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?

Boomers Watched Shepard Go Into Space

In case you somehow missed it, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world and former CEO of Amazon, rocketed into space in his own Blue Origin spacecraft this past week. As a nod to the beginning of American spaceflight, Bezos named his rocket and capsule New Shepard after Alan Shepard, the first U.S. astronaut to fly into space on May 5, 1961. (The first was Soviet Union cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin 23 days earlier.)

Obviously a lot has changed in space travel in the past 60 years, but since we boomers were around for the first launch and this first commercial launch with human passengers, it’s interesting to compare the two.

How the two flights compare:
Government agency mission control: National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)
Project Name: Mercury 7
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral, Florida
Flight Date: May 5, 1961
Rocket Base: Redstone booster
Capsule Name: Freedom 7
Pilot and Crew: Alan Shepard; capsule built for one occupant only
Duration of Flight: 15 1/2 minutes
Height Flown: 116 miles
Landing: Splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, 190 nautical miles from Cape Canaveral
Estimated cost of project: Congress allocated $277 million to start the program of putting a man into space

Private company mission control: Blue Origin (Amazon)
Project Name: New Shepard
Launch Site: Company owned facility in the West Texas desert, near Van Horn, Texas
Flight Date: July 20, 2021 (the 52-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing man on the moon)
Rocket Base: New Shepard reusable booster and capsule (the booster rocket lands safely back on earth after being disengaged from the capsule.)
Capsule Name: New Shepard (same as booster)
Pilot and Crew: Automated pilot, trajectory controlled from ground computers. Four passengers, including Wally Funk, now the oldest person to fly into space; Jeff Bezos and his brother, Mark; and Oliver Daemon, an 18-year old student from Amsterdam, the youngest person to fly into space
Duration of Flight: 11 minutes
Height Flown: 62 miles
Landing: Parachute landing near the company’s West Texas desert launch site
Estimated cost of project: Bezos isn’t saying, but has revealed that his upcoming project for orbital travel, the New Glenn, is clocking in at $2.5 billion.

Other fun facts:
• The number “seven” placed after each capsule name in the Project Mercury missions was a nod to the original seven men named as astronauts: Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton. All seven made it into space, most more than once. Virgil “Gus” Grissom was scheduled to fly in the Apollo 1 mission to land on the moon, when he was killed in a fire in the command module along with Edward White and Roger Chaffee, during a test on the launchpad on January 27, 1967.

• Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark are now the first siblings to fly into space together.

• Blue Origin’s next project, New Glenn, is named after original Mercury astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn.

• John Glenn had been the oldest person to fly into space when he returned on a Space Shuttle mission on January 16, 1998. He was 77 at the time. Wally Funk, now the oldest person to fly into space, is 82.

• Wally Funk was a 22-year old pilot when she was chosen as one of 13 women (the Mercury 13) to be tested alongside the original seven male astronauts in February of 1961, in a privately-funded effort called the Lovelace Project. The 13 women ultimately chosen from a pool of 25 had all passed the same tests as the men; Wally Funk even had higher scores on some tests than John Glenn. NASA chose to cancel the program before the final test could be given, using the excuse that their astronauts had to be military test pilots. Consequently, the first woman in space was Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, on June 16, 1963. The first American woman in space was Astronaut Sally Ride, on January 16, 1978.

• On February 6, 1971, Alan Shepard not only walked on the moon, he hit two golf balls with a 6-iron he sneaked onboard.

• The first Space Race was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This Billionaire’s Space Race (as it has been termed) pits Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin against Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Virgin Galactic successful ushered two pilots, three mission specialists and Richard Branson into space on July 11, 2021. Blue Origin flew approximately 12 miles higher than the Virgin Galactic flight. SpaceX has yet to launch humans into space.

Mister Boomer saw the first Shepard launch on a TV wheeled into his classroom at school in 1961. He watched this past week’s Blue Origin launch as highlights on the internet. How about it, boomers? Did you watch both launches? Did it stir memories of those early days of space travel?