Building a simple crystal radio.
A crystal radio is the distilled essence of a radio. It has very few parts, it needs no batteries or other power source, and it can be built in a short time out of things you can find around the house.
The reason a crystal radio does not need any batteries is the amazing capabilities of the human ear. The ear is extremely sensitive to very faint sounds. The crystal radio uses only the energy of the radio waves sent by radio transmitters. These radio transmitters send out enormous amounts of energy (tens of thousands of watts). However, because they are usually far away, and we have at most a few hundred feet of wire for an antenna, the amount of energy we receive with the crystal radio is measured in billionths of a watt. The human ear can detect sounds that are less than a millionth of even that.
We are going to launch right into this chapter by building a working radio using parts that we buy at stores like Radio Shack or through mail order. We will try to use common household objects when we can, but our emphasis will be to quickly put together a radio that works.
Later we will learn more about radios by looking at even simpler versions that might not work as well as our first radio, but can show the important radio concepts more easily, because they have fewer parts.
Then we will improve our radio, making it louder, making it receive more stations, and making it look real nice.
Lastly, we will build each part of the radio from scratch, using things we find around the house. This will take a lot longer than our first radio, but it can be done by replacing store-bought parts one at a time, so we always have a working radio.
Crystal Radio ReceiverThe crystal radio receiver (also known as a crystal set) was first built circa 1900 byGreenleaf Whittier Pickard, who used crystalline minerals to detect radio signals.
Early yearsPeople first built and used simple and inexpensive crystal radio sets without batteries or electrical power. Even though vacuum tube radios were common following World War I, crystal radios remained popular, especially among beginning amateur radio enthusiasts, Boy Scouts andschool children, who built crystal radios to learn basic electronics and communication. Earlywireless telegraphy used spark gap plasma arc transmitters powered by alternating currentgenerators at frequencies of 400 - 1000 hertz. When these intermittent telegraph keyeddot/dash signals were received, the tone or pitch of the generator was clearly heard varying the strength of the radio wave. Varying the strength in this way is called amplitude modulation. As wireless telegraphy became more and more widely used, significant development of radio transmitters using amplifiers produced more power with a purer signal that did not occupy unnecessary bandwidth, causing interference. The first radio telephone transmitters also used amplitude modulation to carry speech and music on a radio wave. The crystal set received these signals almost as well as wireless telegraph signals. AM radio stations today still use amplitude modulation at power levels up to 50,000 watts on the U.S. broadcast band, and 1,000,000 watts on shortwave bands. Crystal sets with long wire antennas can still be used today, but they work best within 20 miles or so of a high power transmitter.
1920s and 1930sWhen radio broadcasting became popular in the 1920s, many amateur experimenters bought or constructed crystal sets, often with the tuner inductor coil wound on a tubular box or a drinking glass. This led to a series of adventure novels, the Radio Boys books, similar in kind to the Hardy Boys books. When electronic amplifiers and oscillators were invented, they were almost immediately put into service in radios, first in the form of vacuum tubes and much later in the form of transistors and integrated circuits replacing crystal sets with vastly more sensitive and selective receivers such as the regenerative and the superheterodyne. During the Great Depression parents would build a crystal radio detector from inexpensive galena crystal and asafety pin. After this detector was connected to iron bedsprings (which doubled as an antenna) and grounded to household cold-water pipes, a youngster needed only inexpensive headphones.
1940sGIs during World War II constructed similar radios from rusty razor blades and pencil lead, the iron oxide crystals of the rust replacing the galena crystal and the graphite of the pencil lead substituting for the safety-pin wire. These crude, but functional, radios were nicknamed foxhole radios.
Later yearsCrystal sets were the most common form of radio listening device for non-professionals in the early 1920s. A hundred years after their first use, hobbyists still build and tinker with – and listen to – crystal radios constructed from just a few parts. The most common modern design uses a coil for a tuner, and a semiconductor diode instead of a crystal. The output is usually from an earplug. A lengthy antenna wire (15m (40ft) or more) is still helpful to get good sound. A modern design for a "trash radio" is constructed from a tin can and some wire.
ComponentsComponents that are used in a modern crystal set include:
EspionageIt has been suggested that crystal radios may still be in use by spies. Crystal sets have nooscillator so a counter-espionage organisation cannot determine the frequency being listened to.
- AM radio, demodulator, list of electronics topics, numbers station (related to espionage), radio, radio receiver, transistor radio
- G. W. Pickard's US836531 patent.
- "Using and Modifying the Radio Shack '99 Xtal Set, A project for beginning experimenters". (Aug 13 2000)
- The Xtal Set Society, Dedicated to once again building and experimenting with radio electronics.
- Field, Simon Quellen, "Building a simple crystal radio". Scitoys.
- "Stay Tuned". Crystal radio plans and projects.
- "The Basics of Tesla Engineering Principles". TeslaTech, Inc. 2003.