Ham Radio News: Crystal Radio Sets and Alternative News Network

This installment of an ongoing ham radio news feature considers the potential of crystal radio sets for people trying to live without electricity and efforts to integrate ham radio operators into an alternative news network.

| May/June 1979

copthorne macdonald - crystal radio sets.jpg

Copthorne Macdonald, the inventor of slow scan television, thought crystal radio sets could be a boon to people living in remote locations who still wanted news from the outside world.


There is, as the old saying goes, "no such thing as a free lunch." Crystal radio sets, however, come very close to disproving that "rule." Such simple receivers need no connection to the AC lines or even to a battery! In fact, crystal units take all the power they need from the arriving signal itself, and that amount of energy is typically less Man a millionth of a watt!

Crystal sets—which date back to the early days of radio—were widely used before the invention of vacuum tubes and transistors. They still make perfect sense for back-to-the-landers and those who want to wean themselves totally from electric energy. Of course, the primitive units are good emergency receivers, too.

Over the years, I've had a number of inquiries about these old-fashioned radios from MOTHER EARTH NEWS' readers, but until recently I didn't know of any present-day source of "serious" crystal sets or parts. Then along came the solution in a letter from Joe Ferris of Los Fresnos, Texas.

Joe wrote to let me know that crystal sets (and other facets of old-time radio) are still alive and well thanks to the efforts of a devoted couple—Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Osterhoudt—who started a little business called Modern Radio Labs way back in 1932. One of the first products that the Osterhoudts marketed was the MRL No. 2 Long Distance Crystal Set. And today—47 years later—they still offer the No. 2! The price has an oldtime niceness about it, too: just $10.50 completely wired, or $7.50 in kit form.

Of course in order to operate one of these venerable radios you'll need an outdoor antenna—the longest and highest wire you can conveniently string up (make it 30 feet high and 150 feet long if you have the room). You'll also have to make a ground connection. A coldwater pipe or a metal stake driven several feet down into moist earth will do. Add to that a set of sensitive headphones; not the 8-ohm stereo variety, but the old fashioned, super-sensitive 20,000- to 30,000ohm units. (MRL offers such phones, ranging in price from $4.50 to $9.60 a set. Get the best you can afford.)

Finally, you'll need a pair of fairly good ears. Crystal sets are not loud. (A millionth of a watt isn't going to produce deafening sound!) If explosions, jet planes, or 110 decibel rock music have impaired your hearing, crystal sets may not be for you.

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