by Sarah Lowrey
Fifty years ago this October, the world was a far different
place than it is now. In 1954, almost anything electronic
required vacuum tubes — an invention dating back to the
beginning of the 20th century that had yet to be improved on.
Vacuum tubes were the only way of performing many
electronic functions — such as amplification and rectification
(although the solid-state diode had appeared on the scene
by this time) — but were generally limited to devices that
could be plugged in. As vacuum tubes required heating by
filaments to function, the current use was high.
In addition, most standard vacuum tubes
were large in comparison to other electronic
devices. The combination of high power use
and large size meant that few practical,
portable devices utilizing vacuum tubes were
created. Portable, battery powered radios had
been around since the 1920s, but were limited by
the requirement for several battery voltages, very
short life of the batteries, expense of battery
operation, and size of the vacuum tubes required.
As a result, few portable radios saw much use.
The Transistor Arrives
The transistor — a revolutionary solid-state device capable of amplification — had
been invented back in 1947, but its actual application to mass-produced consumer items had
been limited, as production of transistors had yet
to be perfected, so their cost remained high.
Transistors offered many improvements
over the vacuum tube: They were smaller, used
much less power, and were more reliable.
Efforts were underway to refine transistor production so that individual devices would become
inexpensive enough for use in consumer items.
The First Transistor Radio
By early 1954, Texas Instruments (TI) had
perfected production to the point that transistors
became cheap enough for use in consumer items. TI
decided that a portable, handheld radio offered the most
mainstream application of the new technology and
approached several large corporations about producing
the radio they had designed using TI transistors, but companies — such as RCA and Motorola — did not believe the
transistor’s time had yet arrived and passed on the offer. TI
finally found a partner in a company called I.D.E.A., Inc.,
of Indianapolis, IN. Its main product up to that time had
been a line of vacuum tube-operated television signal
boosters marketed under the Regency brand name.