Museum holds radio memories

Vintage: The Radio Television History Museum in Bowie celebrates electronic communications and its innovations -- from telegraph to Y2K-ready radios.

November 18, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Seventy years ago, the radio was the marvel of the century -- a little box, small enough to fit in your living room, where it drew in live sound from somewhere else.

Today's Y2K models are just as innovative, whether kerosene lamps that allow families without electricity to stay up past dusk while catching the day's news reports, or wind-up, solar-powered boxes that give hours of entertainment without batteries.

Visitors to a new museum in Bowie can see those and 250 more radios that at various times have been used to save lives, stir imaginations, entertain and become the center of family life.

"Radio is about as American as the Model A Ford," said Charlie Rhodes, director of the Radio Television History Museum, which opened in June. "The entire electronics industry sprang out of work done by Americans in America, and strangely, there are no [radio] museums in Washington."

Set in a historic, two-story renovated farmhouse at Mitchellville and Mount Oak roads, the Radio Television History Museum is the latest addition to the city's small collection of museums.

It boasts an impressive collection of early battery-operated and plug-in music boxes and televisions and the tubes that made them work.

Two original parts used to improve radio and push along television are at the museum -- Edwin H. Armstrong's first regenerative circuit, a receiver which significantly amplified the AM frequency, and the original camera tube used in the first NBC television broadcast.

A tour of the building leads visitors through radio and telecommunications development -- from the first underwater cable, which stretched from the United States to Europe, to telegraphs used between ships that helped take rescuers to sinking vessels. The collection includes the radio model that television's Waltons gathered around on their show, the first remote controlled radio, and today's Y2K models.

The museum also has some of the first television sets -- large black and white floor models with 9-inch screens -- kept in a cozy room with pine floors and a reclining chair.

"We're trying to keep alive the memories and memorabilia of early television and radio," said Ed Walker, president of the Radio History Society, which runs the museum. Walker is a former radio partner of Willard Scott who is host of a radio show on WAMU, American University public radio.

Radio enthusiasts from the Mid Atlantic Antique Radio Club formed the history society in 1993 with a mission to build a museum to show off their wares and stir interest in radio.

In 1997, after the city purchased an old farmhouse, built in 1905, and began renovating it, adding wheelchair access, bathrooms and air conditioning, the history society stepped in with a proposal to house a museum dedicated to radio and television. In March 1999, the group signed a four-year lease with city officials.

The museum opened in June showcasing radios ranging in size from the 1939 Philco Remote Control Unit, which is 3 feet by 3 feet, to the 6-inch by 3-inch Tom Thumb radio built in 1953. About 800 people have visited, museum officials estimate.

The museum is the fourth for Bowie, joining Bel Air Mansion, house of former Maryland Gov. Samuel Ogle; Bel Air Stable Museum, which chronicles the history of thoroughbred racing; and the Bowie Rail Road Station Museum, which shows the town's railroading history.

Walker and Rhodes say they have bigger plans for the museum. They want to create exhibits on specific types of radios and on radio programs, and to start a club teaching children how to build radios. They hope the museum can become a reference point for students studying telecommunications history.

"We've never seen ourselves as just a local museum," Rhodes said. "We think much bigger than that."

The Radio Television Museum at Mitchellville and Mount Oak roads in Bowie is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, excluding holidays and days with inclement weather. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. Information: 301-390-1020 or www.radiohistory.org.

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