The Silvertones

Silvertones? What’s that, you say? Silvertone was a brand of radio built by the Sears & Roebuck Company. Their line of radios began in 1915 and ended in 1972. The fact that it started so early in the 20th century means it was one of the earlier pioneers of the radio and television age. A few years ago when I developed an interest in antique vacuum tube radios I gravitated to the Silvertones as a personal favorite.

Vacuum tube radios are a wonder of 20th century technology. I’m sure it’s part of what I found so appealing about these radios. I find it much harder to explain how a vacuum tube works than many more modern electronic components. Tubes grew more and more complex as experience with them grew and ingenuity really grasped their potential. As simply as I can state it a vacuum tube amplifies a voltage signal provided to it. Here is how it’s done.  Within the vacuum tube a very negatively charged wire is heated, causing the excess electrons to be liberated into the vacuum space through a phenomenon called Thermionic Emission.  A second, positively charged, metal surface attracts the liberated electrons resulting in a current flow called the Edison Effect Current.   The voltage differential here is rather high in this system, but we haven’t amplified anything yet.  In comes the week signal from the antenna which is feed into the tube in space between the hot, negatively charged wire and the positively charge surface in a lattice of metal wires that looks like a chain-link fence or net of a tennis racket. Without the signal flowing through those wires, the free electrons will pass on through the spaces.  When the antenna signal charges the grid of metal wires, however, a strange thing happens. The varying voltage of the grid acts like a gate keeper. When the grid is negatively charged it slows the flow of electrons and when it is positively charged it speeds them up!  Suddenly that weak signal is now in control of a high voltage and we’re in business! The current flow across the tube now mirrors the antenna signal but at a much higher voltage. This may sound a bit complicated, but that’s just the beginning. Engineers created very complicated tubes with all number of grids, plates and wires to achieve amazing results.  They truly were incredibly complex inventions and the results were impressive.  Even today, hardcore audiophiles prefer vacuum tube amplifiers over never digital electronics to produce the best sound.

When restoring old radios the most common item that will need to be found or replaced are the vacuum tubes. The number of tubes will vary from radio to radio but commonly range from 4 to 9 tubes. The next thing that likely will need to be replaced are the capacitors. The old style of capacitors do not often stand the test of time and the environment. Resistors could need to be replaced as well, but this is less often. Wiring should be checked and replaced as needed as the insulating fabric may have disintegrated. After that the unit may need to have the antenna and amplification circuits aligned, which is an area I personally still have a lot to learn about.

Back to the Silvertones. Silvertone radios were produced in the styles that were popular in the era – Cathedral, Tombstone, Table, and Console. Cathedral style radios had a curved or arching shape similar to this one:

cathedral silvertone

A Tombstone style radio was similar to a Cathedral only it was more angular and squared off instead of having a curved profile. One of my radios is a Tombstone style and I’ll show a picture shortly. Table style radios were often smaller and as best I can tell refer to table sitting radios that simply do not fit the Cathedral or Tombstone profile. Console style radios referred to a large floor standing models, similar to this one:

console silvertone.jpg

These old radios have a cabinet made of varnished wood which houses the electronics. inside the wood cabinet the vacuum tubes and other components are mounted on a metal ‘box’ called a Chassis. It’s very nostalgic and the construction takes you back to the day when radios were built to not only to serve a functional purpose but also to look nice. These radios would be on display in your home and be a part of your furniture. Companies generally took great care in the 1930’s to the 1950’s to make their radios very attractive and artistic yet solid and heavy. It’s part of what I find so appealing about them.

I have two Silvertone Radios that I display in my house. One of them works and the other one, well, not so much. The non working radio is my favorite, oddly enough. I trolled Ebay for quite some time to catch a unit I could afford. The model is Silvertone 1904 and here it is:

20160611_013006

The Silvertone 1904 is a Tombstone radio from 1936.

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The woodwork is not as fancy as others, but I really like the crescent moon cutouts and the colorful dial. The capacitors have been replaced and I’ve replaced a lot of the old rotted wiring but unfortunately the unit still doesn’t pick up a signal. I have work ahead of me on this baby.

My other Silvertone radio is in full working condition and a lot of fun to use. It’s a table style, combined radio and phonograph model 6071 that dates to 1947.

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Again, not an overly fancy design, but I really liked it. The metal decorative piece on the front has a vague Sputnik shape to it even though it was built years before Sputnik ever flew.

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Even though this unit still has original capacitors, the radio works as the record player. The only real work I had to do was to replace the needle for the record player, which took some doing. I could either pay to have the original needle restored by a specialist or buy a plastic needle that happens to fit. By the way – the original needles really were metal needles. Once you see one it’s very easy to understand how old records got scratched so often. Just getting a needle wasn’t enough, however. The tone arm on this unit is all metal and it was much too heavy for the flexible plastic replacement needle. To work around this I taped small lead weights on the other end of the tone arm, on the opposite side of the fulcrum to take weight off the new needle. It worked! I’ve now built a decent collection of original 78 RPM records from the 1950’s to play on it. I’ll often get an itch to listen to “Two Hearts”, “Ain’t That A Shame” or “Mr. Sandman” among others. My two year old daughter loves to dance to these golden oldies. The music of that era had such simple and fun melodies that they are always fun to listen to.

There you have it: The Silvertones. These radios are a hallmark of the amazing ingenuity that flourished in the middle of the 20th century, and peaked with sending humans to the moon and back. Their wood cabinets and complex electrical chassis blend old world with the new, modern age. I hope more and more people choose to restore these old radios – of any brand.

 

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