Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Transistor Radio Turns 60 in 2014

The lowly battery-operated transistor radio may only be useful today when a calamity suddenly interrupts our mains AC, but is the transistor radio the intrepid witness of history in the post World War II half of the 20th Century?

By: Ringo Bones 

This 2014, the “lowly” battery operated tabletop transistor radio will be celebrating its 60th Anniversary. Often seen as the intrepid witness of the mid 20th Century portion of the Cold War and onwards, the transistor radio set’s contribution to the latter half of the 20th Century seems to be – more often than not – somewhat overlooked. As the Cold War starts to heat up a little back in 1954, America’s consumer electronic manufacturers managed to use the solid state semiconductor transistor device that was developed by Bell Labs back in 1947 into an “affordable” battery operated transistor radio set. Even though the first sets were priced between 50 to 90 US dollars back then (close to 1,000 US dollars in today’s money) it helped made post World War II popular music - as in Rock N’ Roll music – “go viral” like the Sputnik scare with artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens and other pioneering Rock N’ Roll musicians. 

As the Cold War further heated up, transistor radios started sporting two tiny triangles on their radio dials at the 640-kHz and 1240-kHz points based on the American Civil Defense logo and marked the two as the CONELRAD stations – that then awkward acronym that stood for Control of Electromagnetic Radiation. As part of the scenario scheduled to unfold in the event of a thermonuclear attack by the then Soviet Union, television station transmitters would go dark and non-essential radio stations virtually silent. Only the CONELRAD stations would operate and they would transmit emergency instructions at low transmitter power – a tactic meant to keep enemy aircraft crews, mainly Soviet era strategic bombers, from homing in on signals of known higher-powered stations and using them to navigate to their strategic bombing targets. CONELRAD lasted from 1951 to 1963, when the Emergency Broadcast System replaced it. 

Transistor radio sets offered increased portability over their vacuum tube counterparts due to more efficient operation and lower voltage requirements – though the transistor radio’s sound quality improvements will come a little later. Despite what the Madison Avenue admen might want you to believe back then, transistors radios weren’t quite as small as their manufacturers might want you to believe. When the Japanese made Sony TR-63 pocket transistor radio arrived in the United States back in 1957, it was billed as a “shirt-pocket” transistor radio, but because it was actually a tad bigger than that, Sony’s American affiliates had shirts with oversized pockets tailored for their own salesmen.