VOLUME 13 FEBRUARY 1996 NUMBER 2
Communications Collecting -- The New WaveBY WAYNE CHILDRESS
From Antique Radio Classified for February 1996
(Copyright 1996 by John V. Terrey - For personal use only.)
In this article Wayne Childress brings to light an aspect of collecting not often addressed - communications equipment and the "communication gap" between collectors of such and collectors of home radios. He explains what the communications equipment collector is looking for and why he views these sets as valuable additions to his collection. Wayne's objective is also an A.R.C. priority - to develop an appreciation of the interests of others among collectors. (Editor)
A few months ago, a fellow radio collector stopped by for a look at my radio collection. As we stepped into the "radio room," he immediately began to gawk at some of my 1920s battery sets. After perusing the wooden sets, he started to walk out of the room.
My "Hey" seemed to startle him. I asked, "Why didn't you look at these communications receivers?" I could tell by the look on his face, he was thinking, "Why should I?" So, I asked him if he was wondering why I was collecting all this "junk," to which he replied, "Well, yeah." I bit my lip.
The above exchange exemplifies a common misconception about vintage communications collectors. There's no doubt that collecting these big, heavy metal "rigs" is an acquired taste, but the collector of vintage communications equipment is no different from any other radio collector. His reasons for collecting are for nostalgia, beauty, interest in technology, performance, rarity, preservation of history, etc., but mainly for the love of what he's collecting. He's also interested in using his equipment on a daily basis.
Better Listening and Craftsmanship
I had collected wooden sets of the 1920s-1940s for a couple of years before I acquired my first communications receivers. For me, the initial hook was performance. Being used to mediocre AM DX'ing with broadcast radios, I was suddenly thrown into another realm with communications receivers.
I was not only getting more distant AM stations, but now the world of shortwave listening was truly at hand. Larger band coverage, bandspread tuning, beat frequency oscillators, and other features allowed me easy and more enjoyable shortwave listening.
As I added new communications receivers to my collection, I began to realize that these receivers were not out of place in my collection. Although the wood cabinets had been replaced by painted metal cabinets for the most part, I still had a good representation of styling. For instance, one of my favorite sets is a National NC-100, circa 1936, shown in Figure 1. This set exemplifies the classic styling of the 1930s. Another National receiver, the SW-3, shown in Figure 2, has a dial straight out of the 1920s. This popular 3-tube regenerative receiver was produced during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Figure 1. The National NC-100, ca. 1936, with a tuning eye.
Figure 2. The National SW-3, a 3-tube regenerative receiver, has a dial straight out of the 1920s.
Particular communications receivers represent other styles as well. So, I not only found myself with better performing radios, but I truly began to appreciate the craftsmanship of the cabinets and their overall eye appeal. Unfortunately, not every piece of communications gear will be in as good condition as the National NC-100 and SW-3 pictured. As we'll see, even these two receivers with their nice exteriors have their problems.
Sadly, thanks to modification articles in the ham magazines, not much of the vintage communications equipment has gone untouched by experimenters and tinkerers over the years. Compound this meddling with the fact that some of this equipment was hauled out into the field for portable operation or for Field Day use under emergency conditions where it took abuse. No wonder pristine communications gear does not exist in abundance. Still, good clean, unmodified communications gear does exist.
The communications equipment collector's concerns about condition are the same as those of any other radio collector, if not more intense. Some collectors will tolerate various degrees of condition, while others want only museum quality, but all are concerned about the state of their prospective purchases.
It is rare to find a collector whose interest spans the entire spectrum of the radio collecting hobby. On the other hand, most of us do have some idea of interests outside our own, and we sometimes acquire unfamiliar items to trade and sell. Here is where the trouble begins.
What may appear to the average radio collector as a nice piece of communications gear, may, in fact, have been modified to the extent of being junk. The result is that it is especially hard for the communications collector to buy things by phone. To close the information gap between the communications equipment buyer and the radio collector as the seller, the following are things to check when you come across vintage communications gear that has ended up in someone else's garage.
Starting with the outside of the equipment, look for cabinets in reasonable condition. Things like discoloration, peeling paint, or rust on metal cabinets present a collector with problems similar to those encountered in wooden cabinets, such as missing veneer, surface scratches, bad finishes and hairline cracks.
Communications gear will often have added holes, which sometimes suggest a modification, or de-modification. Also, the metal cabinets may have had a new paint job in a nonoriginal color. Some of these things don't present much of a problem, but depending on how bad it is, the cabinet condition can make the piece a parts set.
Extras on a cabinet may seem at first glance to be good. For instance, handles on the side or top may make hauling a heavy brute more convenient, but they detract from the originality of the gear. Of course, some equipment may have come from the factory with handles, but, if not, eliminating the extra holes represents more work. Just as a GE S-22 tombstone looks great with its original handle on top, adding handles to a wooden cabinet would offend most radio collectors.
With respect to physical condition, other things to look for are the same as for any radio. Torn grille cloth, missing tube shields, cracked dial glass, and worn lettering all testify to the general condition of the piece of equipment.
Missing knobs are a problem for any radio collector. Communications gear will be found with extra knobs more often than home radios. These knobs may not match the other knobs on the gear - perhaps an indication that the equipment simply lost a knob somewhere along the way. On the other hand, and more likely, the rogue knob can indicate a modification.
Modifications bring us to the chassis of the equipment. It is not uncommon to find a piece of vintage communications gear that has been modified in some way. These "mods" may be relatively simple, like the addition of an SO-239 coax antenna connector. Another example is the replacement of a variable tone control with a slide switch. On the other hand, "mods" may be completely destructive, like replacing octal sockets and tubes with 7- and 9-pin miniatures.
Some gear has been so heavily modified that the set is not anywhere near what it was when it left the factory. These modifications may have saved the original owner money, or "improved" the piece in his eyes, but to the collector, it can mean nightmarish work or monetary losses.
If you're unfamiliar with communications equipment, there are several things to check, which can indicate modifications. Since a lot of communications equipment allows access with lift-up lids, rogue parts are easily exposed.
The chief indicator of a modification is the tube complement. The first step is to compare the tubes in the set against those marked on the chassis or in the manual to determine if tube substitutions have been made.
For example, something as simple as a substitute rectifier tube can be indicative of a replacement power transformer. This may seem like a minor thing, especially if the gear works. On the other hand, if the original transformer is unique, as in the National NC-100 and NC-200 series receivers which have the company's logo stamped on the top and are painted to match the chassis, then a replacement transformer takes away from the integrity of the set.
Another kind of modification to beware of requires that a tube be added to the chassis. Increasing the tube complement, even by just one tube, can cause the power transformer to overheat during normal operation, thus decreasing the life expectancy of the transformer. Of course, these added tubes will not be marked on the chassis or in the manual.
Other modifications can usually be spotted by their homemade look. Although some people are master craftsmen, few can create a modification that can't be detected. If it doesn't look factory made, it probably isn't.
Good indicators of a modification are the mounting holes associated with it. Factories generally make clean holes. Also, these holes are usually drilled or stamped before painting, so the inside of the holes will be painted. In addition, look for things that seem to be in odd places. For example, since much of this gear used separate speakers and original speakers were sometimes not purchased with the set, rogue audio transformers sometimes ended up under the chassis.
As with any rules, there are always exceptions to modifications. Some tube changes may be either an exact substitution or changed at the factory. For example, some chassis of the National NC-57 are stamped to indicate a Type 6SN7 tube but use a Type 6SL7 instead. In these cases, the 6SN7 stamping was inked out by the factory. Factory accessories were often made for communications equipment, and some units were plug-ins and marked with the set maker's name.
Also, since the communications field was an always advancing technology, you may run across a weird variant or "factory modification." Although a factory replaced tube may be hard to ascertain, factory accessories and mods can usually be determined by their "manufactured" look.
Modifications aren't the end of the world. Recently, I purchased a National NC-46 receiver through the mail. The seller had described the receiver in detail, and I debated whether to buy it. There were many modifications to it, according to the description, but the price reflected this, and I could always use the parts.
When the NC-46 arrived, I wasn't the least bit disappointed, since it had been described accurately. A few days after its arrival, I gave the set a closer look. There was no physical damage to the cabinet, and the chassis hadn't been hacked on. It happened that I had all the missing parts for the NC-46, which I had collected from other National junkers. Although the work is still in progress, I should be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
So, those junkers and parts sets serve a valuable purpose in preserving other more restorable sets. In fact, sometimes two junkers can be made into a nice collectible piece.
BUYER AND SELLER RESPONSIBILITY
The responsibility for a successful buy or trade does not lie entirely in the hands of the seller. The vintage communications collector must understand it's not a given that the person on the other end of the phone line has seen every piece of gear, or knows how, why, or if a piece of gear has been modified.
After all, the communications collector may not know the difference between Catalin and walnut Bakelite, so there's no reason to assume that a radio collector knows what type of antenna connector should be on a Hallicrafters SX-73. Thus, it is imperative that the buyer ask the right questions and base his/her decision to buy, or not to buy, on the answers.
The emphasis for the seller is on getting to know what and to whom he is selling. Vintage communications collectors prize their finds, just as any other radio collector does. To them, these sets are works of art, just as the Scotts, Philco 90s, and transistor radios are to their prospective collectors. Communications collectors get the same warm feeling inside when they are shortwave listening or transmitting that the radio collector does when listening to Glenn Miller over his "Walton" Zenith tombstone.
Although it is impossible for collectors to be experts in every area of radio collecting, being able to give a better description of that "hunk of metal" you just picked up from the flea market will give the communications collector a better understanding of its condition. If buyer and seller work together, a more positive transaction can take place for both parties.
(Wayne Childress, 1903 Jerome Pl., #3, Helena, MT 59601)
Wayne has collected radios since 1992. After he had spent a year concentrating on 1920s vintage battery sets, a battered National NC-57 made its way into his collection. Since then, he has specialized in collecting products manufactured by the National Company. He is also a ham (KC7KUE) and an avid shortwave listener.