Crystal Set: Remembering Yesteryear

By Gene Cox | May 10th, 2014

There was magic in the air then – and there’s more now. Yesterday's magic recedes; tomorrow's awaits.

Bluff City, Tennessee, sometime in the early ’50s.

A little boy sits in his bedroom fiddling with a crystal set he had gotten for Christmas. He had already strung a tiny wire to a nearby tree, capped off by a glass insulator. A second wire reached to a steel peg driven in the ground. He put on headphones and began to move another attached wire across the top of a small rock on the set that was about the size of an aspirin. It was known then as “galena,” though the boy didn’t know that. Although it was like a diode, he called it a crystal.

Immediately noise came from the headphones. Then voices. A ham operator was going on about how he lived in Bluff City, where “the moon comes over the mountains in quart jars.” The little boy didn’t know what that meant, so he moved the wire to another spot on the crystal and more voices were heard – AM radio signals with music and more chatter. He moved the wire again, and got another station. This time a religious service where a preacher was busy ministering to the “lost.” The preacher said that the Lord was coming soon.

The little boy played a while longer, then Mom called him to breakfast.


Why do I remember the crystal set? Because it opened my eyes, a little bit at least.

I was about 10, and the fact that the  crystal set produced sound without an obvious source of energy struck me. The thing was not plugged in; there was no battery. It sucked radio waves out of the air and converted them to sound. I looked out the window and realized for the first time that there was something going on that I could not see, taste or smell. There was magic in the air. All I had to do was reach out and grab it.

My father, a Baptist preacher, saw the crystal set as a teaching tool. He explained to me that radio waves were kind of like God. They were everywhere whether we could see them or not. He said all we had to do was listen. I thought about the moon in quart jars and wondered if he was right.


Many years later, the little boy is himself a father eager to teach his children. But it was time for another epiphany. He gave to his 10-year-old son for Christmas a digital watch, not the quality of dad’s Seiko chronograph, mind you, but an inexpensive watch that would probably tell time. It did tell time … perfectly. Not only that, when prompted the watch would play “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Son expected no less; dad was amazed.

A year later, digital watches had been much improved, so dad bought son a new one. Then dad ran quickly to his shop, grabbed some tools and pried open the first watch, eager so see what made it tick. He was stunned! There was nothing in there. A tiny thing, about the size of the crystal of many years earlier, that caused the cheap watch to keep perfect time and play “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Dad realized that his precious chronograph was rapidly becoming a thing of the past.


The past is cluttered with things.

I went to Bed, Bath & Beyond the other day and purchased a clock for my workshop. For 30 bucks, I got an atomic clock, meaning that once started it runs forever (AA battery permitting) and keeps perfect time. Every night the clock automatically synchronizes itself with the master clock in Boulder, Colorado. It does this silently while I am asleep. I now go the garage to set my Seiko quartz watch, when it needs it.

I am constantly amazed at how smart people other than myself are.

We have seen a lot in the last half century, but, one is tempted to say, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Gene Cox, former news anchor for WWBT-NBC 12 and now 5:30 p.m. co-anchor of ABC affiliate WRIC-TV8, shares his observations every issue. Join the 7,000 following Gene on Twitter at @genecoxrva. 

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