Antique Wireless Museum

A microphone used by pioneer radio station WHAM in Rochester in the 1920s.

Human nature dictates that we stay in touch with each other for both economic and personal reasons. Constantly evolving technologies have simplified the process of spanning the distance. Voice, images, documents and multimedia files now move effortlessly across the miles.

Today, we can download favorite tunes to an iPod or text friends and family from a cell phone, but not that long ago people tapped out Morse code to relay messages. Early users assembled the first radios themselves and listened with headphones. Later, whole families would gather around a console radio – long before the advent of television.

At the Antique Wireless Association (AWA) museum in the small town of Bloomfield in Ontario County, many of the earliest forms of communication equipment are on view in one of the most comprehensive collections ever assembled.

As visitors enter the museum, located in a portion of a landmark school building, they are welcomed by distinctive recorded music from the 1930s, considered by many to be the golden age of radio. The museum owns one of the largest collections of early radio apparatus associated with pioneers like Marconi, De Forest, Armstrong, Edison and others. A special display recreates the setting for a wireless transmitter referred to as “Sparks,” used on board ships like the RMS Titanic.

The sinking of the Titanic, in fact, brought attention to a need for dependable communication on the high seas and led to the adoption of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) a year later in 1913. This international maritime safety treaty mandated emergency equipment and safety procedures, including continuous radio watches.

“You’ve got to see this!”

Bob Hobday, a longtime AWA member and docent who grew up near Buffalo, recalls that at age 10, he built a crystal set, after buying parts from a downtown store. Years ago, most cities had stores that featured radio departments where amateur operators and experimenters could buy parts required for building receivers and transmitters. Lining the shelves of the AWA museum’s replica 1925 Radio Department are parts, many still in original boxes, as well as complete receivers. Hobbyists found directions for assembly in issues of Radio News magazine, displayed prominently on a showcase at the museum.

Hobday says his interest in the museum was roused by a fellow amateur radio operator who told him, “You’ve got to see this!” Now, as the organization’s deputy director, he enjoys demonstrating things like the 1860s Western Union telegraph equipment. He explained that operators had tricks for deciphering incoming signals, even in a noisy office. Hobday pointed to an empty can of Prince Albert tobacco propped on a receiver and demonstrated that by changing how the hinged-lid of the can was placed, it altered the sounds slightly so the operator could tell on which receiver the message was coming in when two or more lines in the office were active. This practice led to the expression, “flipping your lid.”

Hobday says he often hears, “I remember this,” or “I had one of those,” when he takes visitors through the museum. The collection of artifacts seems endless, and includes early radio microphones, hand-carved console-style radios, and a television with a 3-inch screen, which dates to 1949. They have the first police department radio and early television cameras from the nearby city of Rochester. The museum walls boast a variety of striking period posters. The collection even includes the very first modular cell phone.

The AWA was formed in 1952 by a Kodak engineer, Bruce Kelley, who moved to Bloomfield in the late 1950s and brought his “old time radio collection” with him. Kelley opened his “museum” in a carriage house on Main Street to worldwide ham operator guests every weekend as well as by appointment. In 1975 the AWA collection was moved to the old Bloomfield Academy building, home of the East Bloomfield Historical Society.

Today, the club has a membership of more than 2,100 radio enthusiasts from around the world. They publish the quarterly AWA Journal, an outlet for sharing historical research, equipment restorations and other topics. Scholarly articles appear in the annual AWA Review, made available at their annual conference held in Rochester each August.

“The AWA vision is to preserve and share the history of technology used to communicate and entertain – from the first telegram to today’s wireless text messaging,” Hobday said.

Think of the Smithsonian for an idea of the scale. When Ken Burns was making his documentary, Empire of the Air: the Men Who Made Radio, the AWA was one of his stops. The museum periodically loans equipment, most recently to a new Marconi museum in Chatham, Massachusetts, that opened in the summer of 2010. Closer to home, when the GEVA Theatre in Rochester needed some early Polish recordings appropriate to one of their productions, they contacted the museum.

A huge collection, insufficient space
With only 15 percent of the AWA’s collection on display in the 1,800 square feet now available, a move is planned. The AWA recently launched a $6 million capital campaign. Hobday, who is the project chair, said their goal is to develop “the world’s most important, fascinating and comprehensive commun­ications and entertainment history museum and research campus.”

Within two years, the new museum will be able to accommodate a large volume of year-round traffic, including school visits, all on one level. For the first time, the displays will be fully handicapped accessible, which will allow the association to receive a permanent charter from the New York State Department of Education.
Under the guidance of the current AWA Director Tom Peterson, Jr., a Cleveland, Ohio entrepreneur, the museum has acquired property two miles east of Bloomfield on Routes 5&20. The core building is a former antique store. A second building already houses the Dr. Max Bodmer Media Research & Archives Center and includes a massive 100 years’ worth of historical documents recently donated by the Radio Club of America. Bodmer, a 90-year-old Swiss engineer, invented critical radio wave amplifying components for the 1962 Bell Labs Telstar space satellite program that revolutionized modern television, telephone and radio communications. A third building provides storage, a staging area for exhibits and a workshop for repairs.

The museum, slated to open in 2013, will be five times larger than the current AWA space at the East Bloomfield Historical Society. Plans call for a 60-seat auditorium, live operating radio station, 14 permanent and 26 rotating exhibits, professional conservation climate controls, and fire-flood safety measures, along with ample parking for cars and tour buses. The façade will be a striking replica of a 1936 cobalt blue chrome radio. Members are already hard at work at the new campus cataloging and repairing equipment, and planning for the future.
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The AWA is currently located on a portion of the second and third floors of a restored 1838 brick school building owned by the Historical Society of the Town of East Bloomfield. In 2011, the society plans to mount a special exhibit of work by local artists. The local history museum is open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Friday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., April through December, and other times by appointment. For information, call 585-657-7244 or visit www.ebhs1838.org.

The Holloway House restaurant, located at 29 State Street (at U.S. Routes 5&20). The Federal-era building was used at the beginning of the 19th century by blacksmith Peter Holloway as a wayside tavern serving the stagecoach lines. It operates from April to the beginning of December, from Tuesday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, and from 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner; Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m.; and Sunday 11:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 585-657-7120 or visit www.the
hollowayhouse.com.

Elton Park, originally known as the Public Square, is directly across from the AWA. Following the Civil War, a monument to the 39 Bloomfield men who lost their lives was raised. On Saturday, July 9, St. Peter’s annual antique show and sale takes over the park for the 52nd year.

Many of Bloomfield’s historic homes date to the 19th century. Portions of the former village of East Bloomfield are on both the New York State and National registers of Historic Places. To download a walking tour go to www.bloomfieldbuzz.com.

The Vintage Tracks Museum is located just 1/4-mile off Routes 5&20 between Bloomfield and Canandaigua at 3170 Wheeler Station Road. The museum tells the story of equipment that travels on “tracks,” featuring crawler tractors and memorabilia from the early 1900s. It is open weekends in July and August or by appointment. Call 585-657-6608 for details.

Ganondagan State Historic Site at Route 444 and County Road 41 in nearby Victor. It stands at the location of what was one of the largest 17th-century Seneca towns which was destroyed in 1687. On the site is a full-size replica of a bark longhouse. The Visitor Center hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 1 through September 30, and Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during October. Visitors can enjoy 600 acres of trails, which are open year-round, 8 a.m. to sunset, weather permitting. Visit www.ganondagan.org or call 585-742-1690 to learn more.
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For more information, go to www.antiquewireless.org. You can also visit the AWA on YouTube. Admission to the museum is free. Hours are Sunday 2 to 5 p.m. from May through September. During June, July and August it is also open Saturday 2 to 4 p.m. Open other times by appointment. For group tours, contact Curator Bruce Roloson at broloson@stby.rr.com. The public is also invited to carry out research during the week by appointment at the new AWA media library.


by Laurel C. Wemett