I ♥ Vacuum Tubes

If you haven’t yet surmised, I have a strained relationship with modern technology but a deep love of “old” technologies: steam engines, hand tools, farm equipment, and old mechanical labor saving devices.  In a later post I may discuss why I love these things so much; it has to do with what they demand of us and that their use maintains the relationship between means and ends.  My preoccupation will all things old and mechanical has become a running joke with my family, friends, and students.  My wife and daughter like to describe me as “old-timey.”


I will say that I am not entirely anti-technology. It has its place and I am the first to recognize the wonders of modern medicine, and I certainly recognize the role of white privilege in pining for “the good old days,” and the political ramifications of our whitewashed nostalgia.  Really it is just that I personally enjoy old technology and that I don’t naturally assume that newer is always better.  I hate how disposable things have become.  When I look around at the technological devices in my home I wonder how many will be around in 3 years or 5 years let alone 50 or 80.  I like things that are built to last and made to be repaired.  Anyway, that’s a topic for another time.

Among the many pre-digital revolution artifacts that I enjoy are old radios, specifically those produced prior to the advent of the transistor.  I love tube based radios for their aesthetics, their sound, and their historical significance.  I have restored two of them now.  The first is an RCA 5T-8, probably produced around 1937 or 1938.  The second is a Troy Radio and Television Model 53 made in 1936 or 1937.



Digital music is cold, but when you push it through vacuum tubes it brings out the warmth.  I guess that is why high end audio equipment still use vacuum tubes.  For me, these save digital music– when I play digital music through them (I’ll explain how in a bit), the music feels more alive, more intimate, more organic.

There is also the history, and history is usually the reason I want to restore something old and put it to use again.  By the 1930s, smaller tabletop radios like mine were becoming affordable for more and more families, even during hard economic times. Between 1933 and 1944 F.D.R used the medium of radio to reach the American people and calm their worries about the Great Depression and the Second World War.  These radio addresses became known as the  “fireside chats.”  When I look at and listen to these radios I like to think about families gathered together to hear the president or catch up on the news from Europe.  Perhaps they found some diversion from the profound worries of the day in The Shadow or Abbot and Costello or Glenn Miller and His Orchestra live from Café Rouge at the Hotel Pennsylvania.  How much simpler–and how much more worrisome and complex–their lives must have been.  When I turn on these radios today in 2017, those folks gather around me.

They are also beautiful. I love the Art Deco detail on the dial on the Troy Model 53.




And I especially love the warm glow the tubes emit



When I bought these from a local thrift shop they were in decent condition, but they are old and required a thorough restoration inside and out.  Because of my woodworking hobby, I had no problem bringing the wooden cases back to life.  I repaired chipped or de-laminating veneers, damaged finishes, and a few splits here and there.  All in all nothing too intense; just enough to revive the beauty of the wood.

The guts were a different matter, and I am the first to admit that I do not have the expertise to rebuild the electronics–even 80 year old technology.  So, I sent them off to Allen Chiang, the proprietor of Retro Radio Farm.  Mr. Chaing is an electrical engineer by trade and spends his spare time as a radio restorer/savior.  He does amazing work.  He replaced all the frayed wires with period appropriate fabric insulated wires, replaced the filter capacitors, and tested and (where appropriate) replaced the vacuum tubes.    Learn more about him here.  the other thing he did was add a switch and auxiliary input to the radios (neatly hidden in the back) to allow me to play my iPhone through them.


All that for a couple hundred bucks!  He does fantastic work and I cannot recommend him highly enough.  If you have a mid century house and need a radio, he’s got some great ones for sale. I prefer the older wooden ones.  Currently I am on the prowl for an old “tombstone” style radio in unrestored condition.  In the meantime, I will continue to listen to my old RCA and Troy and think about the folks a few generations ago who sat around these beautiful little creations that brought the world into their living rooms.  Take it away, Ms. Whiting…


3 thoughts on “I ♥ Vacuum Tubes

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