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Did the crystal radio change society?

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March 13, 2009 11:49PM

Probably not as much as when the widespread use of "ham" radios came into popular use in the early 1900's. Crystal sets utility was mainly limited by their relatively short range of passive reception from strong carrier signals from radio stations. Ham radios, on the other hand, had strong enough carrier waves to be received hundreds of miles away from their source. Even today, ham radios often play a significant role in maintaining emergency communications among first-response providers and public audiences, as was the case in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, when large-scale commercial radio stations lost power. Of note, however, was the valuable role that crystal sets played during World War II. Because the German army could detect carrier waves from their source, portable radios were prohibited. Allied troops found that homemade crystal sets known as "foxhole receivers" (made from a coil of wire, a razor blade and a pencil lead) at least allowed troops and civilians to hear (albeit one-sided) communications from the BBC. Their lack of need for external power sources made them valuable during brownouts or when batteries were unavailable. Not to overlook the intangible value of often being the first introduction to electronics for many children, whose developing curiosity may lead to eventual careers in science!