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Age of the Tube

August 13, 2007


Recently, this antique radio and phonograph came into my possession.  It belonged to my grandparents, and I remember it well as a child.   Now as an adult, I have the enjoyment of the piece and upon contemplating it, a number of thoughts rush forth.

First, I reflected upon the construction.  The cabinet is made of real wood – not particle board veneer, not thermoformed plastic, but real wood.    Imagine the factory floor, where workers assembled the technology piece of the period for the home – the radio.  Workers ran table saws and sanders,  and assembled the components with hand tools like those found in your garage.   It’s hard to imagine those process would be involved in anything we would imagine related to technology today.

Note:  The dial is marked “BC” instead of “AM”.


Then there is the technology of the product itself – the small assortment of vaccuum tubes, plugged into sockets, set in a crudely punched metal frame.  Wires connected with large bannana plug terminals.  Control knobs that turn pulleys and cables to move the slide indicator and the tuning potentiometer.   A back painted, piece of glass for the radio dial.  Amazing that it still works and sounds ok, after all these years.  Will today’s iPod or iPhone work in 60 years?  How about six years?  How disposable our society has become, and how accepting.   Purchasers of products like this radio, had weathered the depression and knew what it was to have literally nothing.   Lasting value was a requisite.  Today, our generations demand quality only until obsolescence, and then we are happy to discard in favor of the new.  We have never known times like those in the first half of the 20th century.  How fast and far we have come, and at every point, some must wonder how long it will continue.

Lastly, I considered the dynamic of families and media.   In this radio’s prime, a family would gather around it in the evening to listen for news and to be entertained while doing quiet activities – perhaps smoking a pipe, or reading the paper, knitting, or rolling a small wooden car back in forth on the carpet in front of the radio.   There was no TV, no computer, no internet.   The phone had a dial, or in some places, might have required the use of a switchboard operator to place the call.     Today’s family spends it’s time very differently.  With each new wave of technology and adaptation of media, a progression toward the individual can be observed.   A TV for everyone, from big screen to plasma, even LCD for your car or to carry around on your person.   Walkman, Discman, iPod – music for the individual, with ever increasing capabilities to personalize the play list.  Computers – desktop, laptop, palm top, to integration with the phone.

Our evolving technology has fragemented us, and now through all the various web 2.0 technologies, is slowly interconnecting us once again, or at least providing the medium for us to do so.  While the radio was a one to many medium, the internet represents a many to many form of comunication, almost infinitely interconnected.

Look around your home, what technologies from a bygone era still exist?  A compass?  A mechanical barometer and thermometer?  A globe?  A set of encylopedias?  What do those things say to you about where we have been and where we are going?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2007 9:48 pm

    No bygone era technologies here. We’ve got a couple older kitchen appliances, like a blender, but hardly mid-century relics and frankly, things were made better “in the old days.” The blender is one example – still going strong today.

    Another example is simpler and more recent. I bought a pair of $2 sandals from Wal-Mart probably 6 years ago. I needed them as shower shoes for a summer residential program I was attending and didn’t expect them to have any important usage. Over the years I’ve worn them all around and quite like them – best $2 I’ve ever spent I’d say. However after a few years, they’re showing wear of course and I went to get another $2 pair of sandals hoping for the same result. The new sandals I got had a much cheaper feel to them, the plastic strap was rougher & uncomfortable, and after only a few days of usage the strap popped out of the base of the sandal. They’re still in the closet, with only a few days wear on them. My $2 sandals are still going, but the sole material is wearing thin overall and there is a quarter-sized hole in one of them…

  2. August 20, 2007 4:44 pm

    Here in Cary, NC resides an upscale audio company that still designs and manufactures tube-based audio equipment –

    I understand that the old eastern block countries are the primary source for the tubes these days.

    I always loved the warmth that the old Marshal amplifiers would give to music.


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