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history of wireless; the Crystal Radio Receiver

Crystal Radios: The First Wireless

History of Wireless: Crystal Radio Receiver
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About the history of wireless, the crystal radio set

How did wireless come about? At the turn of the 20th century, an American scientist, Greenleaf Whittier Pickard, found that a number of naturally occurring crystalline minerals could be used to detect radio signals. The detection occurs at the contact point between the crystal and the tip of a piece of wire. Radios employing this kind of detector became known as crystal radios. In the typical early radio-wave crystal detector, the crystal rock was fixed into a brass cup and the radio operator found the loudest signal by touching the wire, called a cat’s whisker, to various points on the surface of the crystal.

In the early days of radio, people built and used simple and inexpensive crystal radio sets that worked without electrical power from wall sockets or batteries, and this technology was known as wireless. Even after vacuum-tube radios came into widespread use following World War I, crystal radios remained popular, especially among beginning amateur radio enthusiasts, boy scouts, and school kids, who continued to build crystal radios as their introduction to the field of communications.

During the Great Depression, a perfectly workable crystal radio detector could be constructed from a five-cent piece of galena crystal and the wire from a safety pin, and building and using homemade crystal sets brought endless hours of enjoyment to children of the Great Depression. After the detector was connected to iron bedsprings (which doubled as an antenna) and grounded to household cold-water pipes, a youngster needed only inexpensive headphones to bring in the world of radio—all the power needed to run the crystal set came from the ‘air.’ Later, GIs of World War II constructed similar wireless radios from rusty razor blades and pencil lead, the iron oxide crystals of the rust replacing the galena crystal and the graphite of the pencil lead substituting for the safety-pin ‘wire.’ These crystal radios were known as foxhole radios.

Over the years, fascination with crystal radio building has never died, perhaps because the technical achievements of the communication media cannot dim the enchanting simplicity of the crystal radio in its demonstration of the wonder that radio really is.

PV Scientific Instruments is proud to offer the finest crystal radios made today, constructed using antique parts and the best classical circuits. We also offer crystal radio kits that contain antique parts and headphones, as well as kits for young learners. Our kits are different from most because the final products work very well, giving the builder, young or old, the opportunity for a successful experience and a real thrill. For those who wish to learn more about early wireless and radio, we have a excellent selection of books and reprints about crystal radios and early wireless.

For more information, please visit our online catalog, drop us a line at, or give us a call at 607-387-6752.

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About the history of wireless, the crystal radio set
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About the history of wireless, the crystal radio set

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