The first radio sets were the small, simple crystal radio receivers. They used no power source other than the radio waves received through a wire antenna, and most crystal radios were easily assembled at home. Though the signal and sound quality of these radios were weak, their simplicity and inexpensiveness introduced the power of radio technology to millions of homes and especially to the children who would be shaping the future of radio. Crystal radios still have a loyal following today, and you’ll find at least one in most vintage radio collections.
Vacuum Tube Radios and RCA
By the end of the first decade of public radio came the RCA corporation and their patent new invention, radios with vacuum tubes for amplified signals and better sound quality. These were called Tuned Radio Frequency sets and they became the most popular radio type on the market until the 1950s. Since the RCA had a lock on the valve (vacuum tube) patent, many companies found it more profitable to manufacture their radios using the same RCA technology with the addition of speakers instead of traditional headphones. These devices would take a minute or two to heat up before they could start, and many radio collectors today still treasure the warm and full sound of a vacuum tube radio.
The Zenith Stratosphere
The Zenith radio brand was founded in 1923, and by the 1930s was one of the largest producers of tube radios in the world. In today’s collector market one particular model, the Zenith Stratosphere, is considered to be the most sought after item on the planet.
The Zenith Z-1000 Stratosphere was sold in the early 1930s for $750 in the US, which was higher than the price of an average car. The Art Deco style radio was in the shape of a large floor cabinet measuring 132 cm, and held 25 vacuum tubes hidden inside. Records indicate that only 350 devices were ever produced, and today about 50 are accounted for. Whenever a new Stratosphere pops up on the market news travels fast in the radio collector’s world, and you can expect a restored version to be sold for as high as €50,000.
The invention of the small and portable transistor radio changed the face of the mass-consumer market. The first of these receivers were developed and introduced in 1954 by Texas Instruments and a company called I.D.E.A, beating out other companies also experimenting with transistor technology, including RCA and Sony. The Regency TR-1 was much smaller, lighter, and more shock resistant compared to its tube predecessors, could instantly turn on without warming up and only required a few regular batteries. It’s not surprising then that the transistor radio became the most popular electronic device in the world, with billions being produced to meet demand between the 60s and 70s. The transistor radio changed music listening habits by allowing people to listen to music wherever they went, and this in turn changed the music industry and popular culture at large.
In order to meet demand, thousands of radio models were produced during this time and these are considered vintage today. Most were mass-made cheaply and usually have no value for collectors, but it’s the process of finding those particular gems that collectors love so much, and with adequate research any beginner vintage radio collector can discover a treasure to start their collection, with a little help from Catawiki's weekly Hi-Fi and Radio auctions in the process.
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