While today we are used to the idea of portable music wherever we go, back in the 1940s this was something that was still a distant dream. To hear your favourite tracks required at best a heavy portable gramophone, a stack of fragile 78s, a replacement needle or two and the willingness to keep winding and attending to the machine every 3-4 minutes. Under these conditions it was lovely for the occasional use at sunny family picnics, but still impractical for the daily commute to work. At the same time Commercial radio was filling the airwaves with music and lively programmes, but the machines needed to listen to it were also far from portable. At the mercy of bulky and unreliable vacuum tubes, listening to the radio in the early 1940s was still a largely indoor pursuit.
The era of the “transistor radio”
It was the invention of the transistor by Bell Laboratories on 23rd December 1947 that was set to revolutionise our listening experience forever. Although at first the transistor was a break-though in the lab rather than on the streets, it was not long before eager fledgling companies began lining up for licences.
The very first commercially integrated use of transistors was in hearing aids and their initial high price matched the extra price people would pay for having smaller aids. However, within a few years the technology had advanced sufficiently to work within radios too. The Regency TR-1 of 1954 (jointly developed by Texas Instruments and a design firm) was the first commercial transistor radio in the world. Small and stylish, it became an instant success among the younger generation and would go on to sell approximately 150,000 units in just a few years. The internet is full of information about the TR-1 and its rivals, but http://www.regencytr1.com/ is a good starting point for an overview of this particularly iconic machine. Soon small transistor radios were everywhere………..
Refining the design
Though the US had pioneered the very first transistor radio, it was the emergence of young and dynamic Japanese companies (such as Sony and Toshiba) that were to bring the costs right down so anyone could soon afford one. These new Japanese electronic start-ups were quick to comprehend the market potential of transistors and were eager to capture a part of the radio market. In 1955, only months after the Regency TR-1 had been unveiled, Sony proudly released their own first example (the Sony TR-55) onto the Japanese market, This was followed closely afterwards by a succession of ever smaller and more refined machines by dozens of competing companies. Utilising both a cheap labour force and exemplary Japanese work ethic, it was not long before overseas orders started flooding in.
The Japanese transistor story is a fascinating one and Sony tells their own story well: https://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/CorporateInfo/History/SonyHistory/index.html
Designing the future
By the end of the 1950s there were many dozens of companies worldwide all producing pocket transistor radios in all shapes and sizes. Since all the radios did basically the same thing, most companies turned to their industrial designers to give them the market edge. Inspired by Atomic shapes and the automotive industry, many radios began blurring the boundaries between fashion and practicality.
By the early years of the 1960s pocket radio were by far the most important medium for listening to popular music. However Cassette tapes were just around the corner…………