Does hearing vintage tunes from the golden age of radio, the 1920s, '30s and '40s, set your toes a-tapping? Do you sometimes remember with nostalgia the early radio broadcasts of celebrated artists such as Jack Benny or Burns and Allan? Are you interested in amateur, commercial, military or marine wireless communication? Or, what about a treasured old radio, a family heirloom perhaps that has an interesting history, but sadly requires the attention of a skilled craftsman? If so, a Sunday at SPARC might be for you.
The Society for the Preservation of Antique Radio in Canada (SPARC) museum resides in a beautiful park-like setting on the grounds of the old Riverview Hospital, in Coquitlam, British Columbia. A non-profit organization, run by a group of dedicated volunteers interested in early telegraph communication, radio and broadcasting, the SPARC museum hums with activity every Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Far from being a static mausoleum to a bygone era, the museum swings to the sound of vintage oldies, announced and relayed in true early radio fashion. Jack Watson broadcasts from a complete working display of an early radio broadcast control room, selecting and playing tunes from his, and the museum's, extensive library of some 20,000 pieces of music and radio programs recorded on tape and disc. He and SPARC President Peter Trill collaborate to create and record their own radio programs for use at the museum, introducing songs and some historical information about the music, when and by whom it was originally recorded.
"I have always loved music," says octogenarian Jack, recalling how he loved to listen to his mother and sister play the piano when he was a boy. "I developed my skills in telegraph communication when I was in Grade 10. I signed up for Walter Lambert's wireless radio class at King Edward High School in Vancouver in the 1930s. I learned Morse code, how to send and receive messages by telegraph key, and qualified for my Amateur Radio Operator's licence."
After serving five and a half years in the army in the '40s with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Jack took up his love of music and dance, collecting and later recording the popular songs of the time. "I developed a love of broadcasting. I enjoy being a DJ to this day," says Jack.
Breathing new life into the vintage radios of yesteryear is a labour of love, patience and technical ingenuity - attributes with which sound specialist volunteers at SPARC are familiar. Some find satisfaction in restoring an outside skin to its original gleaming, lustrous shine. Others tackle the innards, carefully removing, cleaning and replacing parts with the precision required of a surgeon.
Paul Johnson, a charter member, developed an expertise in old radios after years in the business. He was a wireless mechanic during the war, fixing radio transmitters in Nova Scotia and Quebec. When he returned to civilian life, he continued in the trade, working as a TV and radio repairman. Besides putting in many hours of volunteer time at the museum, Paul often takes radios home to fix. If he can't find the original technical drawings he needs to help him in the SPARC library, he searches the Internet. Without the original schematics, trying to fix the complex mix of tubes and wires that power old radios so they can pick up a broadcast signal is like trying to figure out how a human brain is wired.
Restoration of vintage radio cabinetry can take many hours, up to 50 or more, and is a combination of skill, artistry and experimentation. Stripping and sanding the old finish, which is typically made of thin veneer over a spruce form, takes a careful, steady hand. After sanding, the console is painted with a lacquer finish that contains dye, giving the wood a fine colour and sheen. Dials and knobs are cleaned, and the grill cloth on the speaker box is replaced with reproductions of the original fabric. When finished, the radio looks and sounds like new.
Radios of every imaginable size, shape and manufacture are displayed throughout the museum. From tiny pocket transistors, to table models, to furniture-sized consoles, from rare art deco designs, to stately clock radios, from practical marine ship-to-shore radio transmitters and a hand-cranked lifeboat radio, to the wild, weird and wacky. If you visit the museum with a group, have a competition to see who can first spot the whimsical toilet-paper dispenser radio; or the smokerette design, for pipes, tobacco and entertainment. There's a rocket radio for kids; a novelty Snoopy; an imitation D-cell battery radio; a handsome sailing ship, and a radio housed in a whisky bottle.
Not all SPARC members are radio buffs or interested in electrical gadgetry. Elizabeth Clarke, a volunteer of 10 years, became interested when she brought in a radio to be fixed. Putting her skills as a librarian to good use, she devotes her time to cataloguing the many technical books, magazines and related literature at the SPARC library. "I love the relaxed atmosphere here," she enthuses, "and listening to the golden-oldie tunes."
John Wicks, a member since 1996, is not technically minded either, but is fascinated by broadcasting and communication history. A former employee of B.C. Tel and an avid collector of antique radios, John enjoys being one of the tour guides at the museum. He likes to show visitors around the various sections, such as the amateur radio "Ham Shack," which not only displays vintage ham gear, but also has a working operating station.
Then there's the military "Fox-Hole," which houses artifacts from both the First and Second World Wars. It reflects the great strides made in the area of communication between the two world wars. A fine example is the valuable contribution made by Canadian wireless pioneer the late Donald L. Hings M.B.E., a Burnaby resident, who developed and refined the walkie-talkie for the Canadian military in 1942. He also invented the technology used for the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning Line) operated by NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) for over 30 years.
Also on display at the museum is a replica of the radio room of RMS Carpathia, the ship famous for rescuing survivors of the ill-fated Titanic. It contains valuable and rare equipment, including a Marconi wireless spark station, dating back to the early 1900s. The authentic-looking communications room, complete with portholes, was used in the set for the Canadian Television Broadcasting movie, The Titanic, with George C. Scott in 1996. It was donated to the museum after production.
For volunteer Elaine Lafontaine, SPARC provides a feeling of community involvement and service, the opportunity to give back. She and her husband Patrick, besides helping out in the restoration area, often assist with the community outreach program. Together, with other members of SPARC, they set up vintage radio displays in shopping malls, senior residences and at community events throughout the Lower Mainland of Vancouver, bringing music and memories to the people while helping to promote interest in the museum.
SPARC was founded in 1994 by a group of ham radio operators, radio enthusiasts who wished to preserve, restore and exhibit to the public a historical collection that reflects all aspects of radio communications in Canada during the 20th century. The purpose of the society is to promote, facilitate and encourage the preservation and restoration of antique electronics, telegraphy and radio equipment in all arenas, including amateur, military, marine, commercial broadcast, public and hobby. It also seeks to promote public awareness.
CDs of Vintage Oldies, recorded and produced by Jack, are offered for sale at the museum. If you have an antique radio and are interested in getting it fixed, there would be a mutually agreed upon charge for restoration, after an inspection has been made by SPARC's restoration crew to determine the extent of the repair.
If you are technically minded, or like to tinker, and would like to try your hand at fixing your own radio, SPARC members can provide expert guidance. The museum is unique in that it facilitates the hands-on approach to learning. Expert or tinkerer, technical books, workshop areas, tools and equipment are available for members' use.
So, whether electronic communication technology, past and present, is your hobby, or you just want to while away an afternoon listening to the Vintage Oldies of yesteryear, tune in to Sundays at SPARC.
Open Sundays only 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for pre-arranged group tours.
Admission by donation.
To arrange group tours, community event participation, senior residence visits or mall exhibits call, e-mail or visit:
Directions: The museum is located on the Riverview Hospital Grounds, Coquitlam, B.C. Take exit 44 from Highway 1 onto the Lougheed Highway. Or, from Coquitlam Centre, travel south on the Lougheed Hwy. Enter the grounds by turning at the Colony Farm Road traffic light. Follow Holly Drive, turning up the hill at Oak Crescent. See you there!