Douglas Keister

Memories of the Phonograph


By Douglas Keister - "The Machine"


I can’t really say where it all began, but I know for sure it was at a very early age. I was the kid who stuck a screwdriver in the light socket, tried to assemble model airplanes and cars after discarding the instructions, poured water on a desiccated earthworm and watched it plump up and come back to life (or so I thought), attempted to dig a hole to China, unsuccessfully tried to manufacture gunpowder and endeavored, on multiple occasions, to defy gravity.

Apparently I was simply born with an unrelenting curiosity. Almost simultaneously that curiosity was married with the desire to create. Honestly, I really don’t understand how my fellow humans can get in a car, turn the key and motor off to Safeway without knowing what the hell happens after they turn the key. They have no desire to know about fuel/air mixtures, pistons, spark plugs, crankshafts and differentials. Sigh. How can you not want to know?

Admittedly, I’m also infused with the desire for attention. I was the kid that said, “Hey mom, watch this.” As I cannonballed into the deep end of the swimming pool.

The Holy Grail of creativity, curiosity, construction and self-aggrandizement came to marvelous fruition in the summer of 1966. My creation was simply known as The Machine.

A couple years prior to my creation, I became an avid advocate of all things electrical. Sparks and jarring jolts were my constant companions. If it could be plugged into the wall, I was interested. My downstairs bedroom was cluttered with malfunctioning motors, scratchy radios and dissected televisions.

Much of my collection of eclectic electronics was the result of the generosity of my father’s friend, Pinky Hampton. Both my father and Pinky were under the employ of Gold’s department store, which occupied almost an entire city block in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska. My father lorded over the floor covering department on the fourth floor while Pinky managed the furniture department on the third floor. Their friendship extended beyond the work environment: during their non-work hours the duo were avid consumers of charred meats and adult libations.

So, how does this bit of information segue into my obsession with electronics? Well, it requires a brief trip in the Wayback Machine; destination mid-20th century America. Nowadays, consumers of televisions journey to stores that sell televisions and other assorted electronics or to the television departments of department stores. Not so in the 1950s and 60s. During that era, if you wanted to purchase a television in a department store, you found your way to the furniture department.

Bear in mind, during the dawn of the consumer electronics era, televisions were to mid-century families what the Model T Ford was to early 20th century families. Televisions and Model T’s were testament that you had “arrived.” Family portraits often included the television as a treasured member of the clan. Thus, most televisions were dressed up in elegant cabinets of the finest veneers of mahogany, walnut and oak. The 1950s also saw the popularization of the “console”. These leviathans of lumber not only housed televisions; record players, stereophonic amplifiers and multi-band radios were nestled into their recesses. Top-of-the-line models frequently sported massive thumping bass-reflex speakers and storage space for the family’s collection of high fidelity long-playing records.

Ah, but back to Pinky and the furniture department. Televisions, being in the same class and reverence as automobiles, were not to be discarded when they were a few years old. Thus, when the family went to the store to inspect the latest televisions and consoles, they were frequently offered a small amount of money for their old model. A pittance to be sure, but still a modest discount to lure the customer into upgrading to the latest model. Truth-be-told, after Pinky negotiated the deal and the family bid a tearful goodby to the behemoth that had given them so much entertainment, the old (and essentially worthless) beast was transported a few blocks away to Gold’s warehouse, AKA the television graveyard. The Gold’s warehouse was a place where all things distressed went before they died or were foisted off to the monetarily unfortunate or were shipped off to second-hand stores, orphanages and old-folks homes. Not known to visitors to the Gold’s warehouse there was a backroom where the televisions deemed unfit for sale or consumption were carted off, never to be seen by anyone except the local parts salvagers. These parts-picking vultures viewed the assorted expired electronics as carrion to be harvested for tubes, knobs and wire that could be repurposed for other uses.

That’s where I come into the picture.

During a moment when my father was bemoaning his frustration with my lack of positive motivation and direction, Pinky suggested that I might find dabbling with unworkable and usually unrepairable electronics to be something to sooth my melancholy or at least channel my angst into something productive or, minimally, at least harmless.


Aided by one of Pinky’s underperforming subordinates who had been relegated the Gold’s warehouse, the Keister basement soon filled up with under and nonperforming electronics. I was happy, Pinky was happy. My father was happy. My mother was not happy. Still, three out of four wasn’t bad.

I dove into the hulking carcasses of discarded televisions, consoles and radios with gusto. Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months. Every now and then I coaxed one of the beasts to flicker back to life, only to have its snowy black and white image sputter and dim. Still, I persevered and eventually got one television and one radio to weakly perform.

During what could best be described as “experiments” I discovered that there were companies that had catalogs jam-packed with all manner of parts and even ready-to-assemble kits. I poured over Radio Shack, Heathkit and Allied Electronics’ offerings. Although my personal resources were minimal I eventually scraped enough money together to purchase an Allied bottom-of-the-line Knight-Kit amplifier. Owing to my lack of soldering skills, my Knight-Kit’s performance was, at best, sub-par, rendering it well-aligned with almost everything I created.


My biggest accomplishment was constructing two 3-foot high, 2-foot wide and 2-foot deep speaker boxes with bass reflex tunnels. I cut out 12-inch holes to accommodate the most powerful earth-shaking 12-inch speakers I could procure on my budget. About this time, my parents started to formulate MY EXIT PLAN from the Keister household.

As my parents’ resolve waned and the weeks ticked on I continued to acquire equipment. First came another amplifier, then a semi-portable reel-to-reel Magnecord Voyager tape recorder, then a Garrard Type A turntable.



My cache of equipment and the rat’s nest of wires connecting it all mushroomed to monumental proportions forcing me to craft a plan to house it all in one colossal construction. Luckily I had secured a perfect summer job at the end of my senior year at Lincoln Southeast High School. I was installed in the hole-drilling department, a job well-suited to my skill set, at ISCO (Instrumentation Specialties Company). Somehow the owner of the company, a Dr. Robert Allington, took a liking to me and my project and let me use a drill press, some surplus toggle switches and indicator lights and a large sheet of aluminum to craft the control panel for my project. The panel was painted a bright white using the company’s paint booth.

My off-hours project did generate a bit of interest at ISCO, but not enough to get me a raise or warrant an offer of employment when my summer job came to an end.

Nevertheless, the final result of my labors was a sight to behold. Absolutely no one was allowed to enter the Keister household without being led into my basement bedroom to gaze and praise The Machine. I’d rattle off dimensions and weights, detail the nuances of ohms and watts and amperage and decibels of the components. I’d flip switches and pull levers; turn knobs. But mostly I’d just nod to myself about the astounding elegance my creation.



Dr. Frankenstein, Mr. Wizard, Issac Newton and Galileo would have all been proud of me.

Not sure what Edison would have thought.





Friends of the Phonograph - Phonographia