The Evolution of Technology: The Transistor Radio

Category: Evolution of Technology Series, Weekly Columns

 AKA Bruce’s Guide to the Evolution of Technology and His Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Part One*

I so vividly remember my first portable radio. It had such an exotic name for the day – a transistor radio!  For many of us, this changed our lives. Portable music. What a radical concept!

This will be the first in a series of reflections on the evolution of technology from this baby-boomers memory, which I will readily admit has many holes in it. But, there have been those moments that stick with me, as with others, whether it be where I was when I learned of JFK’s assassination and the days that followed, or seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, or in technology terms seeing that NBC peacock for the first time in color and thinking it looked sort of lame after all the hype of color television. This series, however, will focus on technological memories.

The first BIG technology toy I got was my transistor radio.  I really thought it was as space age as they came. I wonder if any kid today even knows what a “transistor” is?  Heck, I still don’t even know what a transistor is? I knew there were tubes in our old radio and TV, but transistors? All I knew is it took it didn’t take time to warm up, like our big old radio in our house. But, what made my Hitachi transistor radio so cool, and it was really cool, was that the speaker in front, was the dial!

AND, it was portable!  Portable – I could take it with me!  I could listen under the covers in my bed, in my room! I carried that transistor radio around like it was the Holy Grail.  It truly was a marvel to me. I’m not sure, but I think it only received AM radio. FM was not on our radar at all, when I was growing up. That came later, in college.

Our kids don’t remember how we had to listen to music. In the living room, either on the big family radio or on the family record player, which doubled as a substantial and heavy piece of furniture. They weren’t called stereos until sometime during the mid-sixties after, I believe, The Beatles released “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Even then, Stereos didn’t become common-place for several years thereafter. So, us kids were stuck listening to our parent’s music (Patti Page, Lawrence Welk, Big Bands, Roy Rogers, and maybe if we were lucky and our parents had some taste: Sinatra, Dean Martin, or some Jazz).

We’d get to sometimes listen to our 45′s or LP’s and, of course, watch our favorite rock ‘n’ roll acts on The Dick Clark Show and The Ed Sullivan Show on the one Black and White television set in the house, in the living room. For The Ed Sullivan Show, it meant enduring opera, jugglers, other circus acts, Topo Gigio, etc. before The Animals, The Mamas and the Papas, The Doors, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the like finally came on to lip-sync their one or two numbers.

But, the portable radio, the transistor radio changed all that. We were freed. We were released. We were on our own. It was unbelievable. It was liberating and magical.
AM Radio and 45 RPM Singles were “it” for me and my friends. There was a local record store we’d hang out at called “The Frigate.”  Everyone had their local record store, I’m sure, whether they lived in a big city like Los Angeles as I did or smaller towns all over the United States and elsewhere. In my youth, my circle of existence pretty much was as far as my legs could pedal my Schwinn bicycle, so for all practicality it was a small town to me. I would pick up the Top 30 list from KHJ each week, the competitor to KRLA, and feverishly study the new hits on that list.

But, that Hitachi. It was glued to my ear, my side, my pocket much the way our kids have their tech toys attached to themselves today. Only, with me, it was this one battery operated transistor radio.  It was just as important to me as any smart-phone, iPod, GameBoy, or other portable device the kids take with them these days. No, it was more important because it was first and it changed our lives. I cherished it.

Do you remember your first transistor radio? I can picture it today, though I can’t remember the name of a single teacher, picture the face of a single teacher from elementary through high school (for real), but I can totally remember almost every detail of that Hitachi radio.  I’m not sure what that says about me?

By the way, do you remember where you were when JFK was assassinated? Or where you were when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 21, 1969 and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Other technology to be covered in this series will be the 8-track, car-stereos, those amazing stack record players that dropped the LPs, reel-to-reel tape recorders, 8mm movie cameras, movies, and home editing machines, home dark-rooms, junior high science fairs, the first Sony Walkman, record stores with listening booths (in Hollywood), as well as your suggestions.

Postscript: As it turns out, after I wrote this article, I was able to find both that original Hitachi transistor radio in my memorabilia boxes and also a cool record LP from the same time, released by one of our local radio stations in Los Angeles, KRLA, both pictured above. It was a Transistor 6 Hiphonic – Model TH -600. Used s 9-Volt Battery.  Yeah, you guessed it. I couldn’t resist. Got one. IT STILL WORKED! The first station I found was an Oldies Station and the song playing was “After the Loving” by Engelbert Humperdinck!

Does Hitachi exist anymore? Anyone know? Those 21 “Solid Rocks” on that KRLA album included, “Dirty Water” by The Standells, “Psychotic Reaction” by the Count 5, “Farmer John,” by the Premiers, “Little Latin Lupelu,” by the Righteous Brothers, “You Turn Me On,” by Ian Whitcomb, “The Duck” by Jackie Lee, and “Keep On Runnin’” by the Spencer Davis Group. How many of those songs do you remember?

*an homage to Tom Wolfe’s first collected book of essays, published in 1965

NOTE: I co-founded the website and this was originally published there. It was the first of five Evolution of Technology columns, several co-written with Professor David E. Weber. I will be published those original five columns here and then, hopefully, continuing the series with completely new originals.

  • Brian Vickery

    I remember those “piece of furniture” stereos. Then came 8-track boomboxes and cassettes, and those transistor radios would have been great except we were not close enough to get a decent signal!

    I used to enjoy listening to Bill Cosby, Nipsy Russell, Richard Pryor and Justin Wilson on LPs.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Remember “Wonderfulness” by Cosby, BV? Hilarious without a single vulgarity or sexual reference!

  • Carolgast14

    i used to put radio under my pillow at night and would not turn it off till i heard a beatle song. lol

    • Bruce Sallan

      Didn’t we all, Carol! Good memories…

  • Jessica Northey

    I love finding stories like these. I shared in one of my radio forums. VERY COOL!! 

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thx so much Jessica…stay tuned for Rotary Phones, Film Photography and Darkrooms, Vinyl Records, and Drive-In Movie Theaters – plus more…

      • EB

        This reminds me of the fact that we have a toy rotary phone that surprisingly my son knows how to use. Maybe he learned from watching Toy Story? I didn’t personally have a transitory radio but still got some nostalgia reading this. Nice article.

        By the way, I broke out my VHS player this year so my daughter could experience the magic of the little mermaid. Successfully circumvented Disney’s “vault”, made her happy, and taught a little history in the process. That’s a nice trifecta if I do say so myself.

  • dadblunders

    I remember my first walkman. The freedom was incredible and I could record music on a cassette tape and take ti with me. I remember though that times changed quickly and we went to BOOMBOXES which at the time were enormous in size! It’s actually humorous if you think about it…we went from ultra small to overcompensating.

    I am not even sure if anyone really owns a boombox anymore. I never hear the terminology. The I-pod made it so much more convenient to take an entire library of music with you. You could even get accessories to hook into your car audio to play (now that’s where the real boomboxes went to!)


    • Bruce Sallan

      Now, it seems we all listen to music in isolation via ear-plugs unless we go to LIVE concerts…interesting the “progress” we’ve made, don’t you think, Aaron?

      • dadblunders

         It’s very interesting progress we made. It brings me back to the question you and I were discussing before. Does technology bring us closer together or further apart as a society? You could make interesting arguments for either case.


        • Bruce Sallan

          It’s not a simple question Aaron. I look at things through the eyes of a man who grew up in simpler times so I tend to think it was better “back in the day” when we played outside, rode our bikes, had a dime in our pocket if we had to call home, and our parents weren’t concerned about what we read, heard, or watched.

          OTOH…On the other hand……..

          • dadblunders

             I try to look through the simpler times eyes myself. I was child of the 70’s and we still played outside and ate Halloween candy without checking it. Every time I get into that mood though I remember what my granny told me about simpler times….she used to tell me that the good times were now. If you didn’t believe it just walk to an outhouse in the middle of winter. She had no problems telling me that now were the good times and it was we did with it that mattered.


          • Bruce Sallan

            THAT is the wisdom of age!

  • David Weber

    This post stirs M*A*N*Y memories, so I will attempt to be brief, focused, concise and above all, selective, posting only three.

    1. First portable radio … was actually my father’s.  As was Bruce’s, his was made in Japan.  It could slip in and out of a cheap leather holster that had a shoulder strap.  Dad and I would listen to the radio at the Dodger baseball games, first played at the L.A. Coliseum, then at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine.  The Dodgers’ lead broadcaster was the inimitable Vin Scully, often referred to as the best sports broadcaster of all time.  Dodger fans pioneered bringing radios to the ballpark, to listen to the play by play from the estimable “Vinny.”

    2. Neighborhood record store … for me was The Wherehouse in Westwood, West L.A.  (Not really my neighborhood, but the closest record store.)  I could browse in the bins for hours.  While in college, I cultivated a taste for classical music. When I visited L.A., I visited The Wherehouse, where a clerk named George would counsel and educate me.  I trusted his judgment, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he was something of a classical music snob.  Once I came into the store asking about what recording of “The Planets” he recommended I buy.  George snorted, “I don’t recommend any of them.  You don’t need ‘The Planets.'” 

    3. Ed Sullivan … was a VERY BIG DEAL in my family (which consisted of my two parents and me).  Every Sunday for many years, even well into high school, when I otherwise basically disassociated myself from my parents, we would gather in the back room and watch The Ed Sullivan Show at 8.00 p.m.  When friend or relatives came over for a Sunday dinner, the entire group would watch, crowding into the smallish room with extra chairs.  When Ed hosted The Beatles’ U.S. debut in Feb. 1964 — I may have the date wrong, I guess I should check via Google! — the first set ended by going to commercial, the squeals of the girls in the audience ringing in our ears.  My father clicked down the volume so that the room was dead silent.  Then he and my mother looked at each other, shrugged and simultaneously said, “Mneh.” 

    • Bruce Sallan

      David, we’ve been friends a VERY long time. It’s so fun to read and hear you go down “memory lane” since your memories are always so vivid. THAT is why I’ve invited you to join me in writing more in this series of columns. We’ll have fun. So, everyone – stay tuned for next week’s installment of “The Evolution of Technology: Vinyl Records” as David and I go down that memory lane together!

      I miss those old variety shows but YouTube has brought them back as you can find just about any artist you remember from those days and many you don’t want to remember!

  • Steve (JoeBugBuster) Case

    The fun thing about nostalgia is that a given topic or object can trigger different things in different people. I love this blog and look forward to future blogs on this topic

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thanks Steve…next week it’s Vinyl Records! Stay tuned…

  • EB

    This reminds me of the fact that we have a toy rotary phone that surprisingly my son knows how to use. Maybe he learned from watching Toy Story? I didn’t personally have a transitory radio but still got some nostalgia reading this. Nice article.
    By the way, I broke out my VHS player this year so my daughter could experience the magic of the little mermaid. Successfully circumvented Disney’s “vault”, made her happy, and taught a little history in the process. That’s a nice trifecta if I do say so myself

    • Bruce Sallan

      BUT, does your son know what it was used for? Does he understand that it was wired?

      • EB

        He doesn’t understand much other than he knows to say “hello” into it.  He also seems to get frustrated when the wire gets caught on things as he’s dragging it around. Not as easy to throw as mommy’s iphone!

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