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LAYTON'S TREASURE CHEST--Cat's Whisker Receiver

Article Published 11/29/2017

The Heritage Museum of Layton is filled with priceless antiques--each artifact having its own unique and interesting story.

For example, there's the cat's whisker radio receiver.

In the 1920s, every kid in America wanted to own a crystal radio receiver.  Radio was brand new and to be able to hear sound transmitted through the air waves was an unbelievable and extremely fascinating thing.  With a crystal radio receiver, every kid in America could spend time in the privacy of his or her room doing what they had never been able to do before--listen to wonderful music

A crystal radio receiver, also called a "crystal set" or a "cat's whisker receiver," is a very simple radio receiving device.  It needs no power source other than the power of radio waves captured through a wire antenna.  The device gets its name, crystal set, from its most important component, known as a crystal detector, originally made from a piece of crystalline mineral such as galena.  In a modern radio this component is called a diode.

A cat's whisker receiver is the simplest of radio receivers and can be made with a few inexpensive parts.  All you need are five things: a wire antenna, a coil of copper wire, a capacitor, a crystal detector and a set of earphones.  Crystal radios are distinct from ordinary radios as they are passive receivers.  They need no power source such as electricity or a battery to amplify the radio signals.  As a passive receiver, crystal sets produce a rather weak sound; and, therefore have to be listened to using a good set of earphones.  Also, crystal sets can only receive AM radio station transmission within a limited range.

Westinghouse Electric Corporation's first commercial radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania created a national sensation in 1920.  Within a few years, radio stations popped up all across the country.  In Utah, KSL and KDYL were the pioneers, and kids in Layton rushed to the Kowley Drugstore to purchase the parts to make their own radio receivers.  Later, factory made receivers were available, but most kids preferred to build their own receiver set.

In 1921, factory-made radios were expensive.  Since less affluent families could not afford to own one, newspapers and magazines carried "how to build" articles using common household items.  To minimize the cost, many of the plans suggested winding copper wire around an empty cardboard container such as an oatmeal box to make a coil.  This became a common foundation for home-made radios.

The crystal set on display in the Heritage Museum was built by Carl Craig in the early 1920s.  Carl called his apparatus a "cat's whisker receiver," and he was known throughout his neighborhood because of his "amazing" antenna.  Carl's copper wire antenna stretched from his bedroom window to the family barn--a distance of more than a thousand feet.  Also, Carl's set included two earphones so two kids could listen to the radio at the same time.

Today, you can see Carl's very sophisticated cat's whisker receiver in the museum's south gallery.