More than Six Decades of Pocket Portable Electronics
by Don Pies
The craze for pocket-sized electronics began on October 18, 1954 with the first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1. That date set in motion a worldwide hunger for all small and portable electronic devices we now consume on a daily basis. Quote Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak "without this technology, portable media players would never have come into existence — and without that, we wouldn't have iPhones today".
This historic date in 1954 goes well beyond a simple note on a gadget guru's calendar, it marked the pivotal point for the explosion of rock and roll and the launching of the information age. The timing of Elvis' first hits fell into perfect alignment with the planets and the first available means to hear those revolutionary tunes on a teenager's own personal radio away from their disapproving parents. The invention of the pocket radio back in 1954 not only brought rock music to one's own world, it opened doors for future musicians. Roger McGuinn, leader of America's answer to the '60s British invasion, The Byrds, listened to Elvis on a Regency radio when he was only thirteen. McGuinn was so inspired that on his fourteenth birthday, he was given a guitar. In the History Channel's program, 101 GADGETS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, McGuinn comments "…I think it was why rock 'n roll got so big". Quote the PBS History Detectives in 2012 "the transistor radio was the invention of personal entertainment".
Possibly the most important contribution from the transistor radio was its exposing the information age to the world. As noted in PBS program TRANSISTORIZED, "…and the radio transformed more than just music, it became a portable political weapon." Quote Charles Stewart "the transistor suddenly opened the flood gates of information…it made it possible for people who had never before been a party to world dramas to be there in a front row seat".
Contrary to the misguided myth that Sony had the first transistor radio, this honor goes to a small Indianapolis company called Regency Electronics, who joined forces with Texas Instruments in 1954 to show the world transistors were practical. To clarify the record, it was after Raytheon produced a picnic portable-sized transistor radio in 1955 that Sony came out with their own picnic portable radio, and it wasn't until 1957 that Sony had a miniaturized pocket-sized transistor radio.
Lost from popular knowledge is the incredible fact that the industry giant companies of 1954 completely missed the opportunity to market transistorized products. At the time, vacuum tubes were king - Bell Labs' 1947 transistor invention was not taken seriously by the major radio manufacturers…RCA, Sylvania and Philco felt transistors were just a novel idea for hobbyist. And completely unappreciated by today's standards are the technical challenges that Regency and Texas Instruments faced in 1954. Inventing the electronic circuits to use transistors entered completely unexplored design space, and the miniaturized components required for a pocket-sized device did not exist; and yet, the entire development program to overcome impossible obstacles was successfully completed in just four months. One example of cutting edge technology made real by the Regency TR-1 was the first commercial use of the now industry standard printed circuit boards found in all electronics since that time.
Looking back to the radio's 50th Anniversary in 2004, it's interesting to see how things have changed. In '04, the Regency TR-1 was celebrated by the BBC in the UK, in the USA on NPR's SCIENCE FRIDAY program, and in Australia on Sydney talk radio; and at that time, the iPod was the latest technical marvel that fascinated the world, and the iPhone was still three years off. Yet now, all of our important daily electronic devices still share a common root…the first transistor radio.
Postscript - FORTUNE magazine quote: "For perspective, remember that the transistor, arguably the most important invention of the 20th century, came out of Bell Labs in the late 1940s as a clunky device of wire, gold foil, glue, and other components. The first transistorized consumer product, the Regency TR-1 radio, went on sale Oct. 18, 1954, and sold out almost immediately. If you owned one, you were the coolest thing on two legs."
1 - stock photo of a Regency TR-1
2 - Steve Wozniak transistor radio web links:
Steve Wozniak's favorite gadgets - ref Gizmodo.com
Steve Wozniak's first favorite portable device - ref CNET
Steve Wozniak goes hands-on with technology relics - ref CNET
Steve Wozniak at the Computer History Museum
Steve Wozniak's favorite gadget - ref Forbes
3 - Regency TR-1 History
Website covers the development of the Regency TR-1 & the people who built it, features a gallery of TR-1 images, includes resource references, highlights some of the radio's quirky anecdotal moments in history...surviving nuclear bombs, Hollywood, "then & now", rock'n roll; and touches on the cultural impacts triggered by this radio.
4 - Roger McGuinn - The Byrds
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artist Roger McGuinn of The Byrds was featured in the History Channel's program 101 GADGETS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD where he discussed how the transistor radio inspired him. McGuinn's voice starts 48 seconds into this audio piece.
5 - PBS History Detectives
A Regency TR-1 investigation was aired in a Season-10 PBS History Detectives episode titled FIRST TRANSISTOR RADIO.View the short episode preview, or watch the Full Episode. Ref: History Detectives Transistor Radio, Season 10 Regency TR-1 starts at 28:45
6 - PBS "TRANSISTORIZED"
"TRANSISTORIZED" was an intriguing one-hour PBS TV special hosted by Newton's Apple Ira Flatow. View an excerpt from this PBS special covering the transistor radio's impact on rock & roll and introduction to the information age; and how the Regency TR-1 beat Sony to be the first on the market.
7 - Sony
View the Sony backstory at http://www.regencytr1.com/Regency_Early_Years.html#sony
8 - Regency radio invention and development
Includes the chronological development the Regency TR-1 and how the established electronics companies missed the century's most important technology. Many supporting references are found in the links on this web page.
9 - "The Revolution in Your Pocket"
The 2004 fall issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE's INVENTION & TECHNOLOGY (vol. 20, #2) celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Regency TR-1 in an article titled "The Revolution in Your Pocket". This is an excellent article that captures the historic significance of the TR-1 and how industry met the challenge.
10 - Did the iPod copy the Regency TR-1?
The BBC found a possible connection between the design of Apple's iPod and the Regency TR-1 in 2005. View this topic at http://www.regencytr1.com/TRivia_CORNER.html#ipod
Also, in an article titled "The Pod Father", author Megan Fernandez gives us a fun read celebrating the Regency TR-1's place in cultural and electronics history at http://www.regencytr1.com/images/Indianapolis%20Monthly%20-%20March%202007.pdf
11 - Regency TR-1 50th anniversary…three years before the iPhone
View 50th anniversary tribute at http://www.regencytr1.com/Regency%20Electronics%20product%20images.html#50th
12 - The Smithsonian commemorated the Regency TR-1 on its 60th anniversary in an article by Cari Romm in 2014.
13 - In 2021, Bruce Springsteen talked about his personal transistor radio on SiriusXM satellite radio, E Street Radio channel. Springsteen began by describing how essential the transistor radio was to him in his musically formative years. “The power and importance of my radio could not be overstated, I lived with it, tucked it in my schoolbag during the day, and tucked it beneath my pillow all hours of the night.“