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Dating vintage radio receivers, Page One
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Dating your receivers - Page one

Pondering the inevitable

Being able to find out when a receiver was made is a crucial factor in your decision to buy but also to use as a guide to calculate to a fairly rough degree as to what your whole collection is worth. When I say "rough", I mean exactly that because value can vary not only between receivers but it is the case that no set has a fixed value. For example, there is no document anywhere in the world that will tell you that a Kriesler 'Projectographic' is worth $X.

In most cases the value of a vintage receiver is simply what the current market is prepared to pay. Some people pay high amounts of money for fairly insignificant objects and this raises the value of the item, paying no further consideration to what many would consider important, EG: scarcity, functionality, whether the item works or not, age, looks, colour, materials used, etc.

I know where to get cheap rare radios from and so do many other seasoned collectors. Funnily enough it is the same place that alot of common models go for high prices. Some receiver owners like to test the water by being bold with their prices. Their set may work and look attractive and attaching a high price to such a set may increase the confidence of a customer that they are getting a set that will work for a long time. It's the pyschological mentality that car makers use when selling cars. A Holden Commodore currently sells for about $38,000 on the road. A 7 Series BMW sells for about $250,000 on the road. Both cars have room for four passengers and their luggage. Both cars are big. Both cars can break the speed limit and land you in gaol. I once had a job that involved valet parking and I can tell you that European cars arn't necessarily better cars in any way. Infact most of them have the ergonomics of a 1920's steam powered tractor. Some people just have to buy the BMW because they will have something that not everyone can afford though - a class society is born. The same principle applies to vintage radio - though not in the same way because there's no snob-element with radio collection. Not that I have seen anyway.

If you are selling a radio you have to take a gamble on what people will pay you. If you set an outrageously high price and the set doesn't sell then you'll be forced into lowering the price and this may make your prospective punters think that your wares are not really worth what you were originally asking for them. If you set the price too low you'll get plenty of buyers, perhaps including me, but you won't get a return on your investment. If you either tell a lie or give the wrong information about a set then you are likely to be scarred for life. We can't stop people from putting whatever price they like on a set but we can certainly give them, and everyone, a guide on perhaps what that price should be. One thing that should definitely be considered when buying is when the receiver was made.

Methods of dating

The following methods are some ways of dating sets:

  • Shape of a receiver.
  • Size of the dial glass.
  • Number of pins on the valves.
  • Serial number on the licence transfer.
  • Material a cabinet is made of.

To say the least, some of the above methods are more exacting than others!

Shape of a receiver

In the 1920's when radio broadcasting began, most sets were 'sealed' so that only one station could be listened to and you paid a licence fee in return for being able to listen in. If you were caught tampering with a set then you were severely punished as this was against the law. The law also forbade people from building their own sets which circumvented the 'sealed set' system by being able to listen to more than one station.

After a couple of years it was found that the 'sealed set' system was a dismal failure and the licencing system was changed to allow people to listen to any station they chose at a given time. It was still against the law to operate a radio receiver without a listener's licence though. All these sets were generally small and running on three or four valves and were listened to through a horn speaker or headphones. Towards the late 1920's there were sets with more valves, typically six to eight, and the cabinets were slightly larger and usually spoting three tuning knobs and a volume control. The cabinets were shaped and styled like coffins and were mostly made of solid wood with a black bakelite or fibre front panel with the dial labelling engraved or hand-painted on. These sets are the elders of radio history and command the most respect in any collection. These sets were made between 1922 and about 1929.

After this the first bakelite cabinets came on the scene. Wooden cabinets changed from solid wood to plywood with a thin veneer of an attractive grain such as teak or mahogany glued to the surface before finishing. The shape of the cabinets was usually a tombstone, art-deco or cathedral shape. This period also ushered in the humble console floor-standing models. The tuning dial was a wedge-shaped port hole about the size of a postage stamp between 1928 and 1932. After this the tuning dials took on an arched or round style with a diameter of 100mm.

The late 1930's and for most of the 1940's there was little change and throughout these years cabinets were very large and the dial glasses were large oblong shaped things which sometimes sported features like layered glass with seperate scales on each layer - usually to discern between the MW and SW bands and 'magic eye' tuning indicators.

The 1950's ushered in the humble four valve compact mantel receivers. Society now dictated that each household should really have two receivers, one in the lounge/drawing room - usually a floor-standing console with MW and SW bands and a small mantel receiver for the kitchen only receiving the MW band. Mantel radios were usually under-powered things though gave enough performance for the simple job of letting mum listen to music programmes while baking the daily bread. Large radios were still made in the 1950's of course but the mantel sized receivers, along with 'tablegrams' really did dominate the market from this point on. Receivers made during this time were still made of either bakelite, sometimes in various colours and veneered plywood.

Something quite dramatic started to happen in the 1960's. Wood and bakelite gave way to plastic and this saw the end of the built in character that the older sets had. It just wasn't the same and basic quality and longevity suffered as a result of the change. They were still valve radios and still sounded great but they were not built to last and they didn't have that inspiring awe that allows a wooden or bakelite receiver to stand with authority in a display.

In summarising, the size and shape of a cabinet can be used to date a receiver but usually only to a period of manufacture. A more accurate measure can only be made if one knows a great deal about when sets were released.

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Tuesday, 24th October, 2017.

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