Resurrection — Pressing WW2 Radio Equipment Back into Service

Mass production was key to survival during the Second World War. So much stuff was made that there continues to be volumes of new unpacked stuff left over and tons of used equipment for sale at reasonable prices. Availability of this war surplus provided experimenters in the mid 20th century with access to high performance test equipment, radio equipment, and high quality components for the first time.

Even today this old stuff continues to motivate and inspire the young generations because of its high build quality, unique electro-mechanical approaches, and overall innovative designs which continue to be relevant into the 21st century. In this post we will show you how to get started in the hobby of resurrecting WW2 radio equipment and putting it back on the air.

The ARC-5, Your First Receiver

Many amateur radio operators became interested in the hobby after being given an old ARC-5 ‘command set’ receiver. These radios were typically used for communication between aircraft within a formation, hence the name ‘command set’. There are many different receivers and transmitters within this line covering frequency bands from 190 KHz to 146 MHz, most of which are capable of tuning in AM, CW, and SSB (by adjusting the BFO).

ARC-5 command set receiver, this one covering 1.5-3.0 MHz.
Example of an ARC-5 command set receiver, this one covering 1.5-3.0 MHz.

I recently purchased the receiver shown above at a military antique store in Lake George, NY. This radio was interesting for two reasons, it was completely original and never modified for amateur use (over the years amateur radio operates hack these radios to suite their needs at the time), and it had a build date of Feb 1942.

Rather than replacing all of the old capacitors as is usually required when restoring antique radio gear, I tested each and every one of them and only replaced the bad ones. Of those that I replaced, I re-stuffed the original cans that held the old capacitors so that it did not look like anything had been changed.

I also restored the old Dynamotor, which is a unique motor-generator device used during the second world war to generate high plate-voltage from the 28 VDC aircraft bus. These radios make for a great first-WW2 radio restoration because they are simple, extensive documentation exists, and you can buy an ARC-5 receiver at just about any hamfest for less than $50, or in my experience they are often given away to anyone who shows genuine interest.

Robotic Radio Equipment and Servo Control

Once you’ve cut your teeth on a command set it is time to step up into the big leagues. Dhalgreen440 shows us some very impressive restorations of WW2 radio gear including many of the auto-tune systems, where servo motors would automatically tune the transmitter or receiver (or both) to pre-set channels at the flip of a switch, like this ARC-1:

Here is an ARN-7 automatic radio direction finding set, that uses servo motors to lock-into AM broadcast (or other medium wave) stations, providing a real-time compass bearing to that station for the purposes of airborne radio navigation:

Tank-to-Tank Communication

Ever wonder what it would be like to talk to your friends on a tank radio? Check out this demo of an SCR-508:

Just Turn the Crank

In addition to this impressive equipment there are many pieces that will simply just work right out of the box without the need for any restoration such as this BC-778-D emergency beacon. All you have to do is turn the crank and it will start transmitting an SOS automatically in Morse code (or the letter A for test purposes) at 500 KHz:

The Beginning of a Legend, Collins Radio and the ART-13

And of course lets not forget the legendary Collins ART-13 with auto-tune. The ART-13 is one of the most popular WW2 high frequency radio transmitters that you will hear on the air. Collins Radio was the first to commercialize auto tune-radio technology in the 1930’s, combining artful mechanical design with high performance radio receiver technology:

The Community

And there are many more examples of radio enthusiasts bringing back to life WW2 radio equipment. This technical community mostly revolves around the magazine Electric Radio and their work is proudly shown on YouTube.

You Can Do It!

So pick up some surplus WW2 radio gear next time you see it and press it back into service. It will be an intellectual adventure where you will learn about history, RF design, and servo-mechanisms along the way. (Each piece Gregory L. Charvat’s WW2 radio collection is fully operational and on the air.)

25 thoughts on “Resurrection — Pressing WW2 Radio Equipment Back into Service

    1. I have a Hamilton Radio version, so the TCS-13 (Mine has an acceptance stamp of June 6, 1944, if that means anything to the readers). Another fellow has a nice one-page on the history of these along with pictures of his Collins TCS-12 at http://www.ohio.edu/people/postr/bapix/tcs12.htm . He talks about their use on PT boats (famously President Kennedy served on a PT Boat) and LST use. I think the history of these dusty old boxes that veterans served with our fathers and grandfathers is the most interesting aspect of them, even if I have a few that will never chirp again.

  1. “So much stuff was made that there continues to be volumes of new unpacked stuff left over and tons of used equipment for sale at reasonable prices. ”

    … really? Where? All I can find is junque (plus $$$ shipping) or ok stuff at Drake/Collins prices (and $$$$$ shipping). Where is this motherlode of new surplus units? (I confess I haven’t been able to make it to any hamfests)

    In 2012 I did score this new in boxes Chinese Type 102E tube HF receiver transmitter set. It was affordable at $200, but mainly because the seller was local.The receiver works great; hoping to fire up the transmitter when I licence up.

    What is the unit in the first picture? Looks sweet.

    1. Supply is wildly irregular. One type of military receiver I have is routinely featured on the usual online website in horrible condition for one to two hundred dollars in really nasty ham-modded conditions plus shipping on a heavy block of iron…Just got one at the local old radio meet for fifty dollars, complete and unmolested, because he went to an estate sale and got everything for one price because the family was so used to it being scrap. He was happy, I was happy.

      1. Sorry, you also asked about the photo. The first picture looks to be a display of or depicting an AN/ARC-8, which was composed of a T-47*/ART-13 transmitter and a BC-348* receiver, some models of the latter being later designated as AN/ARR-11. This pairing was used on heavy bombers and such in late WW2. Surplus transmitter units saw decades of service with some of our commercial airlines. Some of these were also still in service in guard units and overseas into the early seventies.

      2. Yeah, you really have to frequent the hamfests. Dayton Hamvention is a reliable source for this stuff in my experience. Another great resource is the Electric Radio Magazine classified section. Subscribers get free add space each month in the classified section, this is where a great deal of quality surplus stuff is exchanged.

    2. It is the height of exaggeration to say that new in box radios from WWII are available. Just absurd.to make such a claim. There may be an occasional appearance, but pretty rare.

      1. Probably, but it’s only an exaggeration.

        In 1972 I bought a Command Set transmitter for ten dollars at the local surplus place here in Canada, and it still had some original packing on it. There was massive output during WWII, and a lot never saw action. For a long time, really until semiconductors took over in the seventies, hobbyists relied on that surplus, whether it was Heathkit and its early kits using surplus, or some early SSB ham gear that was based on a Command Set transmitter, or anyone getting cheap surplus tubes. And the supply line included endless spare parts, even lots of 400cycle transformers that had no use on the power line, but some used for modulation transformers. I wonder if SSB would have taken off if not fir surplus. There was no SSB equipment in surplus until later (and in much smaller quantity) but many built crystal filters because there were endless surplus crystals. For a long time people used those crystals rather tan spend money on a custom ground crystal. Either make d with ä given frequency, multiply it, or open the case and grind t a bit to raise the frequency. There were so many crystals, on so many different frequencies, that usually one could find one close.

        And it didn’t end because the supply dried up, but because of a shift to semiconductors and SSB, and a more compact world.

        Michael

  2. I’d love to see an ARC-5 teardown (non-destructive) featured here on HAD (written article, *NOT* video-only)… sounds like the sort of a thing that could be reasonably-easily cloned by those of us without access to one, with only minimal modifications.

  3. When I was a kid like 15-16 My dad got me a old mark 3 shortwave radio.
    That was were I got my first electrical shock. 800v DC blew right across the room.
    I did get the thing going thow. And no I didn’t have a licence. this was in the 70s.
    That was when I really got into electronics.\
    And those were the days. You know the good old days.

  4. My dad has thousands of vacuum tubes and hundreds of radios mostly 1920s-1950s era, including lots of ww2 surplus. Unfortunately most of it isn’t worth more than scrap metal prices without a lot of effort cataloging.

    1. With the seventy-fifth anniversary of Pearl Harbor right around the corner, the interest for these items is rising sharply. A friend in the Music City Vintage Radio Club (TN) called me the other day, asking after my gear, as he’s donating a bunch to a group that rescued a bomber off the bottom of one of the great lakes. If you’ve taken your eyes off the market for a bit, you can be forgiven for not knowing that grandchildren are interested in these things now. The Memphis Belle brought interest in BC-348s, Codetalkers brought interest in TBX series gear, Saving Private Ryan sent the price of the remaining BC-611 and the BC-1000 units skyrocketing. Re-enactors, preservation groups, hobbyists all like this stuff. There is a chest set for a radio I will probably never have, as the going price seems to be five hundred dollars–but somewhere else, someone is chucking one in a dumpster this year, because it’s ‘just scrap’, unless you know what it is. Certain tubes are either sixty apiece plus in some cases, or haul it off, for that very reason as well. (If you’re close to TN we should talk, but the Antique Wireless Association in NY may be some help finding someone local to you interested in vintage consumer radios–which can again run from legit dollar box material to thousands of dollars.

      1. …Furthermore, the more often parts of an SCR were discarded or left on the vehicle, like shock mounts and dynamotors, the more likely they will go for as much as a dusty example that has those pieces on it. Go figure. It was cheaper for me to buy another BC-348 with a shock mount than it was to get one from one of the surplus stores. I would love to have one for one of the BC-342’s at the club. Military and Mutual Conductance Tube Testers are no longer ten dollars apiece on the open market like they were when I first started out, either–and they’re not making any more of them. The earliest, weak signal corps FM transceivers are getting a lot of love from the military vehicle crowd to mount on appropriate period platforms. The list goes on and on.

  5. I’m in the military as a flier, every 4 years we have to do a quick water survival course (this is stuff that could cause the crash. This is stuff you’ll in a life raft have like radios. This is how you swim. This is how you get out of a helicopter in water). All the radios use batteries.

    Spent a little time thinking about how none of the radios have any recharging capabilities. Solar, or hand powered. Than I realized, the batteries are made to last just as long as the occupants are expected to last with supplies. A few days. Manually cranking isn’t free, it’d make the cranker just die that much faster from energy excretion.

    1. Murphy’s seems to have mostly later oddments as well. Fair radio sales is low on WW2 oddments. The last few years they’ve been spotted buying up gear from booths and offering onesie twosies online for prices designed to keep em in stock. A friend went awhile back (who is not a mil. collector) and I spied a mound of Gibson Girl reels. When they moved locations a few years ago, the reshuffle pared their “long tail” of stuff, too.

      1. these surplus companies are usually started by someone with a passion for radios, Fair radio has been around at least since the early 70s, and Michael p rmurphy started selling radios out of his garage in the early 80s. people get old and companies get passed on to less interested children, both companies are shadows of what the once were! both companies still have an interesting item every once in awhile and i still buy from them. here is another source i found recently, they often sell deceased collectors old radio’s and equipment, both miiltary and commercial/consumer radio’s, a good facebook page to keep an eye on too, this link is to the most recent past auction: http://bid.schulmanauction.com/catalog/87979/ham-radio-collins–drake-and-more–kw4a-estate-1-of-2/

  6. It’s nice to see some conversation about tubes. For those people trying to decide what to do with their tubes, or tube-based gear such as radios and test equipment, yes, it is difficult to determine what you have, what their value may be, try to sell them on ebay or craigslist, pack them, ship them, etc. There is another alternative. When you donate to the Vacuum Tube Museum, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, you get a valid tax deduction letter, and can declare the maximum prices found anywhere. And you can include all the costs of packing, all the costs of shipping, all the costs of cleaning, repairing or restoring, and even some of the costs from storage. This can easily add up to be higher prices than selling, and far less hassle. I am writing an article on this, so let me know if you would like a copy. And for people on the wonderful Hackaday website, I will include a free Museum Membership for donations of tubes, and tube-based gear.
    All the Best,
    Charles
    cfb@vacuumtubemuseum.org

    Charles Francis Bacon, Keeper of the Vision
    International Vacuum Tube Museum
    http://www.vacuumtubemuseum.org

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