Odd Crosley Radios From The 1920s

You may sometimes see the Crosley name today on cheap record players, but from what we can tell that company isn’t connected with the Crosley Radio company that was a powerhouse in the field from 1921 to 1956. [Uniservo] looks at two of the very early entries from Crosley: the model VIII and the XJ. You can see the video of both radios, below.

The company started by making car parts but grew rapidly and entered the radio business very successfully in 1921. We can only imagine what a non-technical person thought of these radios with all the knobs and switches, for some it must have been very intimidating.

The model VIII had two large knobs, three small knobs, and a switch. Oddly enough there were very few markings on the knobs, as you were expected to know how to use a tuned RF radio. The large knobs were for tuning capacitors and the switch was for coil taps, while the three small knobs controlled the tube filament supplies.

We thought at first that each filament control knob had a jack above it. As it turns out, they aren’t jacks but peepholes. You sight through the holes to see how brightly the filament burns to adjust them properly. With the three tubes, you still needed headphones or an external amplifier. The variable capacitors are “book style” which is a rarity now. Watching the cam and spring adjust the capacitor makes you wonder how many other ways you could build a variable capacitor.

The XJ is similar although you’ll find an extra tube and peephole. There’s also a normal headphone jack. You can see some cost-cutting measures in this radio. It still used the book capacitors, though. These old radios are almost like craft pieces and we wonder what the person who wired them by hand would think if they knew we were looking at their work almost a century later.

If you want to know more about the man behind Crosley — and his dog — and how their desire to sell more radios led to the creation of the WLW radio station. Of course, the TRF design didn’t survive long and gave way to the superheterodyne.

37 thoughts on “Odd Crosley Radios From The 1920s

  1. “We can only imagine what a non-technical person thought of these radios with all the knobs and switches, for some it must have been very intimidating.”

    I think about this a lot lately with the stark contrast between how things were in the early days of machines and electronics versus current UI/UX philosophy. Back then, the assumption was that there would be no non-technical users. They didn’t really think technical and non-technical were innate qualities in people; if somebody wanted to use this machine, they would read the manual and study the diagrams and learn the principles. “Specialization is for insects.” They didn’t try to make the interface separate from the function; the interface wasn’t designed to be “intuitive” to somebody who had no understanding of the workings that were literally behind it. And I can understand some advantages to that. It may take time and sell less units, but at some point you reach diminishing returns with a layman-intuitive interface if the user doesn’t clearly understand what they are doing on a fundamental level.

    I still love old, esoteric, physical, unintuitive interfaces. I love that they drive you to rigorously learn, stubbornly withholding the reward of proper functionality until you book up and understand what you’re doing. I love how flexible and granular and repairable they are. I strongly believe anyone can learn them IF they want it enough. I understand why we are stuck with these A/B tested, simple, safe, Fischer-Price interfaces in modern machines. It’s a marketing thing, and plus the machines have gotten orders of magnitude more complex so it’s harder for somebody to learn them now without starting with the more basic systems from the olden days. Which most young people don’t know about it have access to. It’s understandable. But these UI/UX abominations are a real bummer in my opinion. I miss big physical switches and knobs, and manuals that include real technical information and schematics instead of pages of idiot warnings and nothing else.

    1. Beautifully stated…but here’a another thought. Because of the way electronics works, you used to have essentially one control associated with each parameter… the tuning knob tunes, the filament rheostat controls the filaments, and so forth. There might have been alot of them, but once you understood what you were doing, you never forgot…akin to learning to ride a bike.

      Many contemporary user interfaces, while lean and “simple,” must somehow bake in the 10-fold increase in internal complexity. The result is cryptic button sequences to access menus within menus…equipment like my 2 meter mobile. The only thing intuitive about it is the on switch and the volume knob. There is literally nothing else I can do with that radio without first consulting a quarter-inch thick manual… every time.

      Modern user interfaces were designed to address modern devices, I get it. Some UIs are better than others. But many (most?) are anything but intuitive.

      1. That’s very true, and kind of what I mean by the understandable and unavoidable increase in complexity I mentioned. I do appreciate that some devices can’t be made any more intuitive past a practical point, and that’s where manuals (and stack exchange) comes in. It’s definitely a real thing that goes beyond cynical marketing and dumbing down in many cases.

        But that’s kind of the interesting challenge. If we put our minds to it, could we figure out and fashion these discrete, analog-like, old-fashioned physical interfaces for current digital tech and software? I think we could for some things in certain areas where it made sense, but it’s not really something many people or companies want to try. I guess there’s not much incentive for it perhaps. Maybe it’s a matter of current engineering and design culture.

      2. You had a power switch and a volume knob? What luxury! Nowadays stuff is several levels deep in menus. And you start a car by pressing the brake? How is that supposed to make sense?

          1. I think it started with Win95.

            The commercial played “Start me up!” by The Rolling Stones, but they left out the part,
            “you make a grown man cry!”

          1. I have a collection of old tracors and it is always interesting when I have to do something with a newer one because they do have all the safety features on them. Little things can be such a pain in the butt like having to deress the clutch or break or be in neutral and have your butt on the seat before you can start it. My old Allis CHalmers CA you oull a rod that slams the contactor shut for the starter and pushes the bendix in. If you do that in gear standing astride it, you learn not to do that real fast.

        1. Many years ago I lent my new car to a friend. Later they rang saying it wouldn’t start.

          I went over and started first time.

          Before I left they wanted to start it to make sure and it wouldn’t start.

          I immediately got in and it started first time.

          So asked them to try again and watched what they were doing.

          Their start sequence was foot break on, hand break off, neutral, start.

          So I tried the same thing and it wouldn’t start.

          My start sequence was , check hand break in, clutch, select gear, start.

          I then realised it had a clutch switch and I had never noticed that because I start in gear.

          So something that was intuitive to me was not so intuitive to someone else.

          1. The old habit of pointing your wheels to the curb on a hill can mess you up too. Putting too much spring in the wheel lock detente for the solenoid or mechanical interlock to release. Either need to gorilla wrestle the tension off it while you press the brake and turn the key, or jack the wheels off the ground.

          2. Well I select the correct gear for the direction of travel. The car isn’t going to launch anywhere with the clutch in.

            That was in fact the safety feature that I was completely unaware of.

    2. And of course this wasn’t just limited to electronics of the day. Machines of all sorts required quite a bit of knowledge to operate. Automobiles are a good example. Prior to the 3 pedal and H-pattern gear selection layout were a variety of different methods to effectively accomplish the same thing, and they varied from manufacturer to manufacturer. And that didn’t include all the knobs and levers one needed to modulate just to keep the fiddly engines running. Obviously there were plenty of people who were able to learn to operate these things, but it’s fair to say most people would opt for something simpler given the chance if it provided a similar outcome.

      1. Good point! And a nice blast from the past too. I remember riding old British motorcycles with foot controls on the opposite side and a spark-advance lever on the handlebars. The only brake was a wooden shoe that pressed on the outside of the rear tire; you might stop in half a mile if you were lucky. Rode another one that had a foot clutch instead of a hand clutch and a “suicide shifter” in the form of a hand lever on the side of the tank. Even after car controls became fairly uniform, bikes took a long time to shake out.

        Also remember driving an old truck where instead of a single gear shift, you had a separate lever for each section of what now resides under the three columns in an H-pattern shifter. You’d put one shift in neutral and move the one to the right into the next gear. Was also a double-clutch with no synchro, of course.

        1. It’s also amazing to me how many of the early design features from never-before built concepts actually flowed into the permanent standard go-to designs. I’m reminded of standing in the Smithsonian viewing the hand built Wright Flyer engine and seeing a fairly conventional although small engine with removable bolt on air cooled cylinders just like in my Piper.

    3. The knobs and peepholes in this design though serve no function. The only thing that serves the actual function of the radio is the coil tap switch and the tuning capacitor.

      They’re there just because they hadn’t yet invented a way to regulate the heater current against varying battery voltages. It’s like the manual ignition advance lever in early cars so you could start the thing using a hand crank. Once they invented the electric starter, that lever disappeared.

  2. Crosley also made cars, tiny little things. Had a boss that had one modified for vintage racing.

    Does anyone else have issues logging on to leave comments. I can only do it though firefox. safari and chrome sit there with a “connecting to wordpress” and a scrolling bar after I enter my credentials.

    1. I can still remember going to the New York World Fair in 1939 with my father. We saw RCA television Billy Rose’s Aquacade and little Crosley cars with their “COBRA” (COpper BRAzed) engines flitting about.

    2. My high school Electronics teacher had one earlier in his life.
      He told us of the time(s?) he would be sitting the bar, and some folks would carry his Crosley up the court house steps!

  3. Go back to the old Popular Mechanics on Google Books for the 20’s and 30’s they had a large regular section for radio hackers with circuit designs and everything, this section was followed by sections for home craftsmen and shops stuff. They were quite the hack-a-day of their day.

  4. Yep, I have a bookshelf of old PopSci and PopMech and a few others like Modern Mechanics and Science and Mechanics. Lot of these are available on google books but it is much more fun to page through them.

    1. There’s a lot of bad scans and missing pages in the google ones, so don’t get rid of any paper ones on the strength of digital availability.

      There’s an apparent compendium of articles and possibly new pieces in books called “Popular Mechanics Shop Notes” which are also a treasure trove. They are substantially different each edition. Many pre-war editons are believed to be in the public domain now.

      Mechanix illustrated seemed to carry on with more electronic and radio stuff than PopMech did through the 50s and 60s, but seem to be much harder to find. Judging from the disintegration of the few I have, I guess this may be down to paper and binding quality as well as differing distribution.

  5. Imagine designing a radio that was one of the first ones ever seen and optimizing and creating it without being to stand on the shoulders of previous generations of successful products. Imagine commercially catering to a totally new market and having no real knowledge that it would catch on or even have broadcasting remain on the frequencies you built it on It shows just how innovative, gutsy and progressive the designers were particularly in a post depression economy. Imagine when commercial tubes, inductors and capacitors were maybe 10 years in existence and if you wanted anything specific you would have to manufacture it yourself. I love primitives. Nice link.

    1. Yes! I think about that a lot. We often take for granted how these ideas that we now all know and understand were very difficult to imagine for the first time. It’s almost a mystical ability to invent something totally new in a young field. “Gutsy” is precisely correct–not only did it take exceptional technical brilliance and creative freethinking, it took real guts and bravery to dare and grasp at totally unknown magic from the realm of future possibilities. And then you still have to figure out if you can produce it in quantity and profitably sell it.

  6. Commercially produced TRF radios have been made until the 2000’s. Single stage radios with regeneration were very cheap to produce so they remained on the market for fixed station reception, and also during/after WW2 because of material shortages.
    The nazis also used TRF radios to prevent the allied forces from picking up their local oscillators. After the 1940s, only few were made until 1972 – with the introduction of the very succesful ZN414 (mk484) AM radio integrated circuit. The newest TRF radio i have in my possession is one of those Sinclair in-ear MW radios.

    So while most radios did become superheterodyne, there have always been TRF radios.

  7. TRF radios were neat. I have mostly atwater kents, but the same vibe. Sadly outside of showing an interested party what radios used to be like they are too much of a PITA to use. The lack of audio aolification stages makes headphones a requirement. Not much fun to be ththered to the radio, and all of the old ones are battery sets so you cook through gangs of 9V batteries like crazy making the B batteries. There are some plans for batter eliminators on the net. I would not wanna use headphones with something that had a trasformer with unknow isolation no less the many designs out there that have none, and lets not forget that you also generally have a good earth ground on the old radios. A tad to old sparky for me to put my head in.

      1. It also defeats showing a kid what radios used to be like. It is an experience. It is fun to fire one up once in a while but not something you want to have to depend on. After you have fired one up a couple of times, you, or at least I find the only time I bring one back on line is to show somebody who has never see one work before. I find I use the old tractors a lot more than the old radios. YMMV as usual.

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