Crystal Radio

Crystal Radio

A crystal radio receiver, also called a crystal set or cat's whisker receiver, is a very simple radio receiver, popular in the early days of radio. It needs no battery or power source and runs on the power received from radio waves by a long wire antenna. It gets its name from its most important component, known as a crystal detector, originally made with a piece of crystalline mineral such as galena. This component is now called a diode.

Crystal radios are the simplest type of radio receiver and can be handmade with a few inexpensive parts, like an antenna wire, tuning coil of copper wire, crystal detector and earphones. They are distinct from ordinary radios because they are passive receivers, while other radios use a separate source of electric power such as a battery or the mains power to amplify the weak radio signal from the antenna so it is louder. Thus crystal sets produce rather weak sound and must be listened to with sensitive earphones, and can only pick up stations within a limited range.

The rectifying property of crystals was discovered in 1874 by Karl Ferdinand Braun, and crystal detectors were developed and applied to radio receivers in 1904 by Jagadish Chandra Bose, G. W. Pickard and others. Crystal radios were the first widely used type of radio receiver, and the main type used during the wireless telegraphy era. Sold and homemade by the millions, the inexpensive and reliable crystal radio was a major driving force in the introduction of radio to the public, contributing to the development of radio as an entertainment medium around 1920.

After about 1920, crystal sets were superseded by the first amplifying receivers, which used vacuum tubes (Audions), and became obsolete for commercial use. However they continued to be built by hobbyists, youth groups and the Boy Scouts as a way of learning about the technology of radio. Today they are still sold as educational devices, and there are groups of enthusiasts devoted to their construction who hold competitions comparing the performance of their home-built designs.

Crystal radios can be designed to receive almost any radio frequency band, but most receive the AM broadcast band. A few receive the 49-meter international shortwave band, but strong signals are required. The first crystal sets received wireless telegraphy signals broadcast by spark-gap transmitters at frequencies as low as 20 kHz.

Australian signallers using a Marconi Mk III crystal receiver, 1916. Marconi Type 103 crystal set. SCR-54A crystal set used by US Signal Corps in World War I Marconi Type 106 crystal receiver used for transatlantic communication, ca. 1921 Homemade "loose coupler" set (top), Florida, ca. 1920 Crystal radio, Germany, ca. 1924 Swedish "box" crystal radio with earphones, ca. 1925 German Heliogen brand radio showing "basket-weave" coil, 1935 Polish Detefon brand radio, 1930-1939, using a "cartridge" type crystal (top) During the wireless telegraphy era before 1920, crystal receivers were "state of the art", and sophisticated models were produced. After 1920 crystal sets became the cheap alternative to vacuum tube radios, used in emergencies and by youth and the poor.

Read more about Crystal Radio:  History, Design, Use As A Power Source

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