- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

For some, it’s a trip down memory lane. For others, it’s a glimpse into a period before MP3s, compact discs and even eight-track tapes existed. But no matter which group you’re in, a visit to the Radio-Television Museum in Bowie, which boasts a collection of memorabilia dating back to when radio was introduced in the late 19th century, is a tour through history altering media.

Pictures of the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, decorate the museum’s walls, highlighting a period of early radio. One of the museum’s oldest pieces, an 1898 induction coil unit and Marconi spark transmitter, is just like the equipment used in the ships’ radio rooms. An antenna strung from the top of the Titanic stayed out of the water long enough for operators to place emergency calls as the ship sank in 1912.

“The Titanic made people appreciate the importance of radio, that you could save lives by being able to communicate in the middle of the ocean,” museum curator Brian Belanger says. “It was a disaster, but it helped to make radio more successful.”

The red farmhouse that houses the museum is a piece of history itself. Built in 1905, it was scheduled to be torn down and replaced by a strip mall when the city of Bowie stepped in, bought the land and in 1999 agreed to lease to the Radio History Society, which operates the museum.

Other items are dispersed among six of the house’s rooms, tours of which are led by volunteers or are self-guided. Information about inventors and items’ original prices accompany the artifacts, which include a chunk of the 1874 trans-Atlantic cable, the first cable between Europe and the United States used to transmit telegraphs before radio was developed, and a Jacobs Brothers miniature grand piano, circa 1929, which is actually a radio-phonograph inside a piano facade. A 1935 radio on display conceals a minibar, complete with shot glasses — an item likely created to celebrate the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, Mr. Belanger says.

Another room features devices used to create popular sound effects for radio shows. A pair of coconuts tapped against a wood plank creates the “clop, clop” sound of a horse’s canter; a miniature front door, used in skits by “Joy Boys” Willard Scott and Ed Walker in their radio show, which ran on Washington’s WRC from 1955 to 1972, provides the sound of people coming and going.

By the late 1940s, television hit the markets and the museum features an array of early sets, ranging from 7-inch screen models to 16-inch screens from companies including RCA and Emerson. Visitors can watch a clip of a 1958 commercial for Edsel cars and a bit of the “The Lone Ranger” — in black and white, of course.

The museum also has a collection of about 2,000 books, including bound editions of old radio and TV magazines and resources for visitors who may be trying to restore a piece of equipment.

A collection of radio premiums from classic radio shows such as “Little Orphan Annie” and “The Lone Ranger” often evokes fond memories from visitors. Many recall gathering around the family radio, eagerly awaiting the next message to unscramble with their “Captain Midnight” decoder badge. Others may have spent hours playing with a “Little Orphan Annie” mask.

Memories like these are one reason the museum is most popular with the elderly, Mr. Belanger says. Its pieces — some permanent, others on loan — help visitors reminisce.

“You can see their eyes light up,” he says. “People all walk through here and say, ‘Oh we had a radio just like that. Boy, does that bring back memories.’”


Location: The Radio-Television Museum is at 2608 Mitchellville Road in Bowie.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Route 50 east. Take the exit for Route 197 (Collington Road) and go south. At the first traffic light, turn right on Northview Drive. Go 1.3 miles and turn right on Mitchellville Road. The museum is on the right at the first stop sign.

Hours: The museum is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Group tours are available by appointment.

Parking: A small lot is next to the museum.

Admission: Free, but donations are accepted.

Note: Small children may not enjoy the museum as it is geared toward children who are school age and older.

Information: 301/390-1020 or www.radiohistory.org

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