Category: 1960s

Sony TR-730

This is my Sony TR-730 transistor radio.

I’ve discussed before how there’s this mish-mash section at Village Thrift where you have the possibility of finding anything and everything.  It’s so packed with items of all types that you have to make several passes before you’re sure you’ve seen everything.  One day recently I had made several passes of these shelves and had decided there was nothing I particularly wanted to buy.  But then, just as I was about to give up, I spotted what I thought at first was an electric razor in a leather pouch.

Upon closer inspection I was surprised to find that it was actually a very small, very old Sony transistor radio, the TR-730.

After we brought it home I was eager to hear it working…And this is when we discovered, via this note we found in the battery compartment, that it needed an odd 4.5v battery.

Fortunately, equivalent batteries are still made (apparently they were used in cameras) and after a trip to Battery Bob’s site I had a PX21 in hand and the TR-730 fired right up.

I’m not sure what this thing sounded like in it’s heyday but it certainly works now.

That’s 1350AM WARF, a sports station that basically saturates this part of Northeast Ohio with it’s signal.  I can tell you that the tuning wheel on this TR-730 is a bit sticky so it’s not great for fine tuning.  I think I would prefer a larger wheel like the TR-1 has.

But all things considered, I’m very amused that this 50 year-old radio still works.

Most of what I know about the TR-730 I found on James Butter’s Transistor Radio Design site.  He quotes an advertisement in a Pittsburgh newspaper for the TR-730 dated November 1961, which places this radio squarely in the Kennedy Administration.  Depending on how old you are you may not think of transistor radios as particularly antique devices but consider that this radio has most likely celebrated it’s 50th birthday.  The $39.95 price for the radio in 1961 translates to about $312 in 2013 dollars.  Buying one of these radios would have been very much like buying a smartphone today.  I suspect that if you bought one of these in 1961 it would have been the most technologically advanced device you owned.

What you got for your $39.95 in 1961 was a tiny AM radio with a tuning wheel, a volume wheel, and a headphone jack.  That’s it.  No FM.  No “bass boost”.  No back-light.  No station memories.

But what you did get was extreme portability at a time when such a thing seemed miraculous.

In the first entry on this blog, about the Casio TV-1000 micro TV, I noted how the micro TVs of the 1980s in some ways foreshadowed today’s smartphones.  If you want to go further though, you have to look back at the first handheld transistor radios of the 1950s and 1960s.

If the smartphone revolution has taught us anything it’s that any technology with mass-market appeal will be shrunk until you can carry it in your pocket.  The smartphone exists because there is tremendous appeal in having The Internet with you and accessible at all times.  The games and camera and phone aspects of the device just come along for the ride.  What you really want is the Internet with you at all times.

The Game Boy existed because of the appeal of having a videogame with you at all times.

The iPod (and the other portable music players like the Archos and the Nomad and others) existed because of the appeal of carrying thousands of songs (if not your entire music library) with you at all times.

Before that, the Walkman existed because of the appeal of carrying one album with you at all times.

In order for something to be with you at all times it has to fit into your pocket.

I may be mistaken but I believe the first time this “fit it in your pocket” phenomenon occurred was the transistor radio revolution from the introduction of the Regency TR-1 in 1954 into the 1960s.  Now, there had been portable radios for decades by this point, like Zenith’s Trans-Oceanic series, but these are large, heavy things that you might put on the ground next to you when you were having a picnic.  There’s a difference between making something battery powered and giving it a handle and putting it in your pocket.

Outside of say, a flashlight, the transistor radio was the first piece of electronics that the average person might keep on their person.  In my mind that’s a tremendously important point in the history of technology.  As someone who grew up surrounded by tape players, radios, TVs, later personal computers, and now smartphones and tablets the idea of a world before ubiquitous consumer electronics seems fascinatingly distant and alien.  In that respect, something like the TR-730 represents the first dim moments of the era I recognize as my own.

Of course the reason why we are surrounded by consumer electronics today is because of the triumph of the semiconductor and the transistor and again the TR-730 represents the opening moments of that era as well.

The TR-730 also represents the early moments of Sony’s entry into the American consumer electronics market.

When I was gathering the materials for this entry I was thinking about how much Sony stuff I own.

For a long time I’ve felt some ambivalence towards Sony.  There was a time when the Dreamcast was being crushed by the Playstation 2 that I really hated Sony, but today I have this general feeling that they’re a company that despite their intense drive to innovate has a tendency to drop the ball halfway to greatness.

If the MiniDisc had had a way to quickly and effortlessly copy music from a CD to a MiniDisc, like the iPod did years later, it might have been a tremendous success rather than the middling semi-failure that it became.

The PSP debuted in 2005 and coupled a fast CPU (for a portable device of the day) with WiFi and (once you bought a mandatory memory card) mass storage.  Sony had all of the ingredients in front of them to have invented the App Store two years before Apple, but they dropped the ball and had to rush to create something similar after Apple did.  Before that point, the process of putting demos, music, pictures, and videos on the PSP involved putting files in bizarrely named folders on the memory card.  It seemed like no one at Sony had considered the consumer’s perspective in this at all.

The PS Vita is basically the best portable game hardware ever created…and Sony can’t quite figure out what to do with it.  Does it exist for miniaturized versions of console games?  Does it exist for $10 indie games?  Does it have a chance competing with tablets and smartphones?

It’s as if this company loves to build stuff but can’t figure out how to make it really usable or delightful for the consumer in the same way that say, Apple can.

The world of consumer electronics is changing.  Whole classes of electronics like digital cameras, video cameras, eReaders, digital audio players, radios, and other devices are being subsumed into the smartphone and the tablet.

The era where you could simply bring out another new model of say, a TV or a DVD player, or a camera and people would buy it simply because it was new and it contained one new feature are quickly coming to an end as people just want one new device that does all of these things.

The world that Sony thrived in where they could have tendrils into every consumer electronics market is dying.  The TR-730 also represents the birth of this era as well.  Does something like the PS Vita represent the terminal end; the end of the Sony era?

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Odds and Ends #1

After the massive post on Windows/386 last week I promised a return to regular service the following week.  Unfortunately I caught a stomach bug this week and by the time I recovered I didn’t have time to come up with a full post.  So instead, here’s a post of “odds and ends”, neat things that might not make it into a full length post.

After last week’s post Twitter user (and all around fascinating dude) @scottcarson1957 recommended that I read Fire in the Valley by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, about the early years of the personal computer from about 1975 to 1984 when the book was written.  I ordered a copy from AbeBooks and it arrived Saturday morning.  This copy looks like it came out of a public school library, which has a neat kind of charm.  I believe Fire in the Valley was the basis for the awesome TNT movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, a movie I adore.

Odds_Fire_In_The_Valley

On Saturday I was delighted to feel well enough to go to the Friends of the Cuyahoga Falls Library book sale where in the past I’ve had really great luck finding cool sci-fi books for peanuts.  Isaac Asimov is always well represented.  The Friends of the Library organization has this large room in the basement of the Cuyahoga Falls Library where they collect books for sale and twice per year they let the public come in and buy them at very low prices.  This time we got there after 3PM, which is when they start doing their “fit as many books as you can into a bag for $3” sale. The selection was still very good for the sale being so close to the end.  As I made my way to the sci-fi section I passed the history and war sections and spotted a copy of The Codebreakers by David Kahn, published in 1967 (this copy is a Fourth Edition from 1968).

Odds_The_Codebreakers

I remembered there was something special about this book and that for some reason it was difficult to get so I immediately grabbed it and put it into my bag.

When I got home and googled it I remembered…This book was discussed in Steven Levy’s Crypto as being one of the first public histories of cryptography.

When I read Crypto I thought “gee, I should own a copy of the The Codebreakers” but then I looked up the book…It’s not that it’s difficult to get it’s that for some reason it’s bloody expensive!  A new copy basically costs $45 whether you want the hardcover or the eBook.  A $45 eBook!  A used copy of the hardcover is still over $20!  I don’t care how important a book is, that’s highway robbery.

So, I’m very glad I picked up a copy of The Codebreakers as part of my $3 bag of books.

Also in my bag of books where these three Asimov books:

Odds_Asimov_Books

Pebble in the Sky is the first of the classic novels he wrote early in his career, but those two other books are collections of science fact writing he also did.  It’s oddly not that well known that Asimov was a terrifically prolific fact writer.  There was a series of collections of his science fact articles from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published under the Discus imprint by Avon Books in the 1970s and From Earth to Heaven and Of Time, Space, and Other Things are the seventh and eighth in the series I have found.

Another thing I bought at the Friends of the Library Sale was this copy of Caddyshack on CED:

Odds_Caddyshack_CED

CED, you may recall, was the Capacitance Electronic Disc System, RCA’s entry into the early-1980s home video format war that also brought us VHS, Beta, and LaserDisc.  Of the various losers of that war, CED was probably the most sad loser.

VHS, of course won.  Beta gave the world slightly better video quality and was still recordable.  LaserDisc was a very adaptable format that soldered on until the advent of DVD as the format with the highest quality analog video.  CED basically had no advantages.  It was not recordable but did not have better video quality as LaserDisc did.  It used a needle that had to physically touch the surface of the disc so over-time the video quality of a disc would degrade.

The discs are held in the bulky plastic caddy you see in the photo.  You would insert the caddy into the player and the player would sort of eat the disc while you removed the caddy.

At the moment I do not own a CED player.

The reason I bought this CED is that I sort of collect examples of forgotten video formats:

Odds_Video_Format_Col

Here you see Caddyshack on CED, Blade Runner on LaserDisc, The Pink Panther on Video CD, Jumpin’ Jack Flash on Beta, Being John Malkovich on HD DVD, and Deep Impact on DIVX (full-frame DIVX for maximum awfulness).

The practical reason for owning these things is if I happen to find a player at a thrift store I want to already own a test article.  The silly reason is that I just think it’s hilarious.