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Radio Obsessive Profile #6 and #7: Jonathan Winter and John Jenkins of American Museum of Radio and Electricity

Folks in Bellingham, Washington are lucky to have an amazing resource for radio history right in their backyard.

What is now known as The American Museum of Radio and Electricity (AMRE) began in 1985 as the Bellingham Antique Radio Museum as an outgrowth of Jonathan Winter’s personal collection of vintage radios and radio-related objects. As his collection grew, he sought out a bigger venue and eventually joined forces with fellow radio collector John Jenkins.

With their move to bigger quarters in 2001, the museum’s name was changed to The American Museum of Radio and Electricity to reflect its now broader mission of presenting exhibits focused on a variety of scientific innovations. According to their website:

“Today, the Museum is dedicated to the interpretation of the relationship between the scientific exploration of electricity and the development of broadcast radio into its Golden Age—a story with immense cultural, historic, aesthetic, and scientific significance. Among the Museum’s current holdings are unique examples of early scientific instruments and 19th century electromagnetic apparatus, an outstanding collection of more than 10,000 vacuum tubes, and an authentic reproduction of the radio room on the Titanic displaying an original Marconi wireless set.”

The museum galleries contain interactive exhibits recounting nearly 400 years worth of innovations related to electricity and wireless, from the “Dawn of the Electric Age,” to the early history of radio, to the radio’s “golden” age. AMRE also houses more than 1000 radios, operates a low power FM radio station (KMRE-LP), and hosts science education classes for kids.

I talked to founders Jonathan Winter and John Jenkins in order to learn more about the museum and find out how their collective passion for radio inspired its creation.

Jennifer Waits: When did you start collecting radios?

Jonathan Winter: My first radios?   I came across a one tube radio …….(I cannot remember exactly where) when I was around 15 and remember taking it over to a neighbor who was quite old,  and asking him how it worked. He spent some time getting it working and described how it worked. That was the beginning for me. I learned more about radio and have had an interest ever since.  For me it is a combination of technology, craftsmanship, art and science. I my mind they are all connected.

John Jenkins: My first radio was a set I found in my grandparents basement when I was 13. I tinkered with electronics at lot at the time, I took it home and got it working.  From the minute I heard music come out of it, I was hooked.

Vintage Sparton Model 738 from 1935. Image courtesy AMRE

Jennifer: What about radio was and is so captivating to you?

Jonathan W: As mentioned above, it was the object…… one could almost say it was the “Art”  of these early radios that drew me to them. Of course understanding how they worked only deepened  my interest.

John J: At the time I was fascinated by the beautiful wood, the smell of the vacuum tubes when they heated up. I loved looking at the circuit diagrams and figuring out how everything worked. Later I became much more interested in the history, the inventors, what inspired them, how the chain of ideas connect together. That is the theme in all of my lectures: invention as a process, not an event.

That interest was reflected in my collection, I started with radios from the 1920s as a kid, but as my interest and curiosity broadened I worked my way backward, the oldest object I own is the oldest known existent book that investigates electricity and magnetism, printed in 1560.

Jennifer: Jonathan, Tell me a bit about how your passion for collecting and for radio turned into the creation of the Bellingham Antique Radio Museum.

Jonathan W: The Bellingham Antique Radio Museum:  A long story which I will shorten. Around 1979 I was becoming more and more aware of how fast we were moving into the “digital world.”  I thought I might use my collection or early radio as an educational resource. At the time I was storing most of the collection. It seemed to me that I might spend the same money for a space I would call a Museum.  I rented a small room in the “Marketplace” building in Fairhaven and called it “The Bellingham Antique Radio Museum.” That was the beginning.

The “passion for collecting” is really not what moved me to make a Museum here in Bellingham. It was rather the desire to share what I perceived as a valuable collection with my community. I have always felt that the value of any good collection lies in what it can bring to the future….  We can learn so much from the past.

Jennifer: John, how did you end up connecting with Jonathan and becoming more involved with the museum?

John J: I grew up in Bellingham. I discovered the Bellingham Antique Radio Museum about 1995 or so, long after I had moved away (my mom & dad still lived there). I was too busy at Microsoft to get involved, but after I retired in 2001, I joined the board.

Jonathan’s collection starts in the 1920s and goes forward to the 1950s, and mine ended in the 1920s and goes backward to the very beginning of electrical discovery. We realized that by combining our collections we could tell the entire story of electricty and radio from the beginnings in the 16th and 17th century through to the golden age of radio. I bought the building on Bay Street in Bellingham, and we founded the new museum.

Jennifer: Have you ever worked in radio? If so, where?

Jonathan W: I have never worked in radio other that here at KMRE-LP.

John J: I worked as a dj on the college radio station for a couple of quarters.

Jennifer: What are some of your favorite items in the museum’s collection?

Jonathan W: It is impossible to say which  is a favorite.  The depth and breadth of the artifacts here at the Museum really preclude picking a favorite.  There is one piece that I am very proud of being able to exhibit here though. It is one of perhaps less than 20 working examples of the first color TV set. Made in 1952, RCA only made 1000 of these and very few exist today.   We spent well over a year restoring this one and I get a personal satisfaction knowing that we were able to preserve it and display it working to the public.

John J: This is always a very hard question for me to answer. I can’t point to a specific piece, but I can say that I especially like the pieces that represent an important step in development. There are many of them on display at the museum.

Jennifer: Tell me a bit about the community radio station that you operate: KMRE-LP. What type of programming do you air and how is it integrated into the activities of the museum?

Jonathan W: KMRE-LP came about because it seemed like a good idea to have an exhibit which extended beyond the four walls of the Museum. The station broadcasts the music of the 1920s through 1940. We operate much like the early local stations did.  We also keep the community informed about the activities at the Museum such as classes we offer,  special speaking events, and some community news.

Jennifer: I love that you offer hands-on science classes to kids, including one that taught youngsters how to make crystal radios. Do you think that helps to keep younger folks interested in the medium of radio?

Jonathan W: Children today are not as exposed as they once were to the fundamental workings of science and physics. For most,  that connection is through the keyboard, the computer screen and the television. Our classes are designed to give children the opportunity to discover  on their own by using and or doing the very experiments that  led to great insights and discoveries.

When a child makes a meaningful discovery, there is a sense of accomplishment and a desire to repeat the experience and  continue learning. Our hands on approach is all about that. We want to help kids to discover the huge playground of science, math and physics. Hands-on is the way to do it.

John J: Most of the kids classes are about science, not radio, and even the crystal set class is more about the magic and mystery of how you can pull sound right out of the air without using electricity. We try to get kids excited about science.

Jennifer: Anything else you’d like to add?

John J: If you haven’t seen my book, Where Discovery Sparks Imagination, you should  – it does a pretty good job of highlighting the museum and the objects on display. There are a lot of beautiful photos of early radios in it also, which your readers would appreciate!

What we are about [at the American Museum of Radio and Electricity] is broader [than just radio]: helping folks (especially kids) discover the wonder and mystery of electricity and science. We talk alot about electricity and electrical inventions; most of our demonstrations are more about electricity than radio. Some of our most important and rare objects (such as one of the original electric lights made by Thomas Edison) have nothing to do with radio.

That said, we do have one of the largest and most complete collections of early radio on display in the world.

Previous Radio Obsessive Profiles:

#1: Garrett Wollman’s Radio Tower Quest

#2: Jose Fritz’s Arcane Radio Trivia

#3: Radio Sticker of the Day curator Greg Blouch

#4: Seattle Radio Theater founder Feliks Banel

#5: Herculodge’s Jeff McMahon – The Man Who Loved Radios Too Much


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One Response to Radio Obsessive Profile #6 and #7: Jonathan Winter and John Jenkins of American Museum of Radio and Electricity

  1. Matthew Lasar March 25, 2010 at 7:36 am #

    Thanks for this terrific article Jennifer. It’s great that there’s a museum like this, because radio and electricity are so linked, not only as concepts but as utilities. Radio came to maturity in the 1930s as public power emerged as a real force in the United States, most notably the Tennessee Valley Authority. At around the same time, Congress established the Federal Communications Commission, requiring radio to serve the public interest.

    Today the utility concept in broadcasting/telecommunications has been severely weakened. But coupling it with electricity reminds us that we really need these communications systems, and how they are run is a matter of public concern.

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