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This Week with The Chicowitz:

The Transistor Radio

Last week: “The Zipline Adventure

Bubbling up from inside the mad scientists’ laboratories was this new, electronic gizmo called the transistor. It had been around for a few years; the first product for the masses to make use of the transistor was the portable, battery-operated radio. We already had a radio or two in the house. The “brains” of the radio was the vacuum tube, which used a lot of energy, generated a lot of heat, took up a lot of space, and died right about the seventh inning of the ball game. The radio in our living room was about the size of a ’57 Chevy.

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Picture it: Cleveland, 1959. The big rage that winter was the gas-powered snow-blower. But what excitement was there in that? Lemme tell ya; absolutely none!

But bubbling up from inside the mad scientists’ laboratories was this new, electronic gizmo called the transistor. It had been around for a few years; the first product for the masses to make use of the transistor was the portable, battery-operated radio. We already had a radio or two in the house. The “brains” of the radio was the vacuum tube, which used a lot of energy, generated a lot of heat, took up a lot of space, and died right about the seventh inning of the ball game. The radio in our living room was about the size of a ’57 Chevy.

(A vacuum tube might be 2-3 inches tall, or maybe as large as 8 inches. They weighed... maybe a half-pound. A transistor was about a half-inch tall, and weighed less than an ounce. The transistor required a lot less juice to run, so the battery could be much smaller. Today, an electronic circuit board for a TV, computer, or smart phone, for example, contains the equivalent of several thousand transistors.)

There were a few “portable” (cordless) radios available back then. They had batteries about the size of a car battery... and they were just as heavy. So they were actually about as portable as a table-top “portable” television.

But all that changed in that pivotal year, 1959. My dad was a ham radio operator and electronics enthusiast, and he was eager to see how the much smaller, transistor radio worked. This was his ham radio set:

So when we heard that transistor radios were available, we hopped on down to Best Buy and picked up one.

Oh, wait — there was no Best Buy in 1959! Or anything like it. And the only Radio Shack in town was still pushing vacuum tubes. So we had to order one from a Heathkit catalog: $21.95, plus postage. (That’s about the equivalent of $165 million dollars today.) But we splurged. After all, this was the future!

Three weeks later, there it was — two pounds, about the size of a paperback book... and a whole lot more exciting. The TR-286-B Super Six Transistor Trav-ler.

(Why they chose to give it the same name as General Robert E. Lee’s horse remains a mystery. But, so be it.)

It did require a trip to Radio Shack after all — to buy a battery to run the thing. But after that, the entire AM radio band was mine, to have and to hold. To the beach... to the schoolyard... riding my bike... to the moon!

OK, not to the moon. That would take a while longer. But it was amazing. All that sound... all that power, in such a small, plastic box!

You could use the flexible, metal handle to set it on a table, carry it with you, or even mount it on your handlebars. Portable, indeed! I carried it everywhere. We take that for granted today. But back then, it was really special!

My dad taught me to take care of things... especially things that cost 165 million dollars. So, even though I took it everywhere (except to the moon), it held up very well. Yeah, it was made of plastic. But that was in the days when plastic was real plastic!

“Made in U.S.A.”, proudly stamped on the back. Yeah, that was in the days when we made stuff; real good stuff.

Oh, sure; it took a couple tumbles along the way. I fell with it, more than once. But I took the pictures you see here this past weekend. Yep; it is still with me!

So here we are... 50 years and about 100 batteries later... and the entire AM radio band is still mine.

OK, so I use it mostly to show off to my friends. But there is value in that. And in memories, too. Such great memories!


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07/24/17