Funeral For A Friend

Some time on 19th February, 1981, I first plugged in my brand new Ferguson alarm clock radio, an 18th birthday present from my aunty Maz and uncle Cam. After 35 years' service, I unplugged it for the last time on Friday 11 March 2016, 9:54pm.

A Ferguson 3196 alarm clock radiop showing the time at 9.54pm
The final time

So what?

Radio moments

It's pure sentimentality of course, but it's deeply felt. This is the radio that, in 1983, I set to come on at 05:55 so I could hear John Evington open Signal Radio for another day by striking up the Hallé Orchestra to play the station theme. I was still living in Chester then and had to cycle to the station to catch the train to Stoke via Crewe. This is the radio that was on my bedroom shelf in 1984 after I'd moved to Stoke when I felt an earthquake for the first time and wondered if the radio would fall off. It was the radio that, when I first moved to Ipswich and was living in Bramford Road, would start the day with Mike Smith on Radio 1 who would time his record at 8am so that the vocals would start exactly after Greenwich Time Signal (jocking up to the vocals with the pips). It was the radio that woke me up on 14th February 1989 to the news that the Ayatollah had imposed the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

Since radio is and always has been so important to me, this particular device has come to be 'my hat,' as in, wherever I lay my hat, that's my home. If I've calculated this correctly, it's been by my bed in 14 homes over that 35 year period. Every time I've moved, it's been the last thing to be unplugged at the old place, the first to be plugged in at the new.

1980s technology

Close up on the function buttons, showing LW, MW, SW, FM options. Press SW and FM together to use as an amplifier
A very functional radio

It has some unusual features. For a start, it has shortwave and long wave reception, as well as the usual medium wave and FM. It has a 5 pin DIN input so you can (and at one time I did) hook up a turntable and use it as an amp and speaker. This was reminiscent of the valve radios I'd grown up with in the 60s and early 70s, all of which were usable as good quality amplifiers and speakers as well as receivers.

The back of the radio, showing a 5 pin DIN socket, a 2 pin DIN socket to connect an external speaker.
Well connected

One thing that is striking is the way in which it keeps time. Today we're used to being surrounded by devices that automatically get an exact time from the internet, mobile phone carriers or, in the case of my watch, daily time stamp signals. But in the early 80s those services didn't exist of course. So mains powered clocks took their timing by counting the oscillations in the mains supply itself.

UK mains supply is set to 50Hz, so one way a clock can keep time is to count those oscillations in the alternating current and every time it gets to 50, that's another second. But it's not quite as simple as that as my school physics teacher, Geoff Boulton, explained to me once. As demand for electricity varies throughout the day, the precise frequency of the mains changes so on my radio alarm I would notice that at some times of the day it would flip onto the next minute at 20 seconds to the minute, at other times, it would be as little as 10 seconds to the actual change in the minute. When your life is punctuated by Greenwich Time signals, you notice these things. The electricity generators know this of course and to keep clocks like mine in time, they deliberately vary the mains frequency in periods of low demand to make sure that exactly 60 x 60 x 24 x 50 oscillations take place every 24 hours. This is why whenever I had to reset the time on my radio in the evening I would always switch on the mains at around 20 seconds to the minute. The aim was to time it just right so that in the morning, it flipped to the hour during the pips (I rarely achieved it).


Truth be told, it's many years since the radio itself was usable. The controls have accumulated so much dirt that they no longer function. Plus, in deference to my wife, when in bed I listen to the radio through earphones hooked up to another device entirely. The trimmings have come loose and, of course, it doesn't do DAB (it predates RDS, never mind DAB). It's primary function in recent hears has been as a clock and a shelf for my tea mug.

So, its prime has passed and with great difficulty, I must consign it to posterity.

Thank you, Maz and Cam, for making such a good choice all those years ago.

A jumble of abandoned appliances in a skip. The radio is in the middle.
Final resting place: the small appliances skip at the local municipal dump.

A new beginning

I am, of course, also grateful to my wife for the replacement. A radio with DAB, FM, Bluetooth and automatic time setting; two alarms; the ability to go to sleep listening to one station at one volume setting and wake up to another station at a different volume entirely; a headphone socket and USB outlet for charging my phone overnight; a 24 hour clock display with adjustable brightness.

A brand new Roberts alarm clock radio showing the time as 22:14 on a Friday
A new beginning

Here's a perspective-setting thought: if the new Roberts Blutune50 does as well as the old Ferguson 3196, I'll be writing something similar to this in 2051. If I make it that far, I'll be 88.