Tune into the past: How a 17-year-old has amassed a collection of over 38 antique radios

STORY AND PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

As the doors to the shack open, a rustic smell and warm light encompass the entrance. The room’s wooden textures contrast with the hard metal stacked to the ceiling, a collection of radios that Los Altos High School senior Chris Chapman collects and studies.

Collecting vintage radios is no typical hobby. Chapman’s interest in early machines stems from their inner workings and charming simplicity, and he claims them to be like a simple map: straightforward to navigate. 

“With smartphones, if we were to create a diagram of their hardware, your brain would be all over the place,” Chapman said. “But with technology, dating back to the Second World War, they may look complex, but their insides are as simple as one, two, three.” 

Chapman began his journey in radios six year ago, when he was given a “design your own homework” assignment. At the time, he was fascinated with airplanes and curious about old receivers and transmitters. Chapman went home that day looking for videos on how to build a HAM radio, but after buying all the parts he wasn’t able to get it running.

Instead of giving up, Chapman visited the Halted Supply Company to buy a communications receiver and met his biggest inspiration. The company’s owner, Bob Ellingson, taught him how to operate it and sparked Chapman’s interest. 

“[Ellingson] was one of the first adults that respected me,” Chapman said. “Now that I’m working on cars and engines, he is one of those people who will patiently explain it to me and he does it so well. He is a really good person and a good friend, and I am happy to know him and learn from him.” 

Despite the struggles of his first radio project, Chapman digested the information Ellingson had given him and had another go at that radio. After five hours of meticulously replacing the parts on a radio, Chapman had successfully completed his first restoration. It was then that he fell in love with the creative, analytical process and realized that this pointed to what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

“After getting it to work, I just caught the bug and began collecting radios and joined the California Historical Radio Society,” Chapman said.

Many projects are done with a team rather than being alone. Although you get the freedom to do everything your way, working with a team and building relationships is one way to learn new things and gain new experiences. 

Chapman has not only learned to work better with others, but he also considers many of them to be his inspirations. 

“I think the companies that make this stuff and some of the geniuses at the museum really inspire me,” Chapman said. “They teach me about certain hardware components and when I don’t understand they take their time to make sure I do. I really appreciate their patience and mindset, both of which I strive for one day.”

Over his years of accumulating radios, Chapman has connected with dozens of like-minded collectors that enjoy his company and spirit. Chapman joined the California Historical Radio Society six years ago as their youngest member. Over time, he grew closer with those in his tinkering community and on his thirteenth birthday, the museum’s members came together to give Chapman a rare receiver, a moment Chapman said he will forever cherish.

“A lot of the people that inspire me are the people that have helped me in many ways or are just unrecognized,” Chapman said.

Other than radios, Chapman works on making films, building electric guitars and working towards college. Some of Chapman’s current projects include restoring his 1968 Ford Mustang, directing a feature film, and producing music. 

“I’m excited about branching out, moving out, and hoping to get a bigger space, not necessarily so I can get more stuff, but so I can work on my projects better, like setting up antennas,” he said.

In the future, Chapman hopes to delve deeper into his allure with technology by entering the telecommunications field in college. 

“I’m curious how frequencies and signals work on an internet level and how they modulate data and bandwidths,” he said. “I’m familiar with the basics of transmitters and receivers, but I’m curious how those components work on a larger scale, which I hope to do in the coming years of my life.” 

With over 38 radios spanning over eight decades, Chapman has built quite the museum in his shack: each with its unique story. 

“All of these radios have history behind them,” Chapman said. “I know they won’t be around for too long, but I’m proud to be preserving a part of history.”

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