Really portable music is a wonderful thing. It’s both empowering and comforting to have a shiny music machine in your pocket that plays a variety of your favorite tunes at the whim of your finger on a little wheel. It’s futuristic technology that has made listening an intimate experience… for over FIFTY years.
Back in the early 50’s a company called Texas Instruments was making good money churning out piles of newfangled little transistors for military applications, but they envisioned a wider public marketplace for the little buggers. And in 1954 the TI engineers created a prototype transistor radio. It was small, it worked, and it seemed like a great idea. However, Texas Instruments wasn’t in the business of manufacturing consumer products back then, so they shopped their concept around to several big radio makers of the day. Surprisingly, RCA, Sylvania, and Philco all said "no thanks" before a small outfit in Indiana (the Regency Division of Industrial Development Engineering Associates) took the bait.
Within a matter of months the first commercial transistor radio was a reality. Besides being cute and colorful, the TR-1 was the very first mass-marketed transistorized gadget. It was made here in the U.S.A., and in that spirit the it was prominently on display in stores across America just in time for Christmas 1954. The price? A whopping $49.95. Adjust the cost for inflation and you’re lookin at almost $350 in today’s dollars, not far from the $399 price tag on that first iPod.
Before the TR-1, any portable radio you might buy had a "luggage" quality, with big top handles and a bit of heft. They just weren’t all that portable thanks to the warm glowing vacuum tubes they contained. These days, audiophiles and technical stick-in-the-muds properly laud the aural beauty of the "tube" sound, but the glass casings and inner workings of vacuum tubes are rather fragile and they need a protective case, as well as some large batteries to power up. And of course, the tubes themselves aren’t all that tiny either.
Because it was the very first device of it’s kind, the Regency TR-1 has become a legendary and very collectable artifact. A fellah named Steve Reyer has an impressive website chronically the history of (and his passion for) the TR-1. Lots of images and links there, as well his own tale of bringing one back to life (including audio clips of radio reception from his resuscitated TR-1). What makes these radios even more valuable is the fact that they were manufactured for only one year, and they were made in a variety of shades of plastic, some of the colors are VERY rare. To give you an idea, recently a nice average TR-1 in good shape sold for almost seven-hundred bucks on ebay. The more obscure models can be worth much more.
While it’s very collectable, the TR-1 wasn’t the most beautiful or the best performing transistor of its day. However, if you can just transport yourself back to late ’54 or 1955 for a minute and imagine you were blasting some Chuck Berry from the palm of your hand with one of these things, you wouldn’t just be rockin’, you’d be one stylin’ technologically advanced human being.
The ultimate hipster showman of that era, Mike Todd, filmed his monster extravaganza "Around The World In 80 Days" during the year the TR-1 was on the market. Todd financed a lot of the movie by dipping into his own personal fortune, and kept his budget down by working out barter arrangements with over forty celebrity friends who made cameo appearances in the film. As part of the booty he offered his big shot buddies for their walk-on roles was a TR-1 encased in a personalized mock leather "book." Not surprisingly, these are highly prized artifacts today. Have a look at this one, Shirley MacLaine’s "Mike Todd" edition TR-1 Radio.
IBM CEO of the time, Thomas J. Watson Jr, made the decision that same year to "transistorize" all his IBM products by June of 1958. This change generated a lot of internal resistance, and whenever one of his engineers whined about dumping the dependable old vacuum tube, Watson would hand them a shiny new TR-1 radio as a technological wake up call.
Not long after the debut of the Regency TR-1, a bunch of transistor radios hit the market. Jumping into the fray: Raytheon, Zenith, and a small Japanese tape recorder company who had just changed their long complicated name from "Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo" to something easier to remember– "Sony."
Like the TR-1, many of the early transistor radios were expensive. Paralleling the "wow" factor of automotive design of the era, most of these late 50’s and early 60’s models scream STYLE. Take a look at this Hitachi TH-669, or the Zenith Royal 500, which listed for 79 bucks in 1955. And here’s a few attractive vintage Sonys– the TR-6, the TR-725, and the extremely popular TR-610.
And let’s be honest, in comparison the designs of MP3 players are NOT nearly as charismatic or attractive. Sure, the much heralded iPod may have a "clean" modern design, and they are very easy to operate, but as artifacts there’s not a lot of glamour there. I’m sorry, but that tidy white iPod is really more reminiscent of an American Standard Urinal or a white Ford Taurus. And the "iPod Shuffle"? A white stick. Really really boring. I’ve yet to see any MP3 player that gets my gadget lust up like a classic hot transistor radio.
However, into the 1960’s the transistor radio became a common appliance, and much of the quality and glamour was lost. The big U.S. and Japanese manufactures were undercut by Hong Kong factories churning out millions of cheap little radios for the world market. But that’s when transistor radios began to really influence our music and culture, when almost anyone could afford one- – ESPECIALLY kids and teenagers.
Lots of folks have already linked the synchronous mid-50’s rise of rock & roll and the creation of the transistor radio. But more significantly, when small inexpensive radios became a ubiquitous element of childhood, the record companies and radio programmers took full advantage of a burgeoning new youth audience. Teens were carrying their radios off to locales far from parent’s sensitive and prying ears– the bedroom, the playground, and the backyard. Loud guitars and rebellion dominated the top 40, and ads for sugary sodas and pimple products congested the airwaves.
The next big change in transistorized music happens in the late 1970’s. Gradually the stereo hi-fi marvel of FM radio made it the broadcast band of choice for music, AND the cassette cartridge tape system and become a stable and vital method of high fidelity audio storage. (Remember how "home taping" killed music?) Unlike AM radio (beginning its decline) the FM band & cassettes called for STEREO portables, and the innovations went in two directions– small and REALLY personal (the Walkman) and big and often VERY public (the boombox).
With the advent of the walkman, the human head became a self-contained stereo listening chamber. People could listen to ANY music they could put to tape, and listen to it discretely almost anywhere, at almost any volume. But like the fanny pack, the cassette walkman (and the "discman" cd players that soon followed) have generally had very functional and dull designs best covered by an untucked shirt.
However, like the original transistor radios the boombox was meant to be loud and proud– a toy to show off. Instead of coming at the dawn of rock & roll, the boombox broke into the mainstream at the emergence of rap and hip-hop fashion. And it was a golden age of hifi as well, and early boomboxes had a lot of high-tech style knobs, switches, and extra features often beyond the needs of the average listener. But they looked cool, and you felt powerful with one of these monsters atop your shoulder. With clean angular lines, VU meters and lots of shiny metal, many of the early boomboxes were loud and luxurious and often boasted a fat price tag.
Sure "ghetto blasters" are still popular and practical in their own right, but over the years the designs have grown increasingly tedious and utilitarian, and a lot less large. Through the 90’s the boombox designs gradually morphed into that swollen plastic "steroid" look reminiscent of contemporary SUV’s and tennis shoes, with boring bulges and cheap sci-fi trimmings. Yuk.
If you’re a little bit like me, and all this talk of vintage electronics has worked up some lingering gadget lust (or just a little electronics nostalgia), there’s plenty of titillating websites out there where you can exercise your clicking finger into a voyeuristic frenzy. For starters, you could get lost in shiny dials and speaker grilles at this site: "The M31 Galaxy of Transistor Radios." I had no idea how many different types of these radios were made before I looked at this site. Incredible.
Another site I’d recommend, is "Sarah’s Transistor Radios," which features a huge collection of photos of her prodigious collection of transistor radios (with a few walkie-talkies and radio-type gadgets thrown in for fun.) And, there are plenty of other places to satiate your need for vintage-tech porn like here, here, right here, and here.
And for part two of the transistor radio era, the rise of the boombox and walkman, you can get an eyeful at this site dedicated to "the generation of electronics with a soul." It’s the official website of "The Pocket Calculator Show" on shortwave giant WBCQ. Their show is dedicated to tech toys of the late 20th century, and they have extensive online galleries of grand boomboxes and the more practical walkman. And if you’re really into this kind of thing, I recommend you check out their message board: stereo2go. You have to register to search and navigate the messages, but it’s free and easy. Sure, it’s geeky, but the enthusiasm the people who post there have for their audio toys is fascinating and infectious.
But the REAL gallery, the one where you can ogle at lots of old transistor radios that you can ACTUALLY get your hands on, would be ebay. It’s really the best place to find an assortment of classic electronics in the world. Sure, there are plenty of bargains at yard sales and junk stores, IF you have a lot of time and patience, but the only place where there’s always a wide variety of stuff to look at and purchase is ebay.
Old radios are one of the hottest items on ebay, and the classic transistors popular during those baby boomers "wonder" years are especially desirable. But what keeps the market for these old radios interesting is that they made so many of them. And there’s so many manufacturers and variations. In general, they’re really cheap to ship, and to start a start a small collection you’re probably not going to have to rent a storage area. However, if you’ve got a jones for the vintage boomboxes you might want to clear out an extra bedroom, just in case…
Go ahead and type "transistor radio" (or mixing and matching search terms like "vintage," "receiver,’ "boombox,") into the ebay search window. Plenty of toys to look at. From my experience, there are always some truly rare and beautiful old transistor audio devices up for auction. But you’re not apt to get a bargain on the collector’s items, and you may have to be patient if you want to find a particular radio rarity.
So, if you want to replace a favorite radio of your childhood, or if you’ve gone through some of the online radio galleries and found a couple of transistorized beauties you’d like to own, try searching ebay. If you come up dry, you can save your query as a "favorite search" (you have to have an ebay membership to do this) and ebay will send you an email with a direct link when your vintage
gadget of choice comes up for auction. If you’re serious, you also might want to search" completed auctions", to see if the radio you desire has recently been on ebay and discover the final price (or the failed minimum bid the seller demanded). Oh, and if you want to find out more about a particular old boombox or walkman you’ve come across on ebay, I recommend you try a search (using the make and model number) at the stereo2go message board. I’ve found plenty of boombox enlightenment at that site.
And if you’ve got an MP3 player you might want to look into purchasing one of those old boomboxes. Many have a line-in feature which makes them a perfect companion for your digital device– a loud portable set of speakers with a lot more class than those antiseptic white and silver iPod-type speaker sets that are going for a lot of dough these days. And you get a radio in the deal!
I’d put in a favorite search on ebay for the little blue transistor radio I received for my birthday in 1968. Four months later I got an email, the identical radio was up for bid and I ended up "winning" the auction. It was a "Jade," a late 60’s Hong Kong cheapie, but it still made me happy to see it again. Total cost, including shipping– ten bucks. And it works great!
Even if you’re beyond collecting (or fawning over) the snazzy transistor radios of yesteryear, you probably remember some time in your adolescence when the a handy little receiver was an integral part of your social and cultural life. It was the appliance that brought music to your playground, your treehouse, your tent, or perhaps under your pillow in the dark. It’s how your heard your favorite song.
Of course, what’s changed over the years is radio itself. It’s not only difficult to find music you like on an AM radio these days, it’s almost impossible to find much music at all. The band has long been dominated by talk, news and sports. However, in many cities (not New York) you can still find an "old man" station playing big band, standards and pop pap like the Carpenters on the AM band, as well as an occasional oldies station. And when you get out into the hinterlands you can still find some great stations frozen in time, playing great old country, r&b, rock and roll, and church stompin’ gospel music.
If you live near New York City there’s at least two places I know of where you can take your classic transistor radio out for a jaunt and let that little speaker vibrate like it was made to do. If you have FM on your old radio, take a drive out to the end of Long Island and experience WLNG. It’s truly the station that time forgot. They just NEVER STOPPED sounding like an early 60’s top 40 station. Believe it or not, they still have some air personalities who been there for two, three and four decades. It’s an oldies station now, and besides the occasional 70’s & 80’s pop fodder they toss into the rotation now and then, you’re going to hear wall to wall reverb, jingles, chimes and hooky rock and roll that’ll keep your old transistor looking and feeling young. And there’s more. They brag they have a playlist of over TEN THOUSAND songs! When you consider the typically oldies station seems to play the same top ten hits over and over again, and most have eliminated almost every hit from the 1950’s from their format, WLNG bucks all these trends.
Of course, it used to be an AM station (then AM & FM), but they can now only be heard at 92.1 FM out on the far end of Long Island (and in Connecticut). If you just want to hear WLNG’s anachronistic glory from the speakers in your computer, stream ’em from this page. It’s worth checking out.
Speaking of your computer, I should mention The Reel Top 40 Radio Repository. It’s a helluva of a site where you can hear (via streaming) oodles of top 40 airchecks. Unfortunately, it’s all in crappy realaudio. But in the last few years they’ve upped the encode rate for new additions, and more and more of the airchecks they offer are unscoped (meaning they’re complete without the music edited out). If you weren’t around during the 50’s and 60’s it’s a great way to get a taste of what used to blast out of those old transistor radios. (Note: Sadly, the Radio Repository now charges a yearly $15 fee to listen to their archives.) Also, you might wanna check out WPON, a station in suburban Detroit that specializes in rare old hits too. And they stream in the mp3 format.
There’s another radio station in New York (state) that broadcasts some old fashioned classics that will sound awful nice coming out of an old transistor radio. A couple hours drive up the Hudson Valley from the city you’ll find a small AM station that comes in crystal clear in the Hyde Park-Poughkeepsie area. It’s WHVW at 950 kHz on your AM dial. They have live weekday drive time DJ’s, and some great weekend shows, but much of the schedule is automated. BUT don’t let that discourage you. WHVW is a tasty amalgamation of old American roots music– old r&b, western swing, blues, rockabilly, and country, accompanied by perky little jingles.
Sure, the iPod is a lotta fun, but it’s really just another logical step from the revolution that began a half a century ago with the transistor radio. And isn’t that how we really consider ourselves futuristic, by all the mass marketed electronic toys and appliances we use everyday– cell phones, computers, mp3 players, digital cameras, and those dopey little gaming gadgets. All of these wonders have been made possible by tiny transistors and their more complex and super-small progeny, the IC chip. Where would we be without all that stuff? The way we live our lives has been forever changed by all this gadgetry created by human ingenuity…
… or at least by SOME KIND of ingenuity.
You see, some people don’t think that the transistor or the integrated chip came about by purely HUMAN invention. Perhaps you heard about that alleged UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico back in July of 1947. The invention of the transistor happened just five months later. Coincidence?
Okay, it probably is. But a few people have connected the dots– like the late U.S. Army Colonel & Intelligence Officer Philip Corso. In his book, "The Day After Roswell," Corso says Bell Labs had some UFO wreckage from the crash site to play with, and after reverse engineering some of the guts inside and come up with the transistor pretty quickly. He claims that a fake research history covering years was created to hide the stolen alien technology. Others with lesser credentials have claimed the same thing. And if you think about it, you’d hope that a craft built to cross light years or dimensions of reality to get to another galaxy would have some kind of fancy in-dash sound system.
But whether transistorized audio came from outer space or Bell Telephone Laboratories, it definitely injected some variety and attitude into popular music. The ability to easily commune with your favorite songs, or conversely to blast them in public as a personal statement, provided an opportunity for artists to gain commercial success with music that communicated directly to the individual instead of the masses. Nonconformists and kids gained power in the media marketplace. Listening to my little blue transistor radio as a youngster I heard eccentric songs like "I Am The Walrus," "Time Has Come Today," and "MacArthur Park." It’s hard to imagine that they could have become mainstays of my childhood if the only radio in the house was a big monolith planted in the living room and shared by the whole family.
While home stereos (and now home computers), are swell machines for filling our domiciles with song, there’s an incomparable comfort in bringing your music with you as a companion, or as just as something you wear. MP3 players are popular because they enrich and rejuvenate this same desire to have an intimate relationship with music. And it all started with the transistor radio.
Over the years, artists and their songs have become our escorts and confidants. They speak for us and with us. Our portable audio devices give us soundtrack and company. The next time you’re out and about listening to some esoteric radio or audio, or just a song that speaks to you on a personal level, that moment (and probably the very song you’re hearing), might have never happened without the miracle of miniaturized electronics. And whether we have some far flung aliens to thank, or just a bunch of pocket-protector types in plastic-framed glasses, either way some funny lookin’ dudes unwittingly gave us the freedom to rock on, and to do it without some agitated grown-up screaming "TURN THAT DAMN THING DOWN!"
Go ahead and turn it up! You rebel.
(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog)