What is an Antique Radio?

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  • Written By: Soo Owens
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2019
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An antique radio is a technological relic from the early years of radio receiver construction. They are highly collectible and typically include vacuum tube designs, made prior to World War II, and transistor models made prior to 1959. These criteria differ from collector to collector, however.

Radio operates by sending electromagnetic waves that are received as a signal. The two types of antique radio receivers, are vacuum tubes and transistors. Vacuum tube radios use tubes to create an electrical signal and to amplify sound. They were replaced by transistor radios in the mid 1950s, which were cheaper and, generally speaking, more reliable.

There were few affordable commercial radios during the 1920s, and many turned to creating their own homemade radios. An antique radio from this period is likely to be homemade. A crystal radio was a popular version, one of the easiest to assemble, and required only a few simple parts. During World War II, foxhole radios, which were crystal radios made illegally from any materials available, gained popularity.

After radio had firmly established itself as one of the primary sources of information and entertainment within the home, commercial radios became available for nearly every budget. The wealthy could afford to buy large, wooden console radios. Designed to be large and flashy, this antique radio doubled as a furniture piece through the late 1930s and 1940s.


Individuals with limited budgets and household space could purchase table top radios. These were smaller than console radios and were usually placed on top of or inside other pieces of furniture. The regular table top form was wider than it was tall, and the listener could move the radio from room to room. One table top radio, called the tombstone, was taller than it was wide and resembled the shape of a tombstone. A table top radio known as the cathedral is distinguished by its rounded top.

Early forms of plastics, such as bakelite, were used in radio design and molding in the 1930s and 1940s. Incorporating plastic into a radio's structure was slightly easier and less expensive than using wood or metal. Thermoplastics, which were introduced in the 1950s, helped create smaller and more affordable radios. This material could be slightly colored, appear semitransparent, and be molded with greater ease, allowing for more intricate designs.

While vacuum radios supplied the population with reasonable and affordable access to radios, they did have some drawbacks. Vacuum radios took a long time to warm-up, lacked portability beyond the household, and became unreliable if slightly damaged. Transistor radios were invented in 1949 and introduced to the public in 1954. These radios use a transistor in lieu of vacuum tubes to amplify and supply an electrical signal. The transistor radio offered portability, reliability, and immediate access to radio.

Transistor radios are less sought after by antique radio collectors. Discovering a vacuum tube antique radio in working condition or one that can be repaired to working condition is a much rarer find and more valuable. Many also prefer the sound produced by a quality vacuum tube radio.


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