When I was a kid in Grade School, I received a crystal radio set for Christmas. It was kinda funny looking now that I think about it, but it gave me hours of enlightenment.
It had a plastic box that resembled a radio with a copper coil inside and a small germanium diode attached to it. The headphone had one ear piece. The radio had a wire hanging out to attach an antenna to it and that was pretty much it. All in all, a very simple setup.
I would run the antenna up to my window and attach it to the outside window screen. Listening to it while laying in bed at night, the radio would only pick up two local stations, KGRO and KPDN in the Texas Panhandle. Most of the times they overlapped. Not much of a selection, but the amazing thing about the radio, was there was no power source, and the reception was absolutely perfect. Crystal clear, and no batteries or power plug.
A few years later, I acquired an old radio from my Aunt. Many of you may remember those types that had the vacuum tubes in the back that glowed and gave off heat with the dusty smell. There was the hum that was often heard in the speaker. The back of the radio was always opened and had a place to connect a ground wire and an antenna. Back then, we referred to them as short-wave radios.
I spent a great many hours sitting patiently, slowly fine-tuning stations from the other side of the world. It was always best to be in the dark, so you could watch the unusual “tuning eye” that many radios had to show when a signal was coming in strong. The green luminescent eye would close as it became stronger.
One of the characteristics of short-wave is its ability to bounce off the ionosphere enabling it to curve around to the other side of the earth. And I found by increasing the antenna length, I could pick up stations further away. So one day I rode my bike to Radio Shack and bought some copper antenna cable. Crawled up in the attic and strung it from one end to the other and lead it down to my bedroom through a little hole in my closet.
I picked up places in the world that I never knew existed. Radio Quito in Ecuador was a religious station with a very strong signal. It was found several places on the frequency bands. Another good clear station was Radio Nederlands. One of the most intriguing stations to a young boy was Radio Havana down in Cuba. This was during the Vietnam War, and would broadcast English language newscasts to America with propaganda, telling how many American Capitalist planes were shot down that day. It was always in the hundreds. They referred to President Nixon as the “Number One War Criminal”.
But the one I found most fascinating was Radio Moscow. I would get the big thick world atlas out and open it to the USSR page, and look at the city of Moscow with all its roads traveling in and out. I remember thinking; there are people that actually live there. Probably a million or more. What are the houses like? … the roads, the cars. I wonder how cold it really is. Does it ever get warm there? Are the people really standing in line to get bread in the mornings?
Then there was the BBC World Service and the Voice of America (VOA). Years later I would realize the VOA is operated by the CIA to provide news to countries that repress outside information to its people.
A station located in Fort Collins, Colorado, WWV, was used as a time standard throughout the communications and the aeronautical industries. It had an ominous click ever second and gave the official Greenwich Mean Time at every minute. You could set your clocks to that time, which I did often. It is now referred to as Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Whether it’s still located on the short-wave bands, I do not know.
Over the years, I picked up a few more short-wave radios here and there. But the World has moved on and now they sit in a storage unit, quiet and dark. No warm dusty smell. No steady hum. No green luminescent eye. I really do think of those machines at times wishing I was a young kid again, listening in the dark room to a radio station that is 7,000 miles away. It now pales in comparison to home satellite systems, computers and me being able to call my mother every week using the Internet, from over 7,000 miles away.
The World indeed moves on.