In the Summer of 1966 I was 10 1/2 years old and one
of my favorite TV shows was "Get Smart". It was a show about a bumbling
secret agent named Maxwell Smart who had all sorts of gadgets at his
disposal. My friend Billy Meyers and I decided we wanted to be secret
agents, like Max. One of the "secret agent" things we'd do was to pick
out a guy with a briefcase walking home from work and declare him a
Soviet spy. Then we would "tail" him for a few blocks, making up stories
Billy and I had
no way to communicate with each other after we had to come in for the
night. He lived half a block away. Kids didn't use the phone back then.
There was only one phone in the house and I don't remember using it
before I was about 14 years old. Maxwell Smart had a phone in the sole
of his shoe. We needed something like that!
Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) Agent 86.
Remco "Monkey Division" Wrist Radios.
I DID have was a set of Monkey Division Wrist Radios. These were
powered by a single C battery in the "Master" unit, which also
had a button on it that would buzz the other receiver to get the
users attention (apparently, the other user was unworthy of a
button). A metallic speaker doubled as a microphone. The
sound was very tinny, but you could make it out. Unfortunately,
they were wired to each other. There was nothing "radio" about
I remember taking them outside with my brother Rob, and I
could see and hear him talking at the same time his voice was
coming over the wrist radio. They were pretty much useless,
unless you like running around with a wire connecting you to
with some extra wire strung across the driveway, down the backs
of the houses and into Billy's bedroom, Billy and I would be
able to talk to each other! I immediately presented this great
idea to my mom with a request the she fund the cost of the wire,
and she immediately refused and told me the electric company
would just come out and take the wire down.
Location of my house and Billy's house
(actually his grandparent's house). The wire would have to be
strung across the driveway.
This is part of the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia.
Major obstacle. In order to run a wire from my house on 75th
Avenue to Billy's house on Fayette Street, it would have to
this driveway and run down the backs of the
houses. Being as we were 11 years old and didn't have a ladder,
the idea was to tie a
rock to the end of the wire and throw it
over the telephone lines which ran across the driveway. If we
missed and hit the electric
wires above, there may
have been a bright blue flash and a loud report, but we never found out. My mom wouldn't pay for the
wire, and anyway, we didn't even know where we could buy it.
only one thing left to do. Build a radio. I went down the
basement and connected a battery to a speaker and used a coat
hanger as an antenna. This was similar to the wrist radio, but
the coat hanger antenna replaced the wire. It didn't work! All
it did was make clicking sounds in the speaker. I had to wait
for my dad to come home from work and ask him why.
When my dad came home I showed him the setup and he said,
"You don't have a detector." I asked him what a detector was and
he told me to go the library and get a book on radio. The next
day I had a copy of "The Boys' Second Book of Radio and
Electronics" by Alfred P. Morgan. Chapter 2, page 15 was
titled "Building Your First Radio Receiver". I wouldn't be able
to talk to Billy with it, but that was OK. My mom wouldn't buy
me a secret agent coat, we didn't have any gadgets, and our
secret agent days were coming to an end.
was another problem. None of the parts needed to build anything
in the book could be found around my dad's workbench. There was
a store on Ogontz Avenue named REE Electronics, so I headed up
there with a list of parts. The store sold stereo equipment and
fortunately for me, also repaired stereo equipment. I
asked the man in the store if he sold diodes or "capacitaters"
and he sent me into the back of the place. There were two guys
back there and bins of parts along the wall.
REE Electronics was located at 7709 - 7711
Ogontz Avenue in Philadelphia. The entire block has been altered
and is barely recognizable.
The picture above is the 7900 block of
Ogontz Avenue. The store on the left is the only one that
retains its original appearance, with the angled glass store
window. This is how REE Electronics looked in 1966.
REE Electronics on the left. Photo from
around 1970. To the right of the REE BROS sign is a vertical
sign that says "DELICATESSEN."
This was Ben and Irv's (not to be confused with Dave and Irv's,
which was a block down at 76th and Ogontz). Ben and Irv's is
still in business (as of 2021), about five miles away, in
Huntingdon Valley, PA.
Barely discernable is a white monolith with the words "DALE'S."
It used to say "Penn Fruit" and was brick, but they painted it
when DALE'S took over. Today it is a Rite Aid. The large
building in the distance was our church, Saint Athanasius. The
telephoto lens makes it appear larger than it would in real
The two guys in
the back room at REE were pretty cool. I announced that I would
like a "three hundred and sixty five micro micro farad variable
capacitater". They asked me a couple of questions and told me to
come back with the book. They had all the parts I needed except
the coil. No problem, I would just build the set with no coil. I
came home with Fahnestock clips, a 1N34 Germanium diode, a
variable capacitor and a crystal earplug.
A Sylvania 1N34A Germanium diode (top) from
1949 and its modern counterpart. The new diodes are literally a
dime a dozen, less
than one cent each. The 1949 Sylvania diode cost me $9.00 in
2015. It is a duplicate of the one I bought at REE Electronics
The diode was 65 cents in 1966. I can't use the $9.00 diode
because I don't want to bend the leads, so I sort of just look
the radio didn't work without a coil. It did pick up the
slightest whisper of KYW AM 1060 mingled with WIBG AM 990. There
seemed to be some buzzing associated with it, as what I could
hear sounded distorted. I HEARD something, that was the really,
really neat part. It made such an impression on me that I
remember the date. July 26, 1966.
The "problem" with the Alfred P. Morgan books was that they
were not written for anybody as dumb as I was. Morgan didn't
write, "If you can't find the coil you can make one." He just
said to go buy a coil. Not only that, but there were no
photographs in the book, though there were excellent drawings on
almost every page. Since I had never seen some of the parts in
real life, I didn't know exactly what the coil looked like, and
I didn't understand what it did. That's because I didn't read
the book! I was stuck on page 15.
This is the picture of the coil from the
book. I didn't know what I was looking at.
I returned the book
to the library and came home with "The Boys' Third Book of
Radio and Electronics." I found a simple radio on page 104
and soon headed back to REE Electronics. This time, they DID
have the coil! I can't remember how much time passed after the
first non-functioning radio was built. Probably a month or so.
I asked my dad to cut me a wooden base for the radio. I
started building the radio and, if I remember correctly, it took
me a long time. I didn't have a drill, so any holes in the base
were made with the point of a compass. There were three
connections that needed soldering. I got some solder from the
basement, and the tweezers and alcohol lamp from my chemistry
set. The tweezers were heated in the flame of the lamp till the
tips began to glow, then I would quickly solder the joint.
One day a friend from school named Leo Pound stopped by on
his bicycle. This was a bit unusual because Leo lived miles
away. I don't even know how he knew where I lived. He recently
told me (via Facebook) that he remembers helping me build the
radio. Odd that it was the one and only time he came by.
Apparently, we got the radio working that very day.