What do you do on a mundane business trip to London?
Why, shopping, of course! But if you were the humble proprietor of Oscilloclock.com, you would do much more than that… You would seek to expand your vintage electronic empire!
And so it was that I found myself hunting old electronic devices on Portobello Road one fine Saturday morning. Unfortunately, the game there was far and few between; only two relatively mediocre valve radios, in even more mediocre shape, at far more than mediocre prices…
Fortunately, my colleague was going to save the day. “Pop out to Cambridge for a visit – I’ve seen a few antique shops here,” said he. And after the hour train journey and a wee but of walking, we stumbled onto a veritable gold mine – Robbie’s.
Here I discovered an electronics lifer: a hunter-gatherer; a tribesman of electronic folklore; a true connoisseur of the electron beam! [Robbie] operated one stall in Hope Street Yard, a kind of antique market formed out of a courtyard. Emanating from Robbie’s shop was the delicate, but unmistakable, smell of dust-covered valves heated to untouchable temperatures.
Several hours were consumed as I perused Robbie’s lovely selection of valve (and transistor) radios, all of which were refreshingly nicely priced. And oh, what a fantastic character was Robbie! Every discovery I made brought out a story. Sometimes these were unrelated to the set at hand; such as his demonstration of a decidedly modern Karaoke machine. Robbie had a penchant for ZZ Top, and even gave us an air guitar performance! Who would have guessed?
But throughout all this, I couldn’t help feeling that I was being ‘watched’… and eventually, I discovered the culprit! It was a truly splendid Westminster ZA 617, which has a – (drum roll) – magic eye valve!
A beautiful (if dusty) Westminster ZA 617. I had to peek inside right there at Robbie’s!
Oh, glorious day! Keen readers of my history page may recall my penchant for magic-eye tubes. Like mini-CRTs, these devices glow green and ‘wink’ as you tune in your desired station. And I imagined this set winking right at me…
Robbie wasn’t quite keen to part with this set, as it was not yet restored, but he saw in me some form of protégé or perhaps apprentice, and the sale was made.
Later – the fully restored Westminster with soothing Y63 magic eye valve
But Robbie’s had even more in store for me…. A telephone switchboard operator’s microphone, for instance. Now you can just imagine how I can use this in the Oscilloclock lab, hooked to a magneto telephone in another room of the house, as an intercom system. Love at first sight…
I felt bad to take these off Robbie’s hands, as he was so endeared to them. To soften the blow, I then offered to assist his house(shop)-cleaning by purchasing a beautiful Bush TR 82C transistor set. Not my favorite radio technology, but this would fit in a carry-on!
With the purchases decided, there was one last thing to do. Take a look at Robbie’s workbench!! There is an old adage:
To truly know someone is to know his (her) equipment
And Robbie’s equipment was certainly truly worth knowing. Take this astounding Mullard High Speed Valve Tester (MHSVT), for instance. This device uses punched Bakelite cards to specify the required settings for a given valve type. Look up your valve in the list, insert the designated card, pull the lever, and voila!
But the special part? This valve tester has a CRT instead of a boring electromechanical meter. Oh, my poor heart keep still! The spot on the CRT allows you to make two observations at once (being two-dimensional) – a useful trick for dual triodes and the like. What a delight to see such an appropriate usage for a CRT!
The Mullard High-Speed Valve Tester has a CRT!!
Sadly, but completely understandably, Robbie loved his valve tester more than anything in his shop, and would never place it on sale. Hence, I satisfied myself simply with the pleasure of becoming acquainted with it.
The Forgotten Colleague…
And what of my colleague through all of this? Fortunately he is a patient man, and in fact holds a deep fascination in observing (and sometimes photographing) odd characters at work at their odd hobbies. So… He watched, fascinated, as we two worked our wacky wavelengths for hours and hours…
Now, if ANY of you were living in Adelaide, Australia up to the ’90’s, you’d know of another “Robbie’s”. This was the most amazing treasure trove of vintage electronics and delectable ‘junk’ you could ever imagine! Sadly, Robbie retired, but his junk floats to this day around eBay – and is likely to do so for eternity. (Visit Antique Radios – The Collectors Resource for the only reference I could find.)
Long live all our “Robbie’s”, wherever they may be!