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 Boomers 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?

For Boomers, Phone Followed Function

It’s been well documented how telephone technology has changed so dramatically since the dawn of the boomer years. Mister B has chronicled many aspects himself over the past decade. However, even though people regularly talk about the fact that boomers grew up in a time before cell phones, there has not been much mention of how, when and why we did use the telephone.

From the time Mister Boomer could remember, his home had one phone, and it was securely fastened to the wall in the kitchen. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, if the phone rang unexpectedly, Mister B’s mother would utter, “Uh-oh,” before answering. Mister B’s mom immediately thought if someone was calling, somebody had died. Coming from a large extended family on both parental sides, as his grandparents’ generation aged, this was often the case. Great aunts and uncles passed away with regularity between 1955 and ’65. It was an era when family lived closer together, and at least in families like Mister Boomer’s, he grew up knowing aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. The phone might be used to form up plans for a visit, but not much else, unless bad news was coming. Often, it would be to relay funeral arrangements.

Mister Boomer does not recall his father ever making a phone call. His mother would call her mother, but the family saw her practically every Sunday for dinner, so there was not much reason to phone. She’d occasionally call her sister, or one of her brothers, but the calls were generally cordial and quick. As Mister Boomer mentioned, prior to the early 1960s, his home phone was what Bell Telephone called a “party line.” It was literally a line several homes shared, so if you picked up the phone and someone else was on the line, you could not make a call. Mister Boomer’s mother regularly complained about it to his father and ultimately the family got their own line, somewhere in the early 1960s. That new number remained the Boomer household phone number for the next fifty years.

If teenagers were lucky enough to have one of the first push-button phones in their bedroom, they might use the phone in much the same way that today’s kids contact friends through social media platforms. Mister Boomer’s sister used the kitchen wall phone on occasion to talk to her friends, but there was always an imposed time limit, not the hours-on-end conversations of teenage boomer girls depicted in movies. Besides, with the phone being in the kitchen, the whole family could hear your conversation. Brother Boomer rarely used the phone, and it was the same for Mister Boomer. If so, it was to arrange something: a ride to school, a meeting time or the like.

When you were out and not where you had told your parents you would be, it was wise to tell your folks that plans had changed, and you were not at Jimmy’s, but went to Kathy’s house to do homework. If you weren’t at someone’s house where you could use the telephone, you would have to use a pay phone. Luckily, they could be found everywhere: most stores had them, as did gas stations, libraries, the roller rink, hamburger joint and malt shop. Also, there were phone booths peppered throughout the city. These were glass and metal, with an accordion door that closed. You could “drop a dime” on your parents, which meant the phone call was ten cents. The younger generations can watch older Superman movies to see him go into phone booths to change from his Clark Kent persona. A weird scenario seeing as the booth was fitted with glass on all sides. There is a scene is a later Superman movie where Clark rushes to a phone booth, only to find it had evolved into an open-air kiosk housing the pay phone. At that point the rotary dial had been replaced by push buttons, as well.

Dating required a telephone, when young men got up enough gumption to ask young ladies for their phone number, but didn’t ask for a date yet. (Remember the Marvelletes singing, “And my number is Beechwood 4-5789 / You can call me up and have a date any old time”?) As in Mister Boomer’s case, the kitchen phone was hardly the location to carry on a conversation, other than setting up times and places. For that reason, Mister B more often than not tried to set up dates from a pay phone.

If the phone rang and you were not home, it rang until the other side gave up. There were no answering machines. If someone called and you were already on the line, the caller would hear a busy signal. In Mister Boomer’s home, if the phone rang while the family was eating dinner, it was left unanswered. The caller would usually give up after ten or twelve rings.

Once a boomer began a job search in earnest, the phone could be vital to getting information on the location and time of the interview. Pay phones were used for such purposes, as well as by business people who had to travel from one location to the next, whether for sales work or regional management. Mister Boomer recalls one of his early retail jobs, where the store pay phone was used to send in daily sales totals to regional headquarters, and in return, a regional manager, who often visited in person, would otherwise relay information via the phone to the store manager to be distributed to staff.

When a call was made out of your area, it was termed “long distance.” The calls could be to a different part of your own state, or across the country. Regardless, these calls could be expensive. That’s where “collect calling” came in. To avoid the charges of long distance, families came up with elaborate codes to give information without actually speaking directly to one another. For example, a soldier returning home might call collect from a bus station several states away. The phone operator — a live person — would ask if the receiving caller — the soldier’s father — would accept the charges from caller “Albee Bus.” The soldier’s father would refuse the charges, saying he didn’t know an “Albee Bus.” At the same time, both the soldier and his father could hear each other. When the operator said the call could not be put through, the soldier might add, “OK, thank you, operator, I guess I’ll try again on Sunday at 2 p.m.” His father could hang up the phone without either side paying long distance charges, knowing his son would arrive at the bus station at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

In short, we see the phone in the boomer years, though used for casual conversation and connectivity among friends and family, was most often a means to communicate needed information that today might be put into a few-word text message.

How about you, boomers? How did you use the telephone in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s?