Boomers Listened to Transistor Radios

The Boomer Era is synonymous with the age of modern electronics. Television, though made available to the public in the 1920s, didn’t gain a foothold into the majority of American households until the 1950s. Now boomers are known as the first TV generation. Washers were hand-crank affairs for many early-day boomer families (including Mister Boomer’s), and dryers, for most, consisted of a clothesline in the backyard. By the 1960s, the majority of U.S. households had washers and dryers.

However, it can be argued that the first real modern electronic marvel that helped to shape the Boomer Generation was the portable transistor radio. Never before did a generation have the luxury of carrying a portable device that, with the help of batteries, could tune into radio stations and listen to music wherever they went. If they were only heading to their bedrooms, a single earpiece plugged into the device could transmit the sound directly to one person, without disturbing the whole family.

For the first two decades in the life of radio technology, vacuum tubes were part of the construction. The invention of the transistor in 1947 made a change possible. However, like many new technologies, manufacturing concerns and marketability played a role in the public release of a radio that made use of transistors. In fact, the big radio companies of the day — RCA, Philco, Sylvania and others — passed on adopting it. They just didn’t see the vision of what it could be. A fledgling company out of Indianapolis, Regency Electronics, was the first to grab the opportunity. Then CEO, Ed Tudor, was banking on what he perceived to be a need for quick and portable emergency communications during the Cold War. Regency released the first commercial transistor radio on October 18, 1954. Not only was there no need for tubes, the transistor radio could fit in your hand. Powered by batteries, it was the first truly portable radio.

The original model was called the Regency TR-1. It came in a plastic case available in assorted colors, and cost $49.95, quite a sum of money in the 1950s. What’s more, an optional leather case added $3.95 and the earphone, for personal listening, added another $7.50. Regency’s radio was first marketed to adults, but it was teens who saw it as being tailor-made for them.

The birth of rock and roll, and the subsequent increase of the playing of this “teen” music on radio, was a boon to the transistor radio industry. Within a year, other manufacturers jumped in to make their own models and by the end of the decade, dozens of brands, including many made in Japan, poured into the market, driving the cost down to an affordable option for middle class families. Some pop historians surmise neither rock and roll nor the transistor radio would have survived without the other. Certainly we see that they were mutually beneficial to each other.

Mister Boomer’s foray into the world of transistor radios came about in 1960. His father gave transistor radios to Mister B and Brother Boomer after receiving them as gifts at a golf banquet. (Read Mister Boomer’s recollection: Boomers Strike Solid Gold.) At the time, the Boomer family didn’t own a record player, and the only radio in the house was kept in the kitchen. The Boomer brothers shared a bedroom, and would listen to local pop music stations while doing their homework. They would trade off using each other’s transistor radio to extend the battery life. Mister Boomer recalls the timing very clearly because he remembers one day working on a model car with his transistor radio sitting nearby, the radio station playing Neil Sedaka’s Calendar Girl. By 1964, Mister Boomer’s aunt gave the family a hand-me-down record player, and the radio became less important. Within the next few years, Mr. B and his siblings would get their driver licenses and purchase cheap cars. Then the car radio became more important than a portable transistor radio.

How about you, boomers? When did you first acquire a portable transistor radio?