I found which might be helpful for any radio enthusiasts interested in mocking a B battery.

    B Battery Replacement
  4. Up until fairly recently Everready still made a couple of the most common styles of B batteries -- they were making them for use in lab equipment, but they still worked in 50s-era portable radios. (You could use flashlight cells for the A batteries.) They were, however, very expensive -- as in thirty or forty dollars a pop -- and if you can find them now, they're even costlier.
  5. poetman

    poetman A-List Customer

    Thanks for this really helpful post. So, this suggests that vintage battery operated radios would no longer work? If one wants the radio to function now, it seems the only option is a cord? Correct?
  6. If it's a battery or AC model, you can certainly use the AC cord. But if you want to use it as a portable, there are ways to rig up modern batteries in the correct voltages. You'll need anywhere from 67 to 90 volts of "B battery" power, which you can get from common 9-volt transistor radio batteries strung together in series to produce the correct voltage. For A battery power, many of the later battery models used 1 volt filament tubes, so you can get away with using a common D-size flashlight cell for the power. It won't last long, but it'll work.

    For older battery radios, you can use a "battery eliminator." These are devices made to put out the correct DC voltages required to operate a battery set -- they existed in the Era, and were very popular in the late twenties to convert older sets to AC use. There are modern versions made today by collectors that are small enough to hide in the back of the set -- it's just a matter of hooking the correct voltages to the correct terminals, and away you go.
  7. Steven180

    Steven180 One of the Regulars

    Lizzie - where have you learned so much on radios?

    Sorry to strap hang on this thread, but I must admit that I too have searched a lot of your old postings for research before I bought two vintage radios recently - a 1941 Firestone, and a 1937 Silvertone.

    Appreciate everyone's contribution. Lizzie, you do take the cake lady. A wealth of information on so may things here and a sharp wit as well! Thanks for everything.
  8. If you're going to use vintage radios in this era, you'd better know as much as you possibly can about them, because when something goes wrong you can't run it down to your friendly RMA-certified repairman. Because he's been dead and gone for thirty years.
  9. Steven180

    Steven180 One of the Regulars


  10. poetman

    poetman A-List Customer

    Thanks for all the feedback. It's seems that the cords were just hidden in the photos I saw. Are there websites you recommend to check out some basic facts? Should I look for something 30's era or 40's era? I'm sure I'll find aesthetic pleasures in both decades, but I definitely want this piece to be functional. I read somewhere
    that radios made after WWII were much better than their predecessors because the 6 year span of war allow a lot of technological innovations to improve a 145/46 radio from a 1938/9 radio. Any thoughts on what year to start the search? Again, I'm looking for a smaller desk/table model.

  11. Angus Forbes

    Angus Forbes One of the Regulars

    My experience -- I have an Atwater Kent model 84 cathedral, circa 1931, and an Atwater Kent model 725 tombstone, circa 1936. The 1936 model is completely functional as a modern radio, AM and shortwave, whereas the 1931 radio is really dated, lacking, for example, automatic gain control (when you have the volume up sufficiently to find weaker stations, coming across a strong local station will blast you out of the room). Across the board, the performance of the 1936 is way better than the performance of the 1931.

    I also have a Blaupunkt Stockholm, from the late 1950s. Although the performance of the Stockholm is clearly better than the performance of the 1936 AK, the difference in performance between the 1931 AK and the 1936 AK is greater than the difference in performance between the 1936 AK and the Stockholm.

    Only the Stockholm receives the modern FM band, which is very nice to have. The audio quality of the Stockholm is much richer than the audio quality of either of the older radios. All three of these desktop radios have a very nice appearance, although the Stockholm is from a later design school, of course.
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2012
  12. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    It is possible to make a battery eliminator that plugs into the wall. Do a search online for the plans. Cost of parts, $10 to $15.

    9V batteries can be plugged into each other + to - in series, to make a 90 volt or 63 volt battery.

    There were some cheap radios made in the late 20s and early 30s called "hot tail" radios. The tubes only drew 80 volts or so, the extra power was dissipated through resistance in the power cord. The cord would get hot and could cause a fire if it was trapped behind furniture or covered by drapes.

    If you are interested there are some vintage radio sites on the net with some very smart people.

    German radios from the fifties are my favorite tube radios. They are great performers but VERY complicated. Hard to find one these days that still works, even harder to find someone who can fix one.
  13. As far as American radios go, the peak of quality was achieved in 1935-38. Before, as has been noted, features that would be taken for granted a few years later were still in development. After 1938, you started to see corners being cut in manufacture -- cheap rubber-covered wire instead of fabric-covered wire, poor-quality components, unimaginative cabinet design. I've never thought much of postwar American radios at all -- by then the attention of manufacturers had moved to television, and the average radio became a cheap, generic AC/DC five-tube model that didn't perform especially well. With the exception of a few models, like the Zenith Transoceanic portables and the hi-fi sets of the fifties, if you've seen one postwar American radio you've seen them all. As has been said, the German sets of the postwar period are a whole different deal, but the design is a bit futuristic for some people.

    If I were shopping for a radio, I'd look very carefully at the 1936-38 Philco and RCA Victor models. There are a lot of good sets from this period, but these two makes have the advantage of having survived in vast numbers, and parts and supplies are still very easy to find. If you're going to be repairing it yourself, go with RCA Victor -- they're laid out much more simply than a Philco.

    I've had a 1937 Philco in my living room for nearly thirty years, and it's an outstanding performer.
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2012

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