Our Treasures: Evolution of radio for all to see at Whangārei Museum

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In modern society radios are common technology in the car, in the workplace and in the home. In fact, in today’s world one would be hard pressed to find many who have not heard of, seen or used a radio at some stage in their life, although this was not always the case.

Nowadays current affairs, local news and music can be accessed from even more technologically advanced commodities such as mobile phones, laptops and iPads, but before the 19th century, wireless radio communication was illusory.

Even after the development of the radio in the late 1800s, it took many years before radios went mainstream and became a household fixture.

In the Whangārei Museum is a large collection of these domestic items spanning almost a century, some are relatively modern portable radios while other more opulent styles are reminiscent of a past lifestyle.

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A close up of the Stewart Warner Radio in the Whangārei Museum collection. Photo/Supplied
A close up of the Stewart Warner Radio in the Whangārei Museum collection. Photo/Supplied

Radios changed how the world connected and communicated. By the late 1890s Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor and electrical engineer known for his pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission, was credited with the radio’s invention.

Prior to the 1920s the radio was primarily used for ship communication and during World War I its importance and usefulness increased significantly, becoming an invaluable tool and necessitating further development.

Following the war saw a proliferation of new technologies including the advancement of radio. Initially wireless sets were rather primitive requiring long aerials, receivers, batteries and headphones. Often made at home, finding stations was difficult on early valve wirelesses, but technical improvements in tuning, amplification and loudspeaker design resulted in all the components being held in one cabinet.

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Instead of radio speakers similar to gramophone horns and uncomfortable headsets, these were soon superseded by built-in speakers concealed in the cabinet resulting in a more desirable product.

This Super-Heterodyne walnut veneered model, manufactured in the US during the 1930s. Photo/Supplied
This Super-Heterodyne walnut veneered model, manufactured in the US during the 1930s. Photo/Supplied

By the 1930s the term “radio” had replaced “wireless” and mass production of radios made them affordable for most people. Due to their availability these domestic items were immensely popular and were the main source of amusement, information and political propaganda.

One specific model piquing the imagination of collection staff recently was an Art Deco style Stewart Warner mantle radio. This Super-Heterodyne walnut veneered model, manufactured in the US during the 1930s, is a great example of the type of radio that was the centre of family entertainment in the home.

The earliest models were disguised as freestanding pieces of furniture in Jacobean or Tudor cabinets, but were supplanted with more modern, sophisticated designs, often the front grille displaying elaborate fretwork and decoration.

Among others donated by K D Randerson of Onerahi in 1997, these radios set in stylish cabinets were the focus on long winter evenings in the parlour where entire families gathered around to “listen in” to the broadcast of their favourite serial programmes, world news, drama or sport.

Until television arrived, the radio was the leading source of information and the centre of family entertainment in the home for both young and old. Regrettably, beautiful as they are, traditional radios such as those in the museum’s collection have steadily become a thing of the past and little acknowledged by the younger generations.

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