You know you’re really old when some of your favorite childhood and teenage gadgets are in a museum.
This was the case when I saw 45-rpm records, 45 sleeves and carriers, 45 adapters — not to mention 8-tracks, cassettes, and our Sansui speakers — at the history of recording and records section of the New Jersey Antique Radio Club’s Radio Technology Museum. This museum and its collection are just part of the communications and electronics history housed within the larger nonprofit InfoAge Science History Learning Center and Museum in Wall Township.
The InfoAge Center and Museum (just called “InfoAge by regulars) is located on some 30-plus acres on the Shark River, inland from the coastal town of Belmar in Monmouth County and within Camp Evans, which was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places. InfoAge is open Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.
An array of communications, electronics, and computer history abounds — from the birth and youthful times of radio, to top-secret military surveillance, to the early days of radar, space, and satellite communications. The site was once home to the (Guglielmo) Marconi Belmar Trans-Atlantic Wireless Station, later called the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. In its very beginnings, the Belmar Station served as Marconi’s receiving station, “duplexed” with his New Brunswick high power transmitting station.
This was where many of the most significant contributors to communications technology once worked. From spark-gap wireless technology at the turn of the 20th century, to the 1990s, when microwave, fiber optics, and advanced satellite technology were proven technologies — all have been brainstormed at this historic site.
Just off Interstate 195 and briefly up Route 18, my husband, Bryan, and I turned off the main route onto Marconi Road and passed a rescued portion of one of the original Marconi transmission towers, indicated by a marker and mini-park.
We went a little further down Marconi Road, parked at one of InfoAge’s free lots, and approached the site’s signature building, a stately brick structure that was once the Marconi Hotel. We found ourselves in what used to be lounge of the 100-year-old hotel, which the radio pioneer Marconi built to provide living quarters for workers.
A large portrait of the Italian-born “Father of Radio” watches over this space. The building itself is still in fine structural condition, and volunteers are actively renovating and restoring its interior.
If you wish, you can bypass this part of the InfoAge Center and go directly to the low-slung buildings in the rear, which have a special entrance just for the retro computer technology collection, overseen by a group called the Mid-Atlantic Retro-Computing Hobbyists (MARCH). This is also where you will find the Radio Technology Museum (RTM).
However, the Military Technology Museum in the front of the complex will fascinate those whose curiosity leans more toward World War I and World War II history, especially in regard to high-tech communications, security, and surveillance.
In fact, the Military Technology Museum, which is still under construction, will be open the weekend of August 15 and 16 to coincide with a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day (VJ Day), August 15, 1945, which marked the end of World War II.
Commemorative events will be held from noon to 5 p.m. and will include lectures at 3 p.m. on “Operation Downfall,” the planned invasion of Japan, both days.
In addition, visitors will be able to see a variety of World War II-era American and German military vehicles, including Jeeps and trucks. Rides on one such historic vehicle, built by Studebaker and called “The Weasel,” will be offered to youngsters in attendance.
As part of Fort Monmouth, Camp Evans was a strategic location for World War I trans-Atlantic communications. During the war, the U.S. Navy operated Marconi’s station under the Radio Act of 1912. The message that World War I had ended and the Armistice had been signed was received at the Marconi Station.
The facilities and the Army Signal Corps also played a key role during World War II, especially in the development of radar as an effective secret weapon. In January, 1946, Camp Evans ushered in the Space Age through “Project Diana,” when the first radar signals were reflected off the moon.
Named after the Roman goddess of the moon, “Diana” was the first experiment in radar astronomy and the first attempt to actively probe another celestial body. It was the inspiration for later earth-moon-earth communication techniques.
In the 1950s Camp Evans was a Cold War technology and nuclear weapons research site, and was visited by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who suspected a communist spy ring may have been operating there. A photograph of “Tailgunner Joe” with Camp Evans officials is right inside the main entrance.
But it was really the Radio Technology Museum we were in search of, and we wandered through the labyrinthine space — past rooms filled with World War I and II dioramas, posters, displays, and exhibits of military communications technology, and well-preserved historic covers of Life magazine — before we arrived there.
We were then guided in part by sounds emerging from the museum — a combination of the voice of Groucho Marx and someone beautifully playing Debussy on the Theremin.
This is the oldest of the museums and collections at the InfoAge Center. First situated in one of the cottages across from the main building, in 2006 NJARC moved its collection and operations into the present location, which it hasbeen upgrading ever since. Most, but not all, of the people running the RTM, are volunteers from the Antique Radio Club.
Walk in and feast your eyes and ears on an array of radios, loudspeakers, and components, some of which are exquisite pieces of furniture. Fans of smart phones and other tiny portable devices might be shocked to learn that radios were once waist-high furnishings that dominated the main room of the typical American home.
A Bakelite-cased Stewart-Warner table model, an elegant 1937 Emerson, a 1931 Atwater Kent, and a fully functioning 1940 Philco are just a few of the models on display. One room houses a family of finely restored consoles by such manufacturers as Zenith, Silverton, and Edison, all from the 1930s and ’40s.
An array of designer table-top models made of wood, plastic and, again, Bakelite, compete with these more staid radios for attention; my eye was drawn to one really striking model in red and pink hues, by Motorola.
Big “Golden Age of Radio” posters advertise such beloved shows as “The Lone Ranger” and singers such as Rudy Vallee, Eddie Cantor, and Carmen Miranda.
The RTM is also home to the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and along the walls are portraits of radio and TV pioneers such as Marconi, bandleader Paul Whiteman, CBS “architect” William S. Paley, singers Bing Crosby and Kate Smith, comedians Jack Benny and Bob Hope, newsmen Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid, sports announcer Red Barber, and New Jersey’s own guitar-wizard, Les Paul. A portrait of Orson Welles shows the “War of the Worlds” mastermind as a young man.
Likenesses of inventors Lee De Forest and the ill-fated “FM” genius Edwin Howard Armstrong are there too, along with Marconi and David Sarnoff, who was once the chief engineer at the Marconi wireless station, and went on to become the founder, president, and CEO of RCA, and the Sarnoff Corporation.
One exhibit allows a visitor to dive deep into the technology of Armstrong’s regenerative circuit technology, which produced, in Armstrong’s words, “great amplification, obtained all at once.”
(Although the exhibits at the RTM bypass the subject matter, the stories of how De Forest, Armstrong, and Sarnoff interacted and competed with each other — including the especially compelling story of Armstrong versus Sarnoff — are superbly told in the 1991 documentary, “Empire of the Air: the Men Who Made Radio,” one of Ken Burns’ early masterpieces.)
You can also try your hand at transmitting Morse code signals — and pause to reflect that this was really the start of it all.
Around another corner of the museum, you will see the displays of the beginnings of satellite communications, television, phonograph, and recording technology, which bring the visitor into the more modern eras of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. A 19-inch Dumont black-and-white television from 1950 runs clips from such old favorites as “Creature Features,” “The Bowery Boys,” and “Bewitched.”
My husband gave a little shout of recognition for a pair of SP-200 Sansui speakers, circa late 1960s. Bryan bought a similar pair in 1969. We still use them, and they sound great.
Here is where I also started to see things I used to delight in (and still own) like those 45-rpms, cassettes, and record “changers.” We saw vinyl records in a variety of speeds, not just 78, 45, and 33-rpms. There were also 16-rpm records, used mostly for spoken word; there was also an example of an 8-rpm, an ultra-slow-speed record and a rarity.
I recognized yellow 45s — mine played Disney songs — which we learned were color coded as children’s records by RCA. In fact there are a variety of Disney picture discs and other special-edition discs by Philco, RCA, and Emerson in the RTM’s collection.
People of a certain age will remember those record changers fondly: we would stack multiple LPs on them — which was great for long afternoons of music but bad for the condition of the records themselves.
This was when stereo components arrived, with turntables that could only handle one vinyl record at a time, preserving the condition of the discs for audiophiles. Serious sound reproduction enthusiasts could also choose reel-to-reel technology, and the RTM has several in fine working condition.
There’s an amusing display of transistor radios at the RTM, some in pop culture and consumer-friendly special editions like a Tropicana Orange, an Oreo, Oscar the Grouch, and a Pepsi cola dispenser.
Then at last, we came full circle through the RTM, where the hands-on room sits off the main space. A statue of the “Simpsons” character Lisa Simpson with a sign that reads “Science!” greets you as you walk in.
Here is where one can listen to a restored crystal radio set through headphones, play with static electricity, doodle with magnets, experiment with sound waves and an oscilloscope, and groove on a “Jacob’s Ladder.” This large and spooky device demonstrates spark gap technology and looks like something straight from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Finally, I found the source of the Debussy music via Theremin: a DVD plays Lydia Kavina performing “Clair de Lune.” Born in 1967, Kavina is a relative and protegee of Leon Theremin, who patented the instrument in 1928.
There’s a real Theremin there, too, just waiting to be handled — or not. To play it, you wave your hands in proximity to the machine, but never touch it. It’s not easy at all, so I give Kavina credit.
Just as I was starting to get some less-screeching sounds on the Theremin, the docent politely reminded us that it was 4:45, 15 minutes from closing time.
There’s just so much to see: the InfoAge Science History Learning Center and Museum will occupy science, electronics, telecommunications buffs, and others for hours.
Space prevents me from describing yet another museum within the complex: the Shipwreck Museum. I will be back to explore it, and to try to get more melodious sounds out of the Theremin.
InfoAge Science History Learning Center and Museum, 2201 Marconi Road, Wall. Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. $5 suggested donation. 732-280-3000 or www.infoage.org.
70th Anniversary of VJ-Day, Military Technology Museum, Saturday and Sunday, August 15 and 16, noon to 5 p.m. $5.
A revolutionary piece of Space Age history and technology brainstormed and realized through Camp Evans was the Television Infra-Red Observation Satellite or TIROS-1, the world’s first successful imaging weather satellite.
Launched April 1, 1960, out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, it traveled at a speed of 18,000 mph, spinning like a top, and could orbit the earth every 90 minutes at an altitude of about 450 miles.
The spacecraft weighed about 270 pounds and was made of aluminum alloy and stainless steel that was covered by 9,200 solar cells. The solar cells served to charge the on-board batteries.
Two television cameras were housed in the craft, one low-resolution and one high-resolution. A magnetic tape recorder for each camera was supplied for storing photographs while the satellite was out of range of the ground station network.
The craft was not Earth-oriented, but space-oriented, meaning that the cameras were only operated while they were pointing at the Earth when that portion of the Earth was in sunlight. The video systems relayed thousands of pictures containing cloud-cover views of the Earth. Early photographs provided information concerning the structure of large-scale cloud regimes.
TIROS-1was the first satellite to publicly take photos of the earth, although there was a secret project launched by the U.S. military a year earlier. However, only TIROS-1 could send photos back to earth in real time. It shot more than 22,000 photos before a power failure ended its mission
Although TIROS-1 was operational for only 78 days, it proved that satellites could be useful tools for surveying global weather conditions from space. It could also spy on the Soviet Union, which gave the United States a boost in the “Space Race.” In subsequent years, the first TIROS was followed by some eight others.
Sometimes called the “Eye in the Sky,” TIROS-1 transmitted these images back to earth, to a giant receiver dish that was assembled at Camp Evans, where it still exists on the former Project Diana site.
You can see this big dish, just up the road and within walking distance of the main InfoAge building. InfoAge is actively working to restore the dish to operational status and transform the TIROS Ground Control Station building into a space science education facility.
The future InfoAge Space Exploration Center (iSEC) will feature a TIROS dish operations classroom with a NASA-style control room, as well as an interactive exhibit about the site’s history. The facility has been undergoing renovations coordinated by Princeton University, InfoAge, and the Ocean-Monmouth Amateur Radio Club (OMARC).
A “Save Our Dish” fund-raising effort is underway to make iSEC a reality. www.infoage.org or 732-280-3000.