The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution - Henry Schlesinger (2010)

Chapter 16. See It! Hear It! Get It!

“Wherever ya are, and whatever ya doin’ I want ya to lay ya hands on the radio, lay back with me and squeeze my knobs. We gonna feel it tonight. This is the Wolfman down here with the donkeys.”

—Robert Weston Smith aka Wolfman Jack
XERF deejay

The first transistor radio available to consumers arrived on the market in October 1954, just in time for Christmas. Produced and marketed by an Indianapolis company called Industrial Development Engineering Associates (I.D.E.A.), the Regency TR-1 measured a compact 3 inches by 5 inches by 1.25 inches and weighed only 12 ounces. Although not particularly impressive by today’s standards, when compared to the subminiature tube radios at the time, like Automatic Radio Corporation’s Tom Thumb or Motorola’s Pixie, which weighed in at a pound or more when loaded with batteries, it was downright tiny.

The Regency contained four Texas Instruments (TI) germanium crystal transistors and drew its power from a whopping 22.5-volt Eveready specialty battery used in hearing aids. It wasn’t particularly energy efficient by today’s standards, but it offered a choice of four colors—black, red, gray, and white, and unlike the Belmont Boulevard, featured a small speaker. An optional leather carrying case was available at $4.95 as well as an earphone for $7.95.

In the interest of historical honesty, it must be said that the little Regency TR-1 was not the first miniature transistor radio. There had been some experiments with the concept. For instance, in 1953, the Search and Intercept Department of the Signal Corps Engineering labs came up with a transistor radio that weighed in at just 2 ounces and measured 2 inches by 11/8 inches by ¾ inch in a clear Plexiglas case, a little larger than a Zippo lighter. More or less assembled completely by hand as a “one off” over a single weekend, the experimental radio was built as a flashy, though classified, demonstration of miniaturization. It offered an earpiece, but no speaker, and included a long trailing antenna. The military engineers built it to be worn on the wrist and called it the Dick Tracy, after the comic book character. According to legend, Chester Gould, the superdetective’s creator, got the idea of a miniaturized wrist radio after visiting the lab of Al Gross, the inventor of the Joan-Eleanor system.

THE TRANSISTOR RADIO’S ENTRANCE INTO the consumer market was accompanied by a surprisingly low-key amount of promotion. Even by the standards of the day, the ads seem painfully bland. However, despite the stodgy advertising in publications like Holiday magazine and the tepid announcements in the daily newspapers, there was a genuine urgency attached to the little radio. TI had a lot riding on the small device, which had eaten up a good portion of the company’s working capital.

Founded in 1930 as Geophysical Services Inc., the company had switched from supplying oil industry technology to a military contractor during World War II and was now aggressively positioning itself to enter a new field. TI’s management had seen the future and was now promoting it with twelve ounces of brightly colored plastic that could fit in your shirt pocket. The radio itself was a not so subtle effort by the Texas-based company to advance the use of its own line of transistors for the consumer products of other manufacturers and position itself as the premier supplier in what was predicted to become an increasingly crowded field.

One of the major obstacles the I.D.E.A. and TI engineering teams faced was getting the price down on the four transistors used in the Regency. Eventually they settled on about $2.50 apiece (roughly $20.00 in constant dollars), with the wholesale cost of the transistors equaling nearly a quarter of the retail price. Manufacturing problems with processes and quality control were still a problem, though by 1954 difficulties with price and quality were well on their way to being solved.

The obscure midwestern firm was not TI’s first choice of a manufacturer. It was only after the big players, like RCA, politely declined that I.D.E.A. won the contract. The company did have some experience in the consumer marketplace with its line of signal boosters for television sets that allowed for reception outside of normal broadcasting range—an issue for early television owners in rural communities—but lacked the distribution muscle or credibility of a name brand manufacturer.

The plan was to get the radio to market as quickly as possible, within a year. For the TI and I.D.E.A. team that meant designing a product that had never been built with what amounted to state-of-the-art components. Rather than use the kind of metallic chassis tube sets relied on and soldering all the connections by hand, they adopted a version of the printed circuit board similar to those used in proximity fuses. Other components had to be modified from existing stock or be custom made. In the end, the team managed to get a prototype together by the fall of 1954 with manufacturing rapidly following in time for Christmas.

Now TI was dependent on the little company from Indianapolis and its modest promotional efforts. Stores carrying the new radio received countertop display cases while distributors were issued working TR-1’s with clear plastic backs to show off the miniature circuitry. Promotional display cards, the same size as the radio, were printed up, to remind consumers the TR-1 could fit in a shirt pocket. In November, the New York Times ran a small four-paragraph story under the headline “Tubeless Radios Due.”

“See it! Hear it! Get it!” the newspaper and magazine ads commanded, but at $49.95 (more than $350 in constant dollars) the TR-1 sold fewer than 20,000 units during that first Christmas season. Whether it was the hefty price tag, the somewhat demure marketing campaign, or the perception that the diminutive radio was nothing more than a pricey version of inexpensive novelties like “The World’s Smallest Radio!” crystal sets advertised in the back of comic books, the TR-1 was not an overwhelming success during its first few months on store shelves in the few key markets where it was sold. Even Consumer Reports was not thrilled:

The Regency is not anywhere near as small in size as Dick Tracy’s wrist radio. It will, however, fit in the pocket of a man’s sport shirt or jacket. The $49.95 selling price puts this receiver in the luxury class, since relatively few persons will be willing to expend that amount for qualities—other than novelty and size available in many other portables at a far smaller cost…A vacuum tube radio would give better tone quality, less background noise, and somewhat easier tuning at a considerably lower price but would be at a disadvantage in size, weight…and battery consumption, compared with the Regency (which would warrant an A rating where these factors are paramount).

However, radio enthusiasts of the variety who assembled Heathkit systems and haunted the aisles of RadioShack embraced the TR-1, eager to own the first transistorized radio. The movie producer Michael Todd handed dozens of them out to cast and crew of his film Around the World in Eighty Days. And IBM’s Thomas Watson bought a hundred of the small radios as Christmas gifts for his managers as a not particularly subtle reminder they had yet to come out with a transistor-based computer. It isn’t difficult to imagine what was going through Watson’s mind. IBM’s 1955 Model 650 weighed almost three tons and required more than 2,000 vacuum tubes. It was very much the 1955 Cadillac of computers, tail fins and all.

The vast majority of American consumers, however, didn’t know exactly what a transistor was supposed to do or why you would want to put a radio in your shirt pocket. In the minds of a good many consumers, batteries were still power for the simple or inexpensive. They powered toys for children, flashlights for emergencies, and not much else. Serious consumer items, televisions, record players, and family radios plugged into the wall and relied on tubes that came to life slowly with a soft and reassuring amber glow amid complicated wiring bustling around a galvanized steel chassis. The fact that the designers had chosen brightly colored plastic didn’t help matters. Serious electronics—real state-of-the-art stuff—came in a somber black and brown. A good portion of quality home electronics were still housed in wood cabinetry and resembled furniture. And why would you want something small that consumed less power when there were so many electrical outlets in the world to plug into?

Compared to today’s consumers who find added value in compact cell phones and notebook computers, the typical 1950s consumer saw the perceived value of a device actually decrease along with its size in an age with no clear concept of personal electronics. Bigger was pretty much always better.

The TR-1 did eventually find its customer base, and it wasn’t with the readers of Holiday magazine or even those who cared how transistors actually worked. Teenagers would prove to be the early adopters of the new technology. Popularity of the little TR-1 grew among young people so that by the end of 1955, I.D.E.A. had sold more than 100,000 units. Teens in New York City were soon listening to Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” The Penguins’s “Earth Angel,” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” on WINS, one of America’s first rock ’n’ roll radio stations. In Southern California, the colorful plastic radios became a fixture on beaches and at poolsides.

The popularity of the TR-1 spread quickly, and the radio became a popular birthday and high school graduation gift. Soon farm kids were hanging the little radio on their tractors and listening to weather reports or country western hits like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons.” Eventually, the transistor radio itself would work its way into songs such as Buck Owens’s hit “Made in Japan” (1972), The Beach Boys’s “Magic Transistor Radio” (1973), Connie Smith’s “Tiny Blue Transistor Radio” (1965), and, of course, Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” (1967).

THE SINGLE EARPLUG THAT ALLOWED for private listening—a relatively new concept in the 1950s—became a standard comedic device among cartoonists and situation comedy writers. And, too, there was something sneaky, if not outright subversive, about listening to music or sports broadcasts privately with the earphone while out in public. It was frowned upon in much the same way that texting in social situations is seen as ill-mannered.

Nevertheless, the transistor radio found its home in the emerging youth market of the 1950s and 1960s as the postwar baby boom was just getting under way. Competition entered the market, and their ads didn’t feature middle-aged bow-tied business executives and women in evening gowns. These new ads offered up wholesome images of teens in pressed pants and sweater sets or vaguely “beatnik” youths in rumpled chinos, turtlenecks, and Ray-Bans.

Popular culture was coalescing around the baby boomers. Rock ’n’ roll was a defining part of that youth culture and, powered by little 9-volt batteries, which soon became known as “transistor radio batteries,” pocket radios allowed teens to carry their music with them. The transistor radio, like the car, represented a form of independence that cut teens free from the domesticity of the living room radio and connected them to a larger world. A few years later, at night, when the radio waves bounced off the hardened ionosphere, the little radios in New York City, Des Moines, Iowa, and Klamath Falls, Oregon, could pick up outlaw radio stations just across the Mexican border, beyond the reach of the FCC. Broadcasting at a continent-blanketing, bird-killing 250,000 watts, Robert Weston Smith, known to his loyal XERF listeners as Wolfman Jack, gave countless teens—far from the major radio markets—their first taste of Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, and rock ’n’ roll on their little transistor radios.

This was not American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show, or suitable for the family radio in the living room. Listeners didn’t even know if Wolfman Jack was black or white. Naturally parents hated him and so did the Soviets, who took to jamming his decadent American broadcasts that originated from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico (then called Villa Acuña) just across the border from Del Rio, Texas. But he was perfect for the transistor in the teenager’s bedroom with its little earpiece.

image

The Regency pocket radio, produced by the small Indianapolis-based company I.D.E.A. and Texas Instruments, was not a resounding success, but proved that transistors had a place in consumer products.

Courtesy of Texas Instruments

Suddenly the battery was back on the leading edge, at least in the eyes of consumers.

NOT LONG AFTER THE INTRODUCTION of the TR-1, a Japanese company barely ten years old and armed with a license to manufacture transistors from Western Electric began building its own line of transistorized radios. Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company) began with the TR-55. Much larger than the TR-1, the TR-55 sold for about $30.00, but was only available in Japan. As a point of pride, Tsushin Kogyo was the first company to manufacture the radio from the ground up, including transistors. Not a bad start for a young company that was still earning its reputation building tape recorders.

For its next model, the TR-63, designed as a “pocketable radio,” the small company gambled and turned down an order for 100,000 units from Bulova that would have put the watch manufacturer’s own “brand name” on the unit. It was, by any standard, an incredibly risky proposition for a Japanese company with no history in a U.S. market filled with World War II veterans.

For these first exports, the company changed its name to something Americans could easily pronounce and remember. Combining the Latin word for sound (sonus) with American slang for young boy (sonny), the Sony Corporation was born with the company’s cofounders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita rejecting an addition to the name, such as “electronics” or “radio,” on the grounds that the future was still uncertain. Needless to say, the gamble paid off handsomely.

It was Sony’s TR-63, introduced in 1957 and selling for $39.95 (about the average month’s salary for a Japanese worker) that really blew the lid off transistor radios. Strictly speaking, Sony’s entrant into the field was not actually “pocketable,” since the final product was just a little bit too large to fit into the standard-sized shirt pocket by a few centimeters. Morita, who would later invent the Walkman, quickly solved the design problem by issuing shirts with slightly larger pockets to his sales force.

There were a few other problems solved along the way as well. The TR-63 used six transistors—compared to the four used in the Regency—for better reception while consuming only half the power and used a small, 9-volt battery that became standard for transistor radios. Very much a “second generation” product, the TR-63 set the standard for transistor radios for years to come.

It almost goes without saying that no technical advance comes to the public’s attention without attracting its share of crackpots and crackpot theories. So it was (and actually still is) with the transistor. The most entertaining of these theories is that the transistor is actually not a product of Bell Labs, but a successful top-top-top secret effort in reverse engineering of alien technology salvaged from a crashed spaceship. And while scientists and engineers truly hate the theory, it’s still noteworthy for a number of very good reasons.

The alien concept echoes the myths of centuries past when tales of miraculous technologies and strange natural phenomena spread throughout Europe. In the new myths, foreign lands have become distant planets. And, by refuting the myth of what amounts to extraterrestrial patent infringement, it forces us to examine the way the transistor came into the world. Looking back, there’s no mystery: the transistor was developed in a series of incremental steps dating back to the very early discoveries of Karl Ferdinand Braun.

During World War II, the Rad Lab at MIT and Purdue University were frantically working to improve the reception on radar systems and began looking at different materials, including germanium, which was added to the list of semiconductors consisting of silicon, selenium, and tellurium in 1926. Unlike others on the short list, germanium could be refined down to a very pure state. This initial wartime effort by the nearly forgotten Purdue team, made up of graduate students and led by Dr. Karl Lark-Horowitz, pioneered the ability to produce very pure germanium and provided a better understanding of the material. After the war, Purdue researchers continued their semiconductor explorations, though in a more academic setting than Bell Labs. By some accounts, the Bell Labs team beat them to the invention of the transistor by just weeks.

Nearly parallel work was taking place in Germany during World War II, specifically by two physicists, Herbert F. Mataré and Heinrich Welker. Apparently radar was not a priority for the Germans, at least not at the beginning of the war. “My pilots do not need cinema on board,” the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring was reputed to have said, no doubt flush with early ground victories and fondly remembering his own days as a dashing pilot flying biplanes during World War I or working in air transport between the wars. Fortunately, Göring’s cavalier dismissal of the new technology would prove disastrous as cloud cover and poor weather conditions became meteorological allies for increasingly aggressive British bombing raids inside Germany. By the time it became apparent the Nazis needed the technology, it was too late to play catch-up.

However, for scientists like Mataré and Welker, the futile push toward an advanced radar system led them down the same research road as the Rad Lab, providing valuable insight into semiconductors. Following the war, the pair went to work for Westinghouse in France where they continued research on the transistor. Eventually, they independently developed a device almost identical to what the team at Bell Labs created, just a few weeks after Bell’s scientists. They called the new device a “transistron.” It was only months later that news of the American version reached them.

Mataré, in particular, seemed destined for bad timing. Returning to Germany in the early 1950s, he formed his own company, called Intermetall. Looking to put the transistor to work, he produced a prototype transistor radio and launched the concept at the Düsseldorf Radio Fair in 1953, a full year before the Texas Instruments/I.D.E.A. hit the market. “It was received very well,” Mataré said in one interview. “People were amazed by its size.” And then the company backing Intermetall cut its funding, and the little radio never progressed beyond prototype stage.