Below is the last chapter from A Kerridge Childhood written by Enid Simpson. For a full introduction and index to all the stories please see the head page.
FROM CRYSTAL SETS TO TELEVISION
As I was watching my new television last week, I was taken back to scenes from my childhood, and the predecessors of these lovely new televisions with remote control and colour and all the gorgeous programming they can bring while I just sit back in my chair and enjoy the luxury.
We became one of the first families in the neighbourhood to own a wireless (radio). Dad’s friend, Jack Hayes, a brilliant, if slightly eccentric man, scoffed at by many as a crank, built the set himself. There were no General Electric Radio Departments in those days! the only way to get a wireless was to know someone like Jack, the kind of creative tinkerer who could invent something like this.
Our reception was rather superior, since we lived on Kerridge, out of the Bollington valley. We had an aerial (antenna), a single insulated wire, that ran from the living room window to a Beech tree in the garden. This helped considerably, without it there was no chance of picking up a station at all.
When the dishes had been cleared away of an evening, Dad would turn his attention to the wireless, actually a crystal set. First the edict would boom out: “QUIET!” then he’d huddle over the 12″ x 18″ board with its large magnet wire coil (only in those days, the insulation was shellac, none of your modern urethane varnishes) in the centre, and the piece of magical crystal in front, with the cat’s whisker, a fine brass or spring steel wire, held down by an insulated screw. The trick was to get the whisker to touch the crystal at those points where you could pick up a station. This required a lot of concentration, nimble fingers, and patience, and was inevitably accompanied by loud shushings, whether we had made a sound or not: it was handy to have others around to blame for the thing’s perverse nature. Being the kind of family we were, we constantly had to stuff hankies in our mouths to avoid the mirth spilling out and getting us in more trouble. So sensitive was this job, that even a falling coal on the fire could cause the cat’s whisker to jerk off the crystal.
Normally there was a lot of static interference and crackling as he tried to home in on the right spot. In a storm of any kind it was easier to give up than to find a clear spot. But if the weather were normal, or if there was only a little atmospherics, there would be several spots on the crystal that would pull in the station. Then the game was to find which was the BEST spot. and then success! Dad had made contact, and the world was his oyster!
There were no amplifiers and loudspeakers then, only earphones: two sets, for Mother and Dad, of course. Occasionally we children were allowed to listen on a shared set, by splitting the two phones off. No need to worry about losing your stereo reception, though it was definitely easier to listen through both than just through one. I remember hearing King George V opening Wembley Exhibition and was surprised to hear his thick German accent. Sometimes the programs would be interrupted by an ear-splitting shriek, as the set went into oscillation, the kind of thing you sometimes hear when a PA system is turned on too high. It’s lots of fun to be wearing earphones at that stage! Later, as valve (tube) sets became more popular, their owners claimed to be able to tell who was going round the dial, throwing off the signal and causing them problems with oscillation.
The first station in our area was Manchester, with a call sign of 2ZY. They broadcast from the Research Department of Westinghouse, later AEI, in Trafford park. Each evening an announcer, dressed in dinner jacket (tux) and bow tie, would come on the air and say, “Hello, hello, Manchester 2ZY Calling”. He’d repeat this a couple of times to give everyone time to check their sets before the main programming started. We were thrilled to he able to hear a voice all the way from Manchester (which must’ve been all of twenty miles away) in our own home. As we listened more, we began to relate to each announcer and the performers. They became our radio friends, and we would sympathise with their colds, enjoy their vacations and welcome them back from holidays.
More and more programs were added, quality increased, and things got more sophisticated, but nothing gave the thrill of the original “Hello, hello, this is Manchester 2ZY calling”. Fifty years later, as I watched the first man step onto the Moon, I was transported back to the days of that first crystal set that brought the world to a little girl living in a small hamlet in Cheshire.
© 1985 Enid Simpson