The year is 1954. The economy is booming – more cars are being sold, homes are being constructed, and new inventions and technological breakthroughs are happening all the time. The middle class is rising, with suburban areas and so-called “Levvitowns” popping up all around the country. But what about technological breakthroughs? Introducing the Regency TR-1 transistor radio…
Before the transistor, vacuum tubes were the “norm.” They were found in everything ranging from radios to television sets to large computers (like SAGE.) However, scientists at Bell Labs – the research laboratory for the Bell System – invented the transistor in 1948.
While you would think that the transistor would be an overnight success, finding uses in everything, you would be wrong. The early transistors were unreliable and, in some applications, would not work.
However, Texas Instruments paired up with an Indianapolis-based company to produce the first consumer gadget to employ the new technology.
TI and IDEA
Texas Instruments, at the time, was just a small company that was newly formed as a spin-off of Geophysical Service Incorporated in 1951. Just a year later, TI was able to purchase a patent license to manufacture transistors to the Bell System’s (specifically Western Electric) specifications.
At the same time, the Industrial Development Engineering Associates (I.D.E.A.) of Indiana was manufacturing antenna amplifiers under the name “Regency”.
TI developed a transistor radio circuit and pitched the idea to several manufacturers. While none were interested, IDEA picked up the idea. After refining the circuit and making it more easy and cheaper to produce, the Regency TR-1 radio was born.
The TR-1, originally announced in October 1954, was instantly seen as a novelty due to its small size. It could be easily carried in a shirt pocket, while other radios of the time period were much larger and were barely considered portable. Due to the use of transistors, there were no more vacuum tubes to worry about.
However, the new radio came at a price. The initial price was $49.95 (~$465 in 2018 dollars.)
The TR-1, despite 140,000 being made and selling for $49.95 (~$465 in 2018 dollars), could not catch the heat of tube-based competitors. Consumer Reports claimed that the radio lacked the selectivity and sound quality that the larger, established tube-based radios had.
During this time, radios had also become a crucial piece of emergency gear. During the Cold War, CONELRAD stations would broadcast important information via AM radio. Radios had become a necessity for safety just like weather radios and cell phones of today.
Despite being somewhat of a failure in the market place, the TR-1 was nonetheless a vital point in technology. Being the first consumer item to utilize transistors, it set a precedent.
Following the release of the TR-1, other manufacturers – like Sony, RCA, Emerson, and others – started producing their own transistorized radios. Car manufacturers like General Motors and Ford also started putting transistorized radios into their cars.
However, the transistor was a huge deal for all industries. The computing industry soon caught up – with Philco and other computer manufacturers making small transistorized computers as early as 1958.
IBM’s president Thomas J. Watson, Jr. started telling his employees that IBM would be “solid state in ’58” – leaving vacuum tubes behind in 1958. His demand was realized in 1959 when IBM released several transistorized computers on many levels. The IBM “STRECH” (7030) was the highest end scientific computer, followed by the 7040, 7070 and 7090 in the high-end. IBM would announce the 1401 and 1620 in October 1959 for small to mid-sized computers.
Despite this, the SAGE – Semi-Automatic Ground Environment – system developed in 1956 would remain based on vacuum tubes.
TI & IDEA today
Texas Instruments is still a vital manufacturer of semiconductors to this very day. While Texas Instruments is known for their microprocessors, clock chips and transistors, they did manufacturer home computers in the 1970s and early 1980s. Perhaps one of their most famous products was the Speak & Spell, an electronic game which utilized the speech chip which they introduced. Texas Instruments is also well known for their calculators – ranging from scientific calculators to the common graphing calculators which can be found in almost any classroom.
IDEA, on the other hand, is no longer around – at least not as IDEA. IDEA was founded in 1945 but not incorporated until 1947, and would change its name to Regency in 1961. Regency would become Relm Communications in 1989, which has further become a part of BK Technologies. Over the years, Regency would continue to produce radios. However, for decades, they would produce police scanners, competing with Bearcat and RadioShack.
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