Young Man With An Earphone

May 2017

A former radio editor recalls some of his early adventures with the wireless. The place is Westbrook, Maine.


My first exposure to wireless, as this form of communication was called in those days, was in 1907 when I happened to glance through a copy of a magazine called Electrical World, which I found on my father’s desk. I read about this new method of communication that was becoming more and more popular here and abroad.

The necessary equipment, fortunately, was simple as compared to that used today, so that a boy who was mechanically minded and interested in electrical matters could put together a workable apparatus.

I interested my father in the possibilities of this thing called wireless and, with his help, acquired a few parts. Some of them came from his shop and some were made at home. I made a wireless receiver and was able to tune in on the air, hoping to hear someone talking—in dots and dashes, of course—thousands of miles away. That was my hope anyway, but it was many months before it was realized.

My first apparatus was a receiver using the coherer as a detector of radio waves. My coherer was a piece of glass tubing such as is found on steam boilers to show the height of water. A small section of the inside of that tubing was filled with nickel and iron filings. The nickel came from a five cent piece; iron filings were obtained the hard way, by the use of a file on soft iron. A metal plug put in at each end led the current in and brought the signal out.

Alongside this glass tube, which was suspended horizontally, was an ordinary doorbell with the clapper so placed that when a radio signal came in and made the filings cohere, the clapper hit the side of the glass tube and loosened the filings, to prepare for the next signal.

The tuner was constructed, as all amateur tuners were in those days, from an oatmeal box wound with whatever wire was available. As many as 150 turns of wire were wound on the cylindrical form. Then the insulation was scraped off in a narrow path across all the turns, thus exposing the bare wires. A spring slider was then arranged so that it could be moved along the exposed turns to bring into the circuit as many turns as would be needed to tune to a particular station.

Finally I had a pair of earphones through which to hear the signals that the coherer picked up. The earphones in those days were usually not available to an amateur unless his family was well-to-do. For that reason I, like many others, was likely to “borrow” a single phone from an ordinary telephone wall box. It was an awkward accessory, but effective to a degree.

One of the interesting events, as I remember it now, occurred on a morning soon after I put this combination of rough odds and ends together. It was my practice to tune in right after breakfast. This particular day was rainy and stormy. The first sound I heard was not dots and dashes, but a woman’s voice. The wireless telephone wasn’t in existence at that time, so that sound was more mystifying to me than dots and dashes could be. I pressed the phones to my ears and finally detected the voice of a neighbor across the street. Apparently because of the dampness of telephone wires, insulators, etc., and the fact that a radio set is always connected to the ground, her voice was leaking into my set and being detected just as though it had come through the air. I never was able to do it again.

My first transmitter was an ordinary automobile ignition coil which didn’t last very long because of a boy’s normal desire to feed as much current into it as he could. I finally put in a bit more than the coil could stand. My father, by then becoming interested in wireless, bought me a 250-watt transformer. That, together with two brass spheres taken from an old type metal bedstead, was used as a spark gap. This combination enabled me to make more noise around the neighborhood than any one youngster had a right to make—particularly if windows were open. The 250 watts jumping across a brass-ball gap would silence anybody—certainly within the house and for some distance outside. The rule in those days was—the more noise made, the more powerful the station. Actually it didn’t work out that way, but it was a good formula for us to believe in.


It wasn’t then a boast that you could get the Philharmonic in good tone and with full range of frequency. It was much more to your credit if you could say, for instance, that you had picked up 25 stations ranging from New York to Los Angeles—as often happened. That was radio exploration at its best.