Farm Radios: Communication Before Rural Electrification

Before the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, farms relied on DC power, batteries, Winchargers and generators

| March 2001

In America today, it’s hard to visualize what the world was like before the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

The REA brought electricity to all the tiny backwoods settlements. What would your house look like if electricity simply disappeared?

Cities had AC electricity many years before public funding through the REA made it possible to build costly high-power lines and sub-stations that sent power our to cities and down roadways.

In the mid-1930s, most radio manufacturers made AC radios and “farm radios.” The battery-operated farm radios, running on DC, were designed for a rural market that hadn’t yet been touched by municipal power systems. From the cabinet front, you wouldn’t know the difference between a farm radio and an AC model in town. But while the AC model plugged into a wall outlet, the farm radio clipped onto batteries.

These 6-, 12-, and 32-volt batteries weren’t like the neat little things that we pop out of blister packs today. They were heavy jars or hard rubber containers filled with sulfuric acid (oil of vitriol) that were kept in the basement. A heavy wire, passing through a hole in the living room floor, connected the battery and the radio. The battery was often kept in the basement because the lady of the house objected to the smell, and to the burnt holes in the carpet resulting from leaks, which were frequent.

Batteries had to be recharged, but they weighed too much to be taken somewhere to have that done. Most people bought a gas-powered generator for that purpose, but some used windmill power plants. The Zenith Radio Company made a popular windmill system called the “Zenith Wincharger with ‘FrePower from the Air.’” Winchargers occasionally show up on eBay auctions.

The wind chargers gave free power and worked for a lifetime, but they weren’t the perfect solution.