The “Mystic” Radio Bug and headset, c. 1927, is one of the earliest radios in "On the Radio," an exhibition up at SFO's Terminal 3 through September, 2018. CCrystal sets like this one did not operate from batteries or household current. They relied on a semi-conductive mineral known as a crystal and simple circuitry to harness energy directly from radio waves in the air. Due to their low output, crystal sets could not power speakers and listeners wore headsets. (Photo: Courtesy of the SFO Museum)
A new exhibit opens this weekend at SFO's Terminal 3 that's all about ray-dee-ohs.
You’ve probably seen old-timey radios before, but this selection, called On the Radio, goes all the way back to the days when hobbyists tuned in with crystal headsets they built themselves to communicate over what they called the “wireless telephone.”
Daniel Calderon, who curated the exhibit at SFO, says it's hard to imagine just how exciting the technology was when it first began to emerge around the turn of the last century.
Initially, wireless communication was ship to ship, or business to business, in Morse Code. Then, inventors began to develop ways to transmit the human voice and music.
Those who had the engineering savvy to build a receiver were thrilled. "It was very experimental, for people who were excited just to pick up something on the air," Calderon says.
During his research for the exhibition, Calderon was surprised to learn about a substantial local connection: Charles "Doc" Herrold of San Jose, who began experimenting with radio transmissions as early as 1909. He started the Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering in downtown San Jose. In 1912, Herrold began regular radio broadcasts on a weekly basis.
Here's a comprehensive documentary about Herrold's trajectory, courtesy of Mike Adams, an emeritus professor at San Jose State University.
One of Herrold's first DJs was his wife Sybil, who began spinning phonograph records she loaned out from a local shop happy to get the free advertising.
In a 1959 interview with San Jose State professor Gordon Grebs, she recounted how she spun "up-to-date" records on her phonograph. Her listeners, mostly boys of high school age, would run down to their local music store "the next day, and be sure to buy that [song] they heard on the radio the night before. I would call out and tell them that this was KQW calling and that this was their Wednesday night program."
She's blurring her dates a bit there, as the Herrolds didn't get a license for KQW until federal regulators required the adoption of this randomly assigned call sign in 1921. In the 1940s, CBS purchased KQW and moved it to San Francisco, eventually changing the call letters to KCBS.
If you visit Terminal 3, you won't find recordings of KQW. For one thing, radio was live only until recording technology made it possible to play from tape during World War II, so very few recordings of radio before then exist.
But the designs of the radios themselves still evoke the enthusiasm for radio and the modern spirit it embodied in the 20th century.
"In the 30s, you start to get these wonderful design elements. You've got art deco, industrial design," Calderon muses. His exhibition highlights more than sixty years of radio design, from the crystal sets of the 1910s to the pocket-sized transistors of the 1970s.
His favorites? Aside from the crystal sets, he's especially partial to the radios designed by Charles and Ray Eames, the ground-breaking husband-and-wife team from Venice, California.
"One of the projects that kept them afloat while they were starting to get into furniture production was radio case design," says Calderon. Look at that. It's a delightful example of mid-century design. No, they don't make radios that one anymore...
On the Radio is up at SFO's Terminal 3 through September 31st, 2018. For more information, click here.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.