Growing up, Richard Brewster was always intrigued by technology. While his friends perused comic books and played pickup basketball, he pored over technical magazines and disassembled his mother's 1936 RCA console radio "just to see what made it tick."
But his passion for the electronic medium of yesteryear evolved into much more than a childhood fascination. For nearly a half-century, this 73-year-old grandfather of six has been collecting early radios and televisions, TV memorabilia, along with dozens of related books and magazines. But his hobby extends beyond collecting. The preservationist is also a recognized expert in the field, a sought-after consultant and a columnist for the Antique Wireless Association Journal.
A room in Brewster's Cutchogue home is dedicated to his collection of antique televisions — including rare mechanical models that work with a motor and spinning discs — neatly displayed on shelves. The TVs share space with early radios, one of the first security cameras from 1954, dozens of fragile television picture tubes and a hand-held two-way radio, the precursor of today's cellphone, used in the trenches of World War II. These treasures, acquired through yard sales, flea markets and other collectors, have been painstakingly restored by Brewster, a self-taught television and radio repair guru.
The most-prized piece in his collection of 75 or so antiques is an overhauled 1936 RCA console radio. "No, this is not the same one in my mother's living room I took apart; that's gone," chuckles Brewster, who located the vintage piece online. "Listen to this, you can hear WHLI-AM all the way from Hempstead" [about 73 miles away], he says, as he demonstrates the radio for a visitor, adding that he wishes his vintage televisions worked as well.
Not that there are any TV shows this retired nuclear power plant engineer would like to watch, aside from the Summer Olympics in London. "I'm a collector, but I'm more interested in getting in touch with the people who used the technology and the history of it," says Brewster, who prefers the "more complex" antique televisions to radios. "Very little of early television history has been explored, because some of the companies developing it were very secretive about it."
While many believe television, first known as "radiovision," got its start after World War II, the communications medium traces its roots to the 1880s, when German inventor Paul Nipkow patented a device that transmitted pictures electronically, explains Brewster. By 1928, television took a step further when General Electric aired a play titled "The Queens Messenger" in upstate Schenectady to a small audience of engineers and technicians. The crude images on the screen were transmitted in red and black, not black and white.
Though television was commercially available by 1931, the viewer would be hard-pressed to find programming. "You didn't tune in and watch a show on this," says Brewster, pointing to a Hollis Baird cabinet television with a one-inch-square screen that, when it was introduced, cost $82 — a handsome sum in the Great Depression era. "If you had one of these in your house, you would go in to work the next day and say, 'Hey, fellas, I watched television last night. This guy turned his head and I could see his face.' And your colleagues would say, 'Wow, could you see that?' That's what they saw on television in 1931. You would fool around with it and try to see if you could get something on it."
Several years ago, Brewster interviewed the now-deceased stage actress Natalie Towers, whom W2XAB (WCBS) hired in the early 1930s for its experimental programming. Known as "The Original Television Girl," Towers had to write the material for the show; occasionally CBS would supply a script.
The television station promised viewers they would see Towers dance, but "all you could see was her silhouette," says Brewster. "Her face was a blur," despite the use of heavy makeup to accentuate her features.
It wasn't until 1939 that television operated with a picture tube that could transmit pictures in black and white. Programming was limited to about four hours a day. For $600, about the price of a new car then, viewers could have a 12-inch television with five channels, "but you couldn't receive them all," says Brewster, an adviser on television equipment to the Antique Wireless Association in upstate New York.
"Richard knows the technical and historical side of early television, and that's rare," says Bruce Roloson, curator of the association's electrical and electronic communications museum. The organization also publishes an annual scholarly magazine and a quarterly journal, for which Brewster writes a regular column on television history.
Roloson says some of the organization's members are engineers like Brewster, while others are radio amateurs and collectors who may not understand the workings of the electronic equipment but are fascinated by the history. "The average age of our members is late 50s," he says, "and they are at a point in life where they are looking for an interest and they start collecting."
Experts say collectors of vintage electronics are typically drawn by nostalgia.
"Radio and television became the campfire around which people gathered to receive their stories," says Dennis W. Mazzocco, associate professor of radio, television, film at the Hofstra University School of Communication, who teaches a class in television history and aesthetics. "There is a lot of nostalgia attached to this idea of people sitting in the house to receive information and culture."
Preserving television history for future generations, Brewster says, requires knowing "where the technology comes from and understanding the development of it. Technology doesn't just happen," he says.
One way he helps raise awareness of television history is through teaching. Several times a year he lectures on the early electronic medium to local historical societies and libraries. Later this month, he will give a presentation at the Antique Wireless Association World Convention (awamuseum.org) in upstate Henrietta on how RCA took television from a laboratory curiosity to a genuine entertainment medium.
Brewster predicts, though, that Internet-based movies and shows will eventually replace television.
"In time, it will, but the question is how long it will take to do that," says Mazzocco. "You can receive a signal through the Internet today. The problem is speed, which determines how much bandwidth allows you to get a watchable picture."
To be sure, the digital age is reshaping viewers' relationships with their TV sets. Mazzocco pointed out that television is already using the Internet to extend the reach of its programs. "The Internet promotes the show before and after to create a 24/7 virtual community around these programs," he says.
With the Internet inching closer to dominating the television and movie field, Brewster is even more determined to help future generations chart television's beginnings.
As he leads a visitor through his "museum," he grabs an index card that lists TV programming on WNBC for the first week of July 1941. In the upper right corner, it reads: "Preserve for Posterity." And that's exactly what Brewster intends to do.
If you're a collector of antique and vintage radios, televisions, audio equipment, test equipment and assorted electronics, or would like to be, check out these clubs:
WHAT The Greater New York Vintage Wireless Association
1925 Jackson Ave., dawn to 11 a.m.
WHO Jim Koehler, 516-623-0035
WHAT Long Island Radio & TV Historical Society
WHEN | WHERE Meets at 10 a.m. third Saturday of every month, starting next month, Sayville Public Library,
88 Greene Ave., Sayville.
WHO Bill Mozer, 631-378-4564