Transistorized Transformation

This is the world’s first transistor radio model.  The retail price was $49.95 when introduced on October 18, 1954. Almost 100,000 were sold in the first year of production.  It is the model TR-1,  designed by Texas Instruments and Regency Electronics and manufactured by Regency Electronics.


That transistors “revolutionized the world” is a banal truth!  What might be some of the more interesting truths we can discover beyond that?

What now seems to be a banal truth was not so at the time.  In the 1950’s Transistors were “interesting,” but not clearly, “revolutionary.”  The transistor was invented in 1948.  It’s widespread use and influence did not develop until about 20 years later, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The transistors of the 1950’s were pretty crappy not only by today’s standards, but also in comparison to the devices they were supposed to replace, vacuum tubes.  Whereas the tubes of the 1950’s might have a 10% or maybe a 20% variance in a specification such as gain, transistors of that era might have a variation of over 200%.  Many engineers dismissed the new transistors as being impractical, just a lab curiosity.

An engineer at a company called Regency found a way to use the transistors of the era to reliably make AM transistor radios in an assembly-line process[1].  Here lies my first observation of a more interesting truth.  New technologies often enter the market at the bottom end, in low-cost applications, like an AM radio, rather than in high-end applications, like a computer.  The low-end applications serve as a demonstration of the technology.  The companies that dominate the market tend to ignore the new entrant since they do not have the facilities or expertise to economically compete in the low end of the market.  Low profit margins and little future growth potential make the new entrant seem very marginal and irrelevant.  (Look where AM radio is in popularity today!)  But that could be a mistake because as the new technology becomes more fundamentally practical it will experience exponential growth up the market chain.

In the 1950’s RCA was a big player in the business of main-frame computers.  Remember the RCA Bizmac line of computers?  With at least 5000 vacuum tubes in each computer and a 1950’s era price of at least 1.6 million dollars how could you forget?  But computers of that era were not mass produced[2].  The Bizmacs have been forgotten and the mass production of the Regency TR-1 is part of the reason you undoubtedly have never heard of a Bizmac before reading this.   (I’ve written more about RCA here.)  On the other hand,  have you heard of IBM computers?  They were transistorized and mass produced of course.  Thomas J. Watson realized that the mass production of the Regency TR-1 AM radio was important.   He also realized that he had to do more than start a project to design a transistorized computer.  He had to change attitudes and culture within IBM.  When engineers at IBM continued to advocate the use of vacuum tubes in computers, Watson simply gave them transistor radios [1].  That is apparently what what it took to get them to start designing computers with transistors.

You have to experience a new technology to really appreciate it.  New ideas are so foreign when they are new that they are difficult to understand in an emotional way.  This tends to hide the value of new ideas.   Experience is key to understanding new ideas.

At first new technologies are used to simply replace old technologies.  For example, transistors replaced vacuum tubes.  But later, the new technologies make other things obsolete.  Vacuum tubes require a device called a transformer to match the tubes to a loudspeaker.  Just like the transmission in a car converts the torque and speed of the engine to something appropriate for the differential and wheels, a transformer converts the voltage and current of a vacuum tube to match the needs of a loudspeaker.  The TR-1 radio pictured above had a matching transformer in it because the transistors were being used like tubes were.  Once tubes were replaced with transistors, the next largest component in the radio was the matching transformer.  At first engineers attempted to miniaturize it.  But they quickly discovered that transistors were not exactly like tubes, and that transistor circuits could be designed to directly drive the loudspeaker.  Viola!  No more matching transformers in radios.  Cost, weight, size, and battery life were all further improved.  All the companies that made matching transformers for audio applications lost a large segment of their market. This continuing type of innovation based on previous innovations is persistent.

Now we have personal computers, laptop computers, smartphones, Facebook, Youtube, and more.  In a sense all of these have been enabled by transistors.   At their heart, these new technologies represent the collective desires of our society.  They reflect our collective culture.  All of them represent a continuous developmental process of human desire.  Every one of us has little choice but to be influenced by these innovations.  (Do you still listen to your music on CD’s?  It is getting hard to do.  Sales of CD players are so low that many stores do not sell them any more.  Soon CD’s will go the way of Vinyl LP’s.)  But looking forward, we do have choices in developing the future.  We can innovate.

In summary,

1.)  New technologies often invade the marketplace at the bottom end first, seeming to offer little, but they demonstrate something fundamentally new in a practical way.  (There are exceptions.)

2.)  One needs to experience new technology to really appreciate it.

3.)  New technologies grow slowly at first, but eventually transform much more than could ever have been initially anticipated.

4.)  One can hardly choose to ignore technological innovations, but we can lead with innovation in order to influence our culture.  Technology is one of the means by which we as a society influence culture, that is, the means by which we influence what others care about.




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About Douglas De Boer

Please see my Dordt College homepage for more information about me. Also be sure to see my "Curriculum Vita" for my personal testimony
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