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?
Today we return to the extravagant world of 1980s handheld TVs.
This is my Sony Watchman FD-10A and Sony Watchman FD-30A, two of Sony’s attempts to create “Watchman” CRT handheld TVs in the 1980s.
The FD-10A, dating from 1987 is on the left and the FD-30A, dating from 1984 is on the right. They both still work, though the FD-30A seems to have a loose connection somewhere and sometimes will not turn on after you pull the antenna out. As you can see, they are both black and white sets.
My father found the FD-10A at a thrift store some years ago and I believe I found the FD-30A at Village Thrift sometime in the past two years or so.
The most distinctive thing about these TVs is what they’ve done with the CRT. On a typical CRT the electron gun is located behind the viewing surface you’re looking at. The gun is firing at a surface of phosphors that are glowing on the other side of the glass tube you’re looking into. There’s basically a straight line between your eyes, the surface of the picture tube, the glowing phosphors, and the electron gun.
Take a look at these Panasonic Travelvision handheld TVs and you can see the ergonomic issue this creates. The shape you get from putting a tiny conventional CRT into a handheld TV ends up with the screen on the short end of a long case. Holding that up to your face is very unnatural. If you’re sitting down you end up putting the TV in your lap and craning your head down to look at it. If you really wanted to hold it up to your face you would have to hold it like a telescope.
The ingenious CRT that these Watchman units use solves this problem. Their CRTs have a window built into the top of the wide end of the tube and the electron gun fires at a curved surface of phosphors located under the window.
See that? You’re actually looking down into the CRT there.
So, the electron gun ends up firing perpendicular to the viewers eyes onto the curved white area with the phosphors. While this does not do great things for the geometry of the resulting image it does mean that you can hold the Watchman in a much ore natural way as you would a portable radio or a Game Boy with your hands down near the Watchman logo and the screen facing your eyes.
This must have been difficult to design. Clearly this is from the era people remember when Sony was doing amazing things miniaturizing electronics.
The FD-10A is a fairly basic model that only has VHF/UHF and no other fancy do-dads like AM/FM or a video-in jack. As a result though it’s more lightweight and somewhat smaller than the FD-30A.
Other than an earphone jack, just about the only feature that the FD-10A has is a switch that allows you to save the batteries by only listening to TV sound.
I used the FD-10A to watch the end of analog TV on June 12, 2009. Here is an image of Cleveland’s Channel 19, WOIO-TV taken before the 10AM cutoff and moments after.
At the moment of the cutoff I took a blurry and unusable movie with my Blackberry. While some channels made a big deal about the switchover to digital on WOIO there was no fanfare other than a text explanation that scrolled very fast up the screen, followed the by the static you see in the second picture.
The FD-30A is a more full-featured set but it’s heavier and larger than the FD-10A. It has a video-in jack (using a normal stereo Y-cable), AM/FM radio (with FM stereo), a DC power input, and a kickstand.
This FD-30A also came with a cloth case. All of the controls are accessible through the sides of the case so when the case is closed you can easily use the FD-30A as a rather weighty AM/FM radio.
The real party piece of the case though is that the cover can become a hood by unfolding flaps that attach to Velcro on either side of the Sony logo.
I supposed this might help in bright Sun conditions, but I couldn’t see using this thing in the rain at all.
One thing I like to think about when I collect items like this is what would people at the time thought about them? That is to say, if you walked into an electronics store in the 1980s and wished to purchase a handheld TV with your hard-earned money, which one should you have bought?
As a collector, I love the styling on the Casios such as the TV-400 and the TV-1000 here. These Sony Watchman units do not have the same 80s flair that the Casio do. I’m sure salespeople hawking the Casios would have been buzzing about the stunning newness of LCD technology and the significant advance of on-screen electronic tuning.
In reality, those Casios are awful. Even if you look past the inherent awfulness of first generation passive-matrix LCDs screens the electronic tuning is disturbingly bad. Anyone who has ever tuned in analog TV knows that you always have to fiddle with the tuning. There’s no way to do that with the Casios. If they don’t find your desired channel, they just tune right on by.
So, what you really want is a TV with analog tuning. I think you also want a CRT. I still need to see what a quality 80s active-matrix LCD looks like but even so I don’t think the LCD technology of the time could hold a candle to the contrast and crispness of a CRT. Even if those CRT handheld TVs ate batteries like vampires, I think the picture quality would still be worth it.
Personally, I would have bought a FD-10A. It’s simple to operate and it’s more convenient than the larger and heavier FD-30A.
But then again, if this was the 80s and you were blowing a wad of cash on something as decadent as a handheld TV, you probably want the FD-30A with all of it’s bells and whistles.