By Steve Fuller
Special to The Ellsworth American
SURRY — Standing in just the right place in the woods near Patten Pond, someone scanning through the AM dial on a radio could easily feel that they had gone back in time.
The listener might catch The Lone Ranger and Tonto fighting bad guys, or perhaps an episode of “The Shadow” with the title character reminding his listeners, “Crime does not pay … The Shadow knows!”
There is not, however, a time warp in these woods. The time travel experience is courtesy of radio enthusiast Jerry Dunn, who lives in the area and has a low-power radio station that plays old radio programs throughout the day. The broadcast can be picked up by the radios in his collection in his house, as well as by anyone else with a radio within a short distance.
Dunn first got interested in radios growing up in Houston, Texas, where he was an amateur radio operator and built a lot of his own equipment. Ham radio (the term traces its roots to the days of the telegraph, as an insult to “ham-fisted” Morse code operators, but was subsequently adopted with pride by the amateur radio community) was a fun experience, Dunn recalled.
“Back before the internet came out, it was a real kick to talk to someone on the other side of the world,” he said.
Dunn joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1987 and after going through boot camp at Cape May, N.J., was assigned to a buoy tender in St. Louis working on the Mississippi River. This inland assignment surprised his father and others who understood “Coast” to mean somewhere along an ocean’s shore, but Dunn said the Coast Guard does a lot of work maintaining navigation channels on larger rivers like the Mississippi.
In the Coast Guard Dunn became a communication technician, a job that later evolved into information technician. He started collecting antique radios (mostly from the 1920s and 1930s) while stationed in Galveston, Texas, and was a member of the Houston Vintage Radio Club. Postings took him to New York, New Jersey, California, Kentucky, Michigan and finally Maine. Those moves took their toll on his collecting hobby, however.
“I built up a nice collection but found that they didn’t travel well as we moved from one duty station to another,” Dunn said. He retired in 2010 as a chief petty officer after his last posting in Southwest Harbor, and has worked to rebuild his collection since then. Dunn said he has about 75 radios in total, 40 or so of which are on display in his house.
That collection highlights the development and design changes in radios over the course of the decades. Dunn said consumer model radios first came out after World War I, and the first generation were known as crystal sets. They utilized a small piece of galena, the main ore of lead (Dunn calls it “lead’s better-looking cousin) and a fine piece of metal wire called a cat whisker.
“Some people who didn’t know any better actually did pull a whisker out of a cat,” Dunn said with a chuckle.
Crystal sets gave way to regenerative radio sets, which were followed by the third generation of radios called Tuned Radio Frequency (TRF) sets. Dunn has examples of all three types of radios in his collection. The fourth generation of radios, the kind still in use today, are superheterodyne receivers (referred to as “superhet” by radio aficionados).
Superheterodyne is a contraction of the words “supersonic” and “heterodyne,” the latter a combination of the Greek “hetero” (different) and “dyne” (power). It is just one example of scientific sounding terms that were popular with radio models or associated features: Neutrodyne, Radiotron and Sonatron are others.
Dunn said one of the things that appeals most to him about these radios is that they were such a central part of people’s lives. They were often the most important means people had of receiving information about what was going on around them and in the larger world.
“The neat thing about these is, you think about the history that came over them,” he said. This was how people learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, or heard President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
Operating radios then was more complex than the plug-and-play home models or push-one-button-to-start car stereos of today. They required batteries (since many homes lacked electricity), multi-stage wiring and antennas to help pick up the signals. Dunn imagines situations comparable to today where the older generation turned to the younger generation, with its sponge-like absorption of new knowledge relating to technology, for assistance.
“It was probably like with the internet: when you needed help, you go and get the neighbor’s kid,” he said.
Dunn’s low-power radio system consists of a little metal box in his attic, a piece of wire stapled to a ceiling joist, and an MP3 player that came pre-loaded with old radio programs.
Dunn and his wife, Michelle, moved to Surry after he got out of the Coast Guard. He is originally from Texas and she is from Missouri, and he admits that all they knew about Maine before coming here for his job was that “they had pretty leaves there.” They love it here now, he said, they cannot imagine leaving.
The couple’s two cockatiels (17-year-old Ms. Byrd and 9-year-old Sissy) often keep Dunn company while he works on radios. He has a room full of what he calls cadavers and organ donors, radios that he takes parts from while working on other units. He said he does most of his repairs and restorations in the winter months “when it’s too cold to do anything else.”
Anyone else with an interest in or passion for old radios can contact Dunn by email at [email protected].