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Baby Boomers Tuned In and Tuned Out with Transistor Radios

by Wayne Jordan (02/05/14).

The first commercially successful pocket-sized transistor radio was the Regency TR-1. This one sold on eBay for $3,055 in 2012.

A recent family reunion found me sitting at my sister’s dining table with siblings and their families, sharing stories and looking through old photos. The older adults were actively conversing, and the younger adults were in their own world, each texting away on their smartphones. As the photos made their way around the table, a niece stopped texting long enough to exclaim “Uncle Wayne! Is that a pack of cigarettes in your shirt pocket?”

I recognized the tell-tale pocket bulge instantly: it was my pocket transistor radio. Mine was a Realistic model (Radio Shack) that I had received for my 12th birthday in 1961. Further photographic evidence proved that today’s generation is not alone in their addiction to technology: the family photo box also produced a pic of me and my friends sitting in the grandstand at Calvin Griffith Stadium, watching our beloved Washington Senators lose to the New York Yankees. The photo captured the four of us, eyes fixed on the field, wearing ear buds, transistor radios in our laps, listening to the play-by-play on the radio.

When pocket transistor radios became affordable in the early 1960s, they were as common to teens and ’tweens as smartphones are today. They gave a kid a new independence: no longer were we restricted to what Mom and Dad wanted to listen to in the car or at home. We could plug-in anywhere, and we often did. A trip to the park could turn into an ad-hoc dance party, playing music that was discouraged at home: Elvis, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers and a host of Motown girl-groups. Bus rides and school trips were made more tolerable because of these electronic wonders, and we were willing to take risks to have access to them. Proof thereof: my school principle had a desk drawer full of confiscated transistor radios (we weren’t allowed to use them in school).

The original Texas Instrument transistors.

The 9-volt battery was created by Eveready specifically for pocket transistor radios.

Invented in 1947 by a team of engineers at Bell Labs, the transistor was a major development in electronics. Transistors were cheaper to produce, less expensive to operate, lighter and less temperamental than vacuum tubes, the dominant technology at the time. Three Bell engineers—John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley—received the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their transistor research. Over the next 20 years transistors would replace old-fashioned vacuum tubes in nearly everything electronic.

One of the first commercial applications of transistor technology was the production of consumer radios. In the late ’50s, radio still dominated television in American homes. Electronics manufacturers vigorously competed to produce cheap and durable radios for the American market. The first commercially successful pocket-sized transistor radio was the Regency TR-1, shown here being produced at the Regency factory in Lawrence, Indiana, in 1955:

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The first transistor radios were expensive and problematic. Before printed circuitry was developed, transistors had to be installed into circuit boards and soldered by hand. Consequently, four of every five circuit boards produced would fail within hours of use. With a failure rate of 80 percent, each transistor circuit board had to undergo a “burn-in” period to pass quality control. Only when they passed could they then be installed into a radio.

The hand-soldering and individual testing led to a high price for early transistor radios: $49.95, pricey for the 1950s. A secondary problem with early radios (that’s still an issue today) was that vacuum tube technology produced a better sound than transistor technology. Electric current passing through the vacuum of a tube deteriorated less than current passing through a solid transistor, resulting in a better sound. Of course, bigger tube-type radios also had bigger speakers, a feature that would contribute to better sound.

The flexibility and portability of transistor radios appealed to the public, in spite of their diminished sound quality. The use of transistors greatly improved car radios, as featured in this 1956 kinescope of a Chrysler television commercial:

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Plus, there were no tubes to loosen when a pothole was hit. Prices (and sizes) for radios came down as technology improved. When the Eveready Battery Company invented the 9-volt battery in 1956 specifically for use in portable transistor radios, the stage was set for market expansion. By the early 1960s, a pocket transistor radio was on the wish list of every American adolescent.

Transistor radios became so cheap by the 1970s that they began to be produced as novelty and advertising items: cars, soda cans, sports figures, political memorabilia and more. An episode of the Australia-based television program “The Collectors” features Chris Rogers’ 4,000-plus collection of a seemingly endless variety of transistor radios:

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Production of transistor radios dropped off dramatically in the early 1980s with Sony’s introduction of the Walkman portable cassette player, and the rising popularity of bigger louder portable “boom-box” radio/tape players. The application of digital technology to consumer electronics and the change-over from vinyl records to compact discs ended the reign of transistor radios as the preferred personal entertainment system.

Of course, that’s good news for collectors. Having been off the market for about twenty-five years, transistor radios are still relatively plentiful and cheap. For those who find the idea of collecting transistor radios intriguing, established collectors recommend starting as follows:

The 1961 Radio Shack catalog features their pocket transistor radio at a popular price point.

• Read up on the subject. Good reference books include “Transistor Radios 1954-1968,” a Schiffer Book for Collectors, and the “Collector’s Guide to Transistor Radios Identification and Values,” by Marty and Sue Bunis;

• Peruse the best of online transistor radio collector’s sites: Sarah’s Transistor Radios, Michael Jack’s collection and James Butter’s fabulous collection of 50s and 60s radios;

• Browse the Transistor Radio Forum (or similar forum). The TRF focuses on transistor radios from 1954 to 1970;

• Determine which radios appeal to you the most;

• Browse eBay and online auction sites to get a feel for prices and demand for your selected radios.

Be aware that the name on the radio doesn’t necessarily indicate who manufactured the radio. For example, Silvertone (Sears) radios were popular nationwide because of Sear’s market penetration, but its radios were made by 36 manufacturers over the years. Silvertones made by Sanyo, Toshiba and Arvin (U.A) are the highest quality and the most collectible of the Silvertone brand. Always check online sources like the Antique Radio Forums to learn who manufactured a particular radio.

Imported radios are required to have the country of origin printed somewhere on the radio, so it should be easy to tell if a particular radio is foreign made.

Transistor radios were often used as brand-specific advertising premiums.

For dating purposes, all transistor radios made before 1963 were required to have a Civil Defense mark (triangle) on the dial to indicate where to tune for the Emergency Broadcast System. In the early days of the Cold War such a mark was considered to be crucial. The mark would be present regardless of whether the radio is domestic or imported. 

As a general rule, most transistor radios sold in the USA were manufactured domestically from 1954 until about 1961. Japanese-made sets dominated from 1956 until 1966. From 1964 to the 1970s, most transistor radios sold in the U.S. were manufactured in Hong Kong.

Early transistor radios had thicker cases than later models. As plastics improved, cases got thinner.

A final way to determine the approximate age of a radio is to pull the back off and examine the transistors themselves. Early transistors were oblong in shape and had a flange or “nipple” on one end. Most early USA-made transistors were manufactured by Texas Instruments and are numbered in a series beginning with 2N. The lower the number, the older the transistor. Early Japanese transistors are numbered beginning 2S, and later Japanese transistors are numbered beginning 2SA and 2SB.

Transistor radios had a social as well as technological impact. For many Boomers, a transistor radio was a first step away from parental control. For me, personally, it’s a reminder of summer days and school field trips. So, I’m still looking for a robin-egg blue Realistic transistor radio in a brown leather carrying case: If you find one, let me know!

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Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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3 Responses to “Baby Boomers Tuned In and Tuned Out with Transistor Radios”

  1. F. Dunn says:

    I will never forget the only time my parents allowed me to listen to my transistor at the dinner table. It was early on the evening of New Year’s Eve, 1967, and my local station was counting down the top 100 hits of the year. That year, number one was “Light My Fire” by the Doors.

  2. Pat Curry says:

    I had a small red one, shaped like a rocket. The antenna sprouted from the nose cone and I loved it dearly.

  3. Tony Cocove says:

    As Sophia on the Golden Girls would say, “Picture it, South Jersey 1964.” A farm boy gets a transistor radio for his 14th birthday and his world is filled with music…has been ever since. Still have it…and the original box and a bazillion memories! And, it still works…wonder if I can still get Joe Niagara, the best radio DJ of all time on it?

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