Most crystal radio receivers have a decidedly “field expedient” look to them. Fashioned as they often are from a few turns of wire around an oatmeal container and a safety pin scratching the surface of a razor blade, the whole assembly often does a great impersonation of a pile of trash whose appearance gives little hope of actually working. And yet work they do, usually, pulling radio signals out of thin air as if by magic.
Not all crystal sets take this slapdash approach, of course, and some, like this homebrew multiband crystal receiver, aim for a feature set and fit and finish that goes way beyond the norm. The “Husky” crystal set, as it’s called by its creator [alvenh], looks like it fell through a time warp right from the 1920s. The electronics are based on the Australian “Mystery Set” circuit, with modifications to make the receiver tunable over multiple bands. Rather than the traditional galena crystal and cat’s whisker detector, a pair of1N34A germanium diodes are used as rectifiers — one for demodulating the audio signal, and the other to drive a microammeter to indicate signal strength. A cat’s whisker is included for looks, though, mounted to the black acrylic front panel along with nice chunky knobs and homebrew rotary switches for band selection and antenna.
As nice as the details on the electronics are, it’s the case that really sells this build. Using quarter-sawn oak salvaged from old floorboards. The joinery is beautiful and the hardware is period correct; we especially appreciate the work that went into transforming a common flat washer into a nickel-plated escutcheon for the lock — because every radio needs a lock.
Congratulations to [Alvenh] for pulling off such a wonderful build, and really celebrating the craftsmanship of the early days of radio. Need some crystal radio theory before tackling your build? Check out [Greg Charvat]’s crystal radio deep dive.
With regard to retro test gear, one’s thoughts tend to those Nixie-adorned instruments of yore, or the boat-anchor oscilloscopes that came with their own carts simply because there was no other way to move the things. But there were other looks for test gear back in the day, as this frequency counter with a readout using moving-coil meters shows.
We have to admit to never seeing anything like [Charles Ouweland]’s Van Der Heem 9908 electronic counter before. The Netherlands-based company, which was later acquired by Philips, built this six-digit, 1-MHz counter sometime in the 1950s. The display uses six separate edge-mounted panel meters numbered 0 through 9 to show the frequency of the incoming signal. The video below has a demo of what the instrument can do; we don’t know if it was restored at some point, but it still works and it’s actually pretty accurate. Later in the video, he gives a tour of the insides, which is the real treat — the case opens like a briefcase and contains over 20 separate PCBs with a bunch of germanium transistors, all stitched together with point-to-point wiring.
We appreciate the look inside this unique piece of test equipment history. It almost seems like something that would have been on the bench while this Apollo-era IO tester was being prototyped.
There was a time when all major corporations maintained film production departments to crank out public relations pieces, and the electronic industry was no exception. Indeed, in the sea-change years of the mid-20th century, corporate propaganda like this look at Philco transistor manufacturing was more important than ever, as companies tried to pivot from vacuum tubes to solid-state components, and needed to build the consumer electronics markets that would power the next few decades of rapid growth.
The film below was produced in 1957, just a decade since the invention of the transistor and only a few years since Philco invented the surface-barrier transistor, the technology behind the components. It shows them being made in their “completely air-conditioned, modern plant” in Pennsylvania. The semiconductor was germanium, of course — the narrator only refers to “silly-con” transistors once near the end of the film — but the SBT process, with opposing jets of indium sulfate electrolyte being used to both etch the germanium chip and form the collector and emitter of the transistor, is a fascinating process, and these transistors were quite the advance back in the day. It’s interesting, too, to watch the casual nature of the manufacturing process — no clean rooms, no hair nets, and only a lab coat and “vacuum welcome mats” to keep things reasonably clean.
As in most such corporate productions, superlatives abound, so be prepared for quite a bit of hyperbole on the part of the Mid-Atlantic-accented narrator. And we noticed a bit of a whoopsie near the end, when he proudly intoned that Philco transistors would be aboard the “first Earth satellite.” They were used in the radio of Explorer 1, but the Russians had other ideas about who was going to be first.
We are used to microwave receivers requiring complex chipsets and exacting PCB layouts, but as [CHZ-soft] has shown, it does not always have to be that way. With nothing more complex than a germanium point-contact diode and an oscilloscope, you can quickly, easily, and cheaply resolve microwave signals, as we are shown with a 2.4GHz wireless mouse.
Of course, there’s nothing new here, what we’re being shown is the very simplest incarnation of a crystal set. It’s a wideband device, with only the length of the wires providing any sort of resonance, but surprisingly with the addition of a very selective cavity resonator it can be turned into a useful receiver. Perhaps the most interesting take-away is that the germanium point-contact diode — once a ubiquitous component — has almost entirely disappeared. In most applications it has been supplanted by the Schottky diode, but even those usually don’t quite possess the speed in the point contact’s home ground of radio detection. This is a shame, because there are still some bench-level projects for which they are rather useful.
So if you have a point contact diode and AM radio doesn’t attract, give it a go as a microwave detector. And if the point contact diode has attracted your interest then you may want to read our piece on Rufus Turner, who brought us its archetype, the 1N34A.
Sixty years ago this month, an unassuming but gifted engineer sitting in a lonely lab at Texas Instruments penned a few lines in his notebook about his ideas for building complete circuits on a single slab of semiconductor. He had no way of knowing if his idea would even work; the idea that it would become one of the key technologies of the 20th century that would rapidly change everything about the world would have seemed like a fantasy to him.
We’ve covered the story of how the integrated circuit came to be, and the ensuing patent battle that would eventually award priority to someone else. But we’ve never taken a close look at the quiet man in the quiet lab who actually thought it up: Jack Kilby.
The debt we all owe must be paid someday, and for inventor Robert N. Hall, that debt came due in 2016 at the ripe age of 96. Robert Hall’s passing went all but unnoticed by everyone but his family and a few close colleagues at General Electric’s Schenectady, New York research lab, where Hall spent his remarkable career.
That someone who lives for 96% of a century would outlive most of the people he had ever known is not surprising, but what’s more surprising is that more notice of his life and legacy wasn’t taken. Without his efforts, so many of the tools of modern life that we take for granted would not have come to pass, or would have been delayed. His main contribution started with a simple but seemingly outrageous idea — making a solid-state laser. But he ended up making so many more contributions that it’s worth a look at what he accomplished over his long career.
A reasonable selection of the Hackaday readership will have had their first experiences of computing on an 8-bit machine in a black case, with the word “Sinclair” on it. Even if you haven’t work with one of these machines you probably know that the man behind them was the sometimes colourful inventor Clive (now Sir Clive) Sinclair.
He was the founder of an electronics company that promised big results from its relatively inexpensive electronic products. Radio receivers that could fit in a matchbox, transistorised component stereo systems, miniature televisions, and affordable calculators had all received the Sinclair treatment from the early-1960s onwards. But it was towards the end of the 1970s that one of his companies produced its first microcomputer.
At the end of the 1950s, when the teenage Sinclair was already a prolific producer of electronics and in the early stages of starting his own electronics business, he took the entirely understandable route for a cash-strapped engineer and entrepreneur and began writing for a living. He wrote for electronics and radio magazines, later becoming assistant editor of the trade magazine Instrument Practice, and wrote electronic project books for Bernard’s Radio Manuals, and Bernard Babani Publishing. It is this period of his career that has caught our eye today, not simply for the famous association of the Sinclair name, but for the fascinating window his work gives us into the state of electronics at the time.