The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., with its network of 20 buildings, labyrinthian tunnels, and countless artifacts from centuries of U.S. history, is often referred to as “America’s Attic.” It isn’t an undue description, especially when you consider the volume of artifacts from our national past squirreled away in its vast archives.
But a true American attic resides in an unassuming building in Windsor, Connecticut, at the Vintage Radio and Communication Museum.
You’ve probably seen signs for it while passing through the area on I-91 and if you take the time to follow them, you will discover a vast collection chronicling the fascinating history of electronic communication.
Whereas the country’s largest museum system in Washington D.C. is carefully curated, meticulously displayed, and not to be touched or played with, this room of densely packed shelves delivers a history of American innovation in a truly interactive environment.
The Vintage Radio and Communication Museum began with a single person: John Ellsworth.
Ellsworth was a Technology Education teacher at Southington High School for 35 years and on the day CII toured the museum he was putting those skills to use in a new way, teaching a group of 30 homeschooled students how to construct their very own crystal radio out of household items.
“I give them all the theory they can handle,” he explains before the students arrive. “I’ve got the radio spectrum over there and if they’re sharp enough to understand this, I give them that whole thing. It’s a cool experience.”
John Ellsworth instructs a group of homeschool students in building a crystal radio.
When the students are finally situated around several long tables, Ellsworth explains how the museum came to be. It started with his long fascination with radios and electronics and his very own collection.
“You’ve gotta be careful with your collection,” he explains to the assembled children. “Because for me, it turned into a museum.”
Ellsworth started the museum in a 500-square-foot building on Arch Street in New Britain in 1990. In the intervening decade, they moved four times before eventually finding their current location on Pierson Lane in Windsor which they purchased for $600,000 in 2006.
The museum’s mission: “To show how communications has changed our lives.”
Throughout its life, the museum has grown thanks to generous donations from other collectors, families, hobbyists, and local businesses who have helped add hundreds of items to the collection.
“Edwin Howard Armstrong was the real genius of radio and we have one of his prototypes on display which was a donation,” recounts Ellsworth when asked to name some of the most memorable contributions. “We have several Atwater Kent breadboard radios in the collection which are very early and rare examples of radio. Several of the jukeboxes on display were donated. The list could go on and on.”
Donations have continued rolling in, even though the list of items the museum needs has shrunk. But duplicate items play a huge role in keeping the lights on.
A collection of vintage radios on display at the museum.
“Very rare and unusual donations are added to the collection but if we already have an item which is being donated, we will keep the one that is in better condition and sell the other,” Ellsworth explains. “If a donated item has monetary value but we don’t need it to show the history, we will sell it.”
Ellsworth says eBay sales have become the largest income producer for the museum, helping to bring in hundreds of dollars per week.
The museum began just over 30 years ago, but the museum displays begin much further back, at the start of electronic communication: the telegraph and the development of Morse Code. At the edge of the first display, labeled “The 1800s,” is one of these telegraphs connected by wires to an identical device on the other end of the aisle.
“We still use the Morse Code,” says Skip Coulson, a HAM radio operator, and museum volunteer. Skip joined the team about five years ago after retiring and is among the 20 or so volunteers who help keep the museum running. He’s our tour guide for the afternoon. “What you’re hearing is the same thing down there. It’s connected through the wires going down and the clicking, I can tell the difference between a short and a long. The telegraph operators, when the telegraph lines were strung around the country, would be using that for the telegraph.”
Invented in 1837 by Samuel Morse, the telegraph changed the way humans communicated across distances. No longer did you need to write a letter and wait for it to be delivered. Now, you could send a message almost instantly, so long as you had access and money. The telegraph also changed the way information and news were transmitted across the country, leading to the creation of the Associated Press in 1846. That’s when five New York newspapers pooled their resources to share the cost of a dedicated Pony Express route carrying news of the Mexican-American War to a telegraph post in Virginia which transmitted the news back to New York.
Between the two telegraphs is a jam-packed display charting the evolution, not just of the transmission of news, but of entertainment and of the rivalry between Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, two pioneers in communication technology.
A flower horn attached to a vintage phonograph in the museum’s 1800s display.
You see, Edison had invented a tinfoil recording device in 1877 which Bell quickly surpassed by swapping out the tinfoil for a wax cylinder. Edison did the same, locking the two in a tense rivalry by 1889. From that rivalry, average people were, for the first time, able to record audio of speech and music on these brand-new wax phonographs.
“What he used was a wax needle and a diaphragm,” Skip explains, loading one of the museum’s replica wax cylinders onto the device. “So, he would put that on there and the needle would be cutting the groove. He would talk very loudly in here. The vibrations would vibrate the diaphragm and the needle, and that vibration would be put on the cylinder to play it back.”
As you move through this early era, you also discover, thanks to the knowledge of the museum’s volunteer staff, that many common terms originated in fascinating places. Phrases like limelight (named because early-stage lights used lime — the mineral, not the fruit — to cast light) or Upper Case (because capital letters were literally pulled from the upper section of the case when typesetting a newspaper) suddenly make more sense.
Turning the corner away from the 1800s and into the early 20th century, Edison’s rivalry with Bell gives way to another: between Edison and George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Edison was making a pitch to electrify homes using his Direct Current method, but the system couldn’t maintain power over long distances. Edison’s design would have required a power plant on every block. Across town, Westinghouse was pitching an alternative, Nikola Tesla’s Alternating Current, which the Serbian inventor brought to Westinghouse after Edison dismissed the idea. Alternating Current transmitted power over much longer distances, making it easier and cheaper than Edison’s plan. Westinghouse won the race to electrify the world, despite Edison’s best efforts to discredit Alternating Current, and all three men went down in history.
Skip Coulson demonstrates the museum’s small Tesla Coil.
At the museum, attendees can demonstrate for themselves Edison’s early lightbulb designs and the famous Tesla coil, a miniature version of his unrealized plans to power the world wirelessly.
And while we may know Tesla more these days as the namesake of Elon Musk’s electric vehicle company, he was also the first person to file a patent for what became the radio. Next to the museum’s mini Tesla Coil is a small crystal radio – vintage headphones and all – on which you can listen to current radio shows.
This narrative of invention, rivalry, and rapid innovation spans the whole of the museum’s collection, as does its experiential approach to learning. From the telegraph eventually came the telephone, and the museum has old-fashioned switchboards on display, as well as functional rotary phones and phonebooths that demonstrate to kids the ways we all used to communicate with each other before the ubiquity of cell phones and text messaging.
There is an aisle dedicated to vinyl records and early televisions — with their massive size and heft despite their minuscule screens. A collection of war-time radios includes a surprising recent addition.
“This one is very, very, very rare. I’m sure you won’t recognize that symbol,” Skip says as he carefully pulls it down off a top shelf, revealing the German label and tiny swastika on its front. “But this is from Hitler’s — when he was in power. The radio was just his radio station, but somebody would come to the house to make sure that they hadn’t wired it to be able to pick up other radio stations.”
A 1938 radio from Nazi Germany.
Hundreds of radios of all shapes, sizes, time periods, and varieties line the walls and fill display cases. These include novelty radios shaped like common items including a package of frozen corn and a can of WD-40 … for some reason, left unexplained by the display.
Most of these radios work, thanks to either conservation or restoration, and they have been wired up to receive modern transmissions on equipment that, in some cases, is more than a century old.
Along the front wall of the museum is a row of jukeboxes hailing from a variety of decades. Yes, they all work, and yes, they are all filled with period-appropriate music ranging from the swinging 50s and 60s to disco and hair bands.
While the primary role of the museum is to teach the public about the history of electronic communication and entertainment, that isn’t its only goal.
As the collection has grown, the museum has continued to expand its interactive services, offering interactive classes, like those taking place the day CII visited, and other, sometimes vital community resources.
Several of the museum’s volunteers are HAM radio operators, sometimes operating out of the museum’s on-site HAM radio station which is set up in a corner of the museum’s main room.
Inside the museum’s on-site HAM radio station.
HAM Radio operating might sound like a hobby for retirees – and one that couldn’t possibly be thriving — but according to Skip, it has continued to bring in new, curious participants. The museum offers support – as well as community — to new operators.
“We have set up a program where somebody’s passed their license test, we say, hey, we’ve got some radios you may borrow for six months to get on the air,” says Skip. “We’ll mentor you, help you put up an antenna, all that.”
It is also still an important part of emergency communications in situations like the Boston Marathon Bombing.
“We had radio operators in the medical tent — and along with police, fire, ambulance, all of the other people involved — because communication, cell phones became overloaded,” Skip explains. “So we were able to do supplemental communications. The same for those poor people down south that had been hit with so many tornadoes. We can step in and help out.”
And it’s not just about supporting education or radio hobbyists, either. The museum has expanded its events schedule and added additional, functional exhibits to additional rooms in the building. One of these is a replica broadcast and recording studio for old-fashioned radio plays.
“This room is a re-creation of what would be found back in the 20s, 30s, 40s, early 50s, at say, New York City’s Radio City Music Hall,” explains Skip. “They would do live broadcasts. The people putting out the program – a mystery or soap — would be standing in front of these floor microphones with a piece of paper in there and reading the program that was being done.”
An old-fashioned recording studio now set up inside the museum.
In addition to the microphones and recording equipment, they’ve even got a suite of traditional sound effect equipment, including a couple of coconut husks.
“We had a fellow come in, he said, I used to do this, that was my job in a studio like this,” recalls Skip. “He said, you have duplicated every single solitary thing. One exception, he said, all of the studios I worked in, the walls and ceilings were kind of a grayish orange from the cigarette smoke. There were no windows. There was no ventilation.”
The studio was put to particular use in late February as a senior theater group came out to put on their own radio play, engineered by the staff at the museum.
The Vintage Radio and Communication Museum is an entirely volunteer-run and community-supported venture. All employees of the museum are volunteers, including Ellsworth as Executive Director. The rest of the operations are managed by a long list of dedicated and knowledgeable enthusiasts. The museum is open Thursday through Sunday during the day, and tickets range from $10 for Adults, to $5 for students, while children under 5 get in for free.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that John Ellsworth takes a salary. It has been updated to reflect the fact that the entire staff is volunteer-only.
March 24, 2023 @ 6:18 am
Great article! Thank you for writing it. I think you captured the essence of our museum. Just one correction at the end. We are ALL volunteers. No one is paid including me the founding director. It is purely a hobby that got totally out of control!😄
March 28, 2023 @ 1:39 pm
Hi John! Thanks so much for your kind words and for letting me tour your museum. Thanks for the clarification. We’ve edited that section to reflect.
March 28, 2023 @ 10:35 pm
Amazing museum with docent tours.
A Connecticut gem!