Retrotechtacular: Oh Boy! We’re Radio Engineers!

It is a shame that there are fewer and fewer “nerd stores” around. Fry’s is gone. Radio Shack is gone. But the best ones were always the places that had junk. Silicon valley was great for these places, but they were everywhere. Often, they made their money selling parts to the repair trade, but they had a section for people like us. There’s still one of these stores in the Houston, Texas area. One of the two original Electronic Parts Outlets, or EPO. Walking through there is like a museum of old gear and parts and I am not ashamed to confess I sometimes drive the hour from my house just to wander its aisles, needing to buy absolutely nothing. It was on one of those trips that I spied something I hadn’t noticed before. A Remco Caravelle transmitter/receiver.

The box was clearly old and the styling of the radio was decidedly retro. You can tell it wasn’t catering to the modern market because it mentions: “play ham radio operator” which would surely mystify most of today’s kids. The unit was an AM receiver and a transmitter, complete with a morse code key and microphone. You can see a contemporary commercial for a similar unit from Remco, in the video below.

The toy appeared in 1962 and while you “built it yourself,” it wasn’t something you had to solder. Somehow, I missed this as a kid, although I did have something similar from General Electric (the Y7060 CB base station). You have to wonder how many ham radio operators and broadcasters a toy like this launched? We’ve read that [Rush Limbaugh] got interested in broadcasting because of this kit. As the kid in the commercial says, “Oh Boy! We’re Radio Engineers!”

Radio is even more important today than it was back then. But like all successful tech, it has become invisible to the ordinary person. Not so, back when making a phone call across the Atlantic was a marvel. Not to mention the 1940s car phone.

43 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Oh Boy! We’re Radio Engineers!

    1. Heathkit was great. And the problem is ‘was’. But their failure wasn’t their fault. As the cost of complex electronic assemblies dropped while quality increased, Heathkit found themselves priced out of one market after another. One of the last kits I saw built was a 21″ color TV. One of my brother’s bought and built the set. The kit cost him about $300 more than the 21″ Sylvania Superset color TV I bought at about the same time.

      1. Clever brother! What’s the fun in buying something when you can build it yourself? I’ve build my 3d-printer in 2015 from a kit and have been modifying it ever since thanks to the intimate knowledge aquired during the build.

      2. Two TVs ago, I built the Heath GR-2000 25 inch “solid state” TV on my GI bill. I already had a EE degree but needed training to be a TV repairman, you know. I knew Ph.D’s at the shop (Air force research Lab) who did the same thing, traded answers to the quizzes to get to the TV. It was a great TV once I redesigned the HV section so it didn’t blow up. The documentation let you troubleshoot down to the devices inside the ICs. I still have the Heath scope.

        1. I still have an old Sencore picture tube rejuvinator (I think) that survived several moves. We had no idea that stuff like that would be useless before long! I was never a repairman but wanted it and got it free in the olden days. I still have my new Tektronix 422 oscilloscope that I bought in later years. Now that stuff is just for memories…

    2. I regularly make contacts all over the world from the Midwest via SSB (voice) and CW (Morse Code) using my early 1970s-era Heathkit SB-102 transceiver. One of my recent, notable contacts was an employee-run ham radio club at a steel manufacturing company in Bursa, Turkey. It’s so fun to be able to repair and maintain the old tube radios.

    3. These Remco were toys. So kids could spend their allowance, or parents would willingly fork over the money. They could also get them at the toystore, no need to find a specialty store. The Remco required little skill to assemble.

      Heathkits were way more expensive, I could never afford one. And were much beyond Remco.

      1. The Remco things were GREAT toys. My folks gave me the smallest crystal radio kit for Christmas one year, and I have great memories of putting it together with my Dad, then him running an antenna to a pole, and me lying in bed trying to get distant stations. It helped plant the seed that developed into my first career. Of course there were also several Heathkits on the way as well.

        In our big city, there’s still a few places where one can peruse surplus electronic stuff and find the odd repairable gem. And several decent electronic parts retailers. These days I mostly scratch the DIY/experimenter itch with microcontrollers, IoT boards and other modules.

        (I hope Al bought that Remco Caravelle, just for the memories)

        1. “The Remco things were GREAT toys.” Seconded, in spades. My parents brought home a Remco crystal radio kit for me when they came back from vacation – I was probably 8 years old. Was yours blue? Anyway, I still have fond memories of that radio; like so many of the tech-oriented gifts I received as a child, thinking about it still gives me a visceral thrill.

  1. Skycraft in Orlando once supplied parts for Amsat and is open to the public. I went there decades ago and was amazed at the rows of antique equipment. It has a flying saucer on the roof! It’s practically a genuine Florida roadside attraction.

  2. Thing is, these places are getting to be few and far between, so there’s less competition for customers money. Meanwhile a certain kind of person trawls the yard sales just to put stuff on a certain kind of auction site where they’re willing to sit on ridiculous prices indefinitely. Together these forces seem to be driving up costs on what used to be easily had “surplus” items. It’s even getting so that flea market sellers will quote (auction site) prices right to your face. Just try to find an FT-243 type crystal, for example – seems like a bag of crystals would set you back about the same as a bag of peanuts 20 or 30 years ago, now you’re lucky to find just one for under $15. Seems like it’s getting a lot harder to do electronics as a hobby, unless you define it as plugging together inexplicably cheap and highly integrated modules. And that’s not even mentioning the counterfeit parts problem.

    It’s nice that they’re trying to revitalize IC manufacturing (here in the U.S. anyway), but it’d be nicer still if there was a supply of discrete components that you could trust, as well, b/c not everything can be crammed into the nanometer scale.

    1. On the flip side, basic jellybean parts have never been this available. And neither has been manufactured PCB’s been so easy and cheap.

      20years ago I had to take the train or a bus to one of the two local electronics shops to buy basic parts. And now I can get them mailed to my door for 1/10th price.

      Never been a better time to be a homebrewer (maybe in 2018, before the chipshortage, but still).

  3. I got a Remco crystal radio that snapped together in 1971 or 72. By then I was beyond it.

    The catalogs at the time had a Remco broadcaster, wider than the crystal radio but same form, which had an AM broadcaster too.

    1. Hm. Maybe it’s also the age. Kids today do mature much faster, they’re processing mich more information at a young age.

      If you are, as a boomer, expect kids to develop an interest for something at the same age as you did in your youth, you’re perhaps making a mistake.

      Back in the 1960s, there was little “input” for kids. Radio and TV were under control of the adults, kids had right to change programme etc.

      That’s why crystal radios were such a big thing in the 50s and 60s still : They were dirt cheap, easiy to build. Kids could own them their own, could listen to anything they wanted (mostly local medium wave stations, long distance stations in the night). Including radio dramas, rock music etc. Without asking their parents for permission, without their knowing. It caused no cost also (no battery or PSU needed).

      This slowly changed in the 1970s/80s, when TV and radio nolonger were high technology.
      Kids could get the old b/w TV sets or obsolete tube radios from their family, grand parents etc. Or these cheap japanese transistor radios.

      Nowadays, you must start to interest kids at age 6 or up for the radio hobby.
      That’s when they’re still curious about everything surrounding them, when they still watch the clouds and and look up to you.
      In the 90s, I was programming in Quick Basic 4.5 on a second-hand 286 PC at age 7. Yes, 7. And I was merely medium intelligent.

      So if you’re starting to interest kids at age 14 for the radio hobby, it’s very late.
      Sure, maybe you’re lucky, if the kid is very good-natured.

      But normally, that’s the age when kids start getting into relationships, discover their bodies etc.
      See, that’s not like it was in the 1960s, when kids still sat in the sand pit at age 10 and ate sand pies.

      The times have changed. Kids grow up much faster – generally speaking.
      Sure, there exceptions. Some kids develop slowly or have learning issues.

  4. I love EPO!!!! They’ve got everything.
    Fry’s is gone? Hadn’t noticed. Last time I went in there they had big huge bins of ‘electronic’ toys such as you would find at the dollar store, ECG integrated circuits from the 1980s and a few odds and ends of car inverters and flashlights, car stereos, small camping refrigerators, electric helicopter toys, water balloons, screwdrivers, etc. Same thing that Radio Shack did. I was trying to buy a Chrome stick and the salesperson said they had it and went to their stockroom for it, please standby. 20 minutes later I was informed by another salesperson that she had left on her lunch hour. It’s totally down to management and employees not knowing or caring anything at all about electronics.

  5. I AM a Ham Operator who got his start through a similar device. Unfortunately I cannot remember the name. It was mostly Blue, and had a “Code Key” mounted to it on the right side. There was a sidetone, and a light as I recall. No external Mic, with an extendable antenna. I’d talk to my buddy 3/4 of a mile away on his walkie-talkie. Now and then, we could “work skip” and talk to the real CB’ers in town, miles away!!! We both graduated to real CB radios a short time later. I found some REAL HAMS in the countryside while riding my bicycle around. As a young kid, if I didn’t know people, I stopped and introduced myself. One of these neighbors would a few years later handle regular Phone Patches to my folks for me from Vietnam. My buddy and I both were and are still today licensed, but instead of 3/4 of a mile, I’m 1200 miles away in Central Texas. As in the old days of a great childhood, we still keep in touch via radio. The “Circle of Life” goes on.
    Thank you for this Great Wayback Machine Journey!

      1. That is so cool! I was a kid during the Vietnam war, but my uncles were vets. Nice to see you guys communicating, in code!

        I’ve held onto the CB radio that our family had in the 70’s, with the hopes of replacing the expired capacitors on the board some day, and hearing something without all the static.

  6. I just moved to Houston, and I have to thank you greatly for the tip about EPO – I already saved it to check out soon.

    I grew up in Arlington, TX and ever since Electronic Discount Sales shut down I’ve been trying to find a similar store somewhere without having to resort to ebay – just the nostalgia of hunting for interesting older electronics in a brick & mortar store can’t be beat.

  7. There was a Lafayette electronics store in Portland during the 50’s? to 70’s.
    They had tons of kits and some WW2 mystery black boxes full of tubes.
    Good times, R2D5 and cascade were in business in the 60’s to 90’s

  8. Audio fail at 0:20 not very good at lip reading either. I had the mid price kit in the early 60’s. I used the slug and coil tuning inductor in something I made later. That “retro” styling got old even then.

    With 2 crappy locals 30 kHz apart and the pre NPR purdue station (boring) jamming the rock and roll station from Chicago. The lady storyteller from purdue was all there was to pick up. Radio was really bad here then, little has changed.

  9. Houston also has ACE Electronics. The stuff they sell is less eclectic (less “surplus”) compared to EPO and way, way more organized, but they have everything I have needed. IMHO, ACE’s biggest drawback is “banker’s hours”: 8AM-5PM , M-F. You need to take time off from work to go there. If they were open on Saturdays I’d be a MUCH poorer man.

  10. I got the caravelle for Christmas one year. I keyed the mike switch down with a rubber band and broadcast Christmas music all day on the am band to any radios in the vicinity. I could even tune it in on my crystal set.

  11. Wow! A walk down memory lane. I got one of these for Christmas in 1962. I had not seen or heard of one since. And, yes, in later years I worked in broadcasting, became an Engineer and got my Ham license.

  12. I left Houston in 2001, but was a faithful customer of EPO since they opened in the late 80s (IIRC). Spent far too much money there on an amazing array of stuff. Even got a friend hired there to do artwork for the stores. Dan Bretch, the original owner, was a great guy. I’m thrilled to hear they’re still around. Next time I’m in Houston, I’ll have to go in

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