Throughout the 20th Century few inventions had as much long-term impact on the communication and technology sectors as the transistor. Invented by Bell Labs in the US in Dec 1947, its arrival eventually saw the wholescale transition away from cumbersome glass valves, kick-started printed cardboard circuit boards, and helped the miniaturization of our everyday tech. The general purpose of transistors is to either switch or amplify an electrical current effectively allowing far more powerful things to be run off the same supply. It was an invention very much championed by theoretical scientists in the lab who saw its wide-scale potential, but once solved, it then took several more years for the rest of the world to incorporate it into our much loved gadgets.
A lot has been written about the transistor and the way it revolutionised our world, but in reality in the early days there was still a sense of uncertainty about their long term use. Britain’s first transistor radio was one such example.
Pye and the PAM 710 Radio………
During the mid 20th Century C.O. Stanley was the owner and Director of Pye Ltd in England having bought the company from the Pye family in the 1920s. Under Stanley’s shrewd eye the company became one of the most powerful brands in the UK churning out radios, TVs and other electrical consumer products from their base in Cambridge. When news spread about the Bell Labs invention Pye sent a representative over to America to take a closer look.
As the research arm of the Edison Bell Telephone Company, Bell Labs was more interested in selling the production rights to its new transistor technology than manufacturing any themselves. They set the licence fee at $25,000 (equal to a quarter of a million dollars today) and under Stanley’s insistence Pye became one of the first 25 global companies to sign up, and reputedly the first to actually hand over the cash. And for those who signed up, the use of transistors for radios seemed the initial best fit.
The world’s first transistor radio (the Regency TR1) came out in the US in 1954 as a partnership between Texas Instruments and a small design firm. The product took off rapidly and other companies around the world followed with their own variations. Yet back in Britain things were somewhat slower and despite getting hold of the licence so quickly, it took Pye until the Spring of 1956 to finally release Britain’s first transistor radio- the Pam 710. So what held us back?
In truth the transistor market was still brand new and untested by the mid 1950s with a very real possibility of going wrong or even burning out. In Britain the Post-war electronics industry had been doing well and while the novelty of transistors would have been naturally appealing, reputable firms like Pye were understandably cautious about rocking the boat. Though other small new foreign companies such as Sony were willing to throw everything into the hat to get their new transistor plants up and running quickly, Pye clearly was not. In truth they had somewhat financially over-stretched themselves even by paying the Licence fee and since Stanley didn’t trust partnerships, progress on Britain’s first transistorized product was slow. There were also reputations to think about. For Pye this was particularly pertinent as a failed tuneable TV back in 1954 (the V12) had seriously damaged their reputation among both their suppliers and loyal customers. It probably explains why the PAM was released not under their own name, but under the name of one of their subsidiary companies (Pamphonic Reproducers Ltd) although the parts were all made in house at Pye’s Newmarket factory. As the factory were still in the process of tooling up for the new transistors, it had the knock on effect of raising the retail price for the PAM 710 to an expensive £32 (twice as much as a standard valve radio at the time).
No records have yet been found that show the actual number of Pam 710s that were ever sold and production only lasted for 8 months, but the estimates suggest perhaps only several hundred at the most. Comparing this with the Regency TR-1 which sold over 100,000 units in their first year alone, the PAM was clearly little more than an experiment. But it was an experiment that obviously worked. By Jan 1957 Pye were confident enough (and tooled up enough) to replace the PAM 710 with their own branded model instead: the Pye P123-BQ. It borrowed much of its design from the PAM, sold for the far more reasonable sum of £17 13s 4d and used only 6 instead of 8 transistors. This new model went on to sell extremely well and soon Britain was transitioning away from tubes forever.
In the history of transistor radios the PAM 710 was not the first, nor was it the smallest or admittedly the most elegant. Externally its boxy cloth covered case stuck rigidly with its valve tube cousins and it was prohibitively expensive as well. But it did show the highly conservative UK technology industry that these new transistor inventions could actually work. Today the PAM 710 radio is an historic and highly collectable thing. Indeed with only around 10-20 examples still known to exist, it has understandably become a valuable set too.