A transistor radio is a portable receiver that utilizes the transistor circuitry model. Although originally made for adults, these radios were mostly used or co-opted by teens in the 1950s. This is because transistor radios’ portability and accessibility made listening to their favorite Top Forty mixes a personal experience.
Transistors create integrated circuits, making these radios cheaper and smaller than the previous models. These electronic devices also utilize little power, as they don’t require excessive current to function.
Transistor Radio History
On December 23rd, 1947, the Bell Laboratories’ scientific team, consisting of Walter Houser Brattain, John Bardeen, and William Shockley, built the first transistor radio. Their main goal was to find a replacement for the energy-wasting and fragile semiconductor devices like vacuum tubes.
Bell Laboratories held a press conference illustrating how the transistor radio functions immediately after obtaining the patent protection. However, the first commercial transistor radio, Regency TR-1, went on sale on 1954 October 18th.
Before the portable transistor radios invention, radios utilized vacuum tubes. To power up, these tubes required a high current, low voltage power source to activate the filament tubes and provide high voltage for the radio anode.
Vacuum tube radios called for at least two heavy, forty-five to ninety-volt, non-rechargeable batteries, adding to the weight of the lunch box-sized devices considerably.
Compared to transistor radios, previous radios were inefficient and had short lifespans due to the delicate vacuum tubes. Families had to gather around the wooden radios in their living rooms to listen to broadcasts, as moving these devices from one place to another was also impossible due to their heavy weight.
Using transistors instead of vacuum tubes as amplifier elements reduced the radio size and the electric power required greatly. Transistors used regular, nine-volt flashlights or compact batteries, reducing their weight by about half.
Transistor radios had lower input impedance than vacuum tube-based ones, thanks to their current drawing base elements. They also had an instant on-powering, unlike their counterparts which required heating the filament tubes for fifteen to twenty minutes first.
The US military purchased all the transistor radios that Bell Lab could produce at the onset of the transistor radio invention. With time, other manufacturers learned how to use this invention and started creating alternative commercial transistor radios.
Transistor radio mass production was low initially, as the transistor portable radio technology was being developed and the production logistics streamlined. As a result, only a few radios were available on the market for a ridiculously high price.
Transistor radios were the most popular electronic devices in the 1960s. It’s reported that the since 1950s there have been billions of transistors sold worldwide.
How do commercial transistor radios work?
The first step in transistor radio functioning is the audio recording which involves a microphone. Sound is then converted to electrical signals, which travel via the radio circuit to the transistors.
Finally, transistors amplify the signals, making the sound much louder via the speaker.
Early transistor radios
Regency TR-1, Raytheon 8-TP-1, and Chrysler Mopar 924HR were the first transistor radios in the US. Below are descriptions of each.
Regency TR-1 was the first commercial transistor radio. It was produced by the Industrial Development Engineering Associates of Indianapolis and the Texas Instruments of Dallas, who were in charge of building the transistors in 1954.
The portable transistor radio came in various colors, had a gold button, and was about five inches high.
Featuring four transistors, these radios had an outstanding sound quality compared to previous vacuum tube radios. One transistor was an audio amplifier, one acted as a mixer-oscillator, and the others were intermediate-frequency amplifiers.
Regency TR-1 cost about $50, which was ridiculously expensive then. It used much larger batteries than recent portable radio batteries, which have a voltage of 22.5.
TR-1 radio manufacturers predicted that the sales would be about twenty million within the first three years of production. However, by the end of the first year, they had made staggering sales of about one hundred thousand.
Despite not fully matching the expectations, TR-1 was the new hype and according to Fortune Magazine, ” If you owned one, you were the coolest thing on two legs.”
Although two companies collaborated to produce the TR-1 transistor radios, the Industrial Development Engineering Associates of Indianapolis (I.D.E.A) project engineers patented them and put them on sale in November 1954.
Raytheon produced their first transistor radio in 1955, Raytheon 8-TP-1, a few weeks after the Regency invention.
Raytheon 8-TP-1s measured 9.25 x 7 x 2.75 inches, making them larger than the previous invention, which was 5 x 3 7/16 x 1 3/8 inches in size. They also used four more transistors than the TR-1s.
8-TP-1 transistor radios were more power efficient than their earlier counterparts.
According to the Consumer Reports reviews, Raytheon didn’t sacrifice the sound quality despite being portable too.
Raytheon radios were built with plastic, canvas, and leather. They featured various leather colors; tan, brown, beige, and red and were sold for $80.
Chrysler Mopar 914HR
Chrysler Mopar 914HR was the first all transistor car radio. According to the Wall Street Journal, Philco and Chrysler came together on 28th April 1955 to create this device.
With metal materials, the Chrysler Mopar 914HR was durable. It’s 13 x 3 x 8-inch size and inbuilt nature allowed it to go unnoticed in the car.
In the fall of 1955, Chrysler transistor radios were available for all Chrysler Imperial car models that debuted in the same year.
Opting for an all-transistor radio was an option that was sold for $150, which equates to $1520 in today’s money. They featured twelve transistors in their circuitry. One of the transistors acted as a phono pre-amplifier if you ordered a Hi-Fi record player along with the radio, which was optional.
The Commercialization of Transistor Radios in Japan
With time, as the demand surpassed the parent manufacturers’ portable transistor supply, Japanese companies started producing cheaper and smaller transistor radios to fill the existing market gap among the American public.
Japan pulled transistor radio prices ridiculously low. By the end of the 1950s, these devices cost only $15, the equivalent of $117 today.
Although transistor radios were not a Japanese invention, companies like Sony made the most outstanding sales from the devices using them. Over time, Japan made further progress in transistor technology in quality, reliability, and size.
The first Japanese transistor radios included Sony TR-55 and Sony-TR 63.
TR-55 was Japan’s first portable transistor radio produced in 1955, which is what the model name stands for. These devices used some new technology, specifically five in-house transistors, and were the first to feature all miniature radio features, which allowed you to listen to music anywhere you were.
The Japanese company produced about five to ten thousand of these radio units.
The Sony TR-63 was the first ‘pocket-size’ electronic device. It was introduced to the US in 1957 when about one hundred thousand units were imported, this was a mass market success for the company.
The radio was narrower and shorter than the Regency TR-1, which was a selling point for most teens.
Sony TR-63s came in four colors; red, lemon, black, and red. It used the now-common transistor radio nine-volt batteries.
Additionally, these radios had the highest sales ever in transistor radio history surpassing seven million units at $39 a piece.
Over time competitors like Sharp Corporation and Toshiba joined the transistor radio producers bandwagon. By the start of the 1960s, more than six million transistor radios in the US were Japanese-made.
Transistor radio future
Transistor radios were predominantly popular in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to young people and their love for Rock ‘n’ Roll music.
Although transistor radios’ popularity has greatly reduced over the years, transistor technology is credited as the root of all modern electronic unit inventions.
Nowadays, transistors are known as microchips, simple semiconductors that are incorporated into everything electrical including computers, radios, cell phones, and more. The modern world can’t function without these electronic units, keeping transistor radio technology alive and it does not look like there is anything yet on the horizon to replace it.
Collecting Transistor Radios
Transistor radio hobbyists often collect old radio units, be that portable or tabletop, to remind them of their youthful time. If you are up for purchasing one, follow the tips below for the best quality transistor radios from the 1950s and 1960s on eBay or local flea markets.
Before you spend your cash on a dated transistor, it’s crucial to research online and read price pages for a better overview of the various models and makes in the electronics industry.
Most transistor radio price pages were published during the major transistor technology wave, guaranteeing first-hand and accurate details.
Confirm the condition
The transistor radio’s condition determines the value of the unit. Complete radios, with their leather cases, original boxes, warranty cards, manuals cards, and owner’s manuals, definitely have a higher price range than their counterparts that miss some components.
Examine the cabinets
Antique transistor radios were heavily used during the 1950s and 1960s, making them prone to physical and abrasion damage. Look for chips and tiny hairline cracks along the radio corners before purchasing one.
To Wrap Up
Transistor radios are lightweight and use minimal power, meaning you can listen to the news and your favorite music for a long time and whenever you want to. Radios come in various colors, materials, and designs, making collecting fun. You can buy transistor radios at most electronic shops.