Transistor radios changed the world forever, especially for teenagers. Instead of listening to mum and dad’s 1940s music on the valve mantel, they were able to grab a tiny radio, taking rock ’n’ roll anywhere they wanted. As a result, the rock culture and the stars like Elvis, The Beach Boys and Roy Orbison boomed.
The first transistor semiconductor was conceived in the American Bell laboratories in 1947, following years of work on electronic miniaturisation for wartime applications. It was crude and oversized for commercial applications, but paved the way for amazing home and mobile entertainment, medical equipment, computers and much more. (The three Bell scientists were later awarded a joint Nobel Prize in physics).
Remarkably, seven years transpired before the world’s first transistor radio, the Regency, was sold to the American public in November 1954 - this world-changing phenomenon was just fifty years ago! The Regency radio did not perform as clearly and powerfully as a valve mantel, but was very portable and required infinitely less power to run. Of compact form, it was so small that it fitted in some shirt pockets. The Regency is not particularly rare, having sold over 400,000 units, but it’s well sought-after, with good examples realising above $400.
After purchasing the American transistor technology licence, Sony Japan joined the race to produce the world’s first transistor radio. Although they were trounced at the post by the Regency, the first Sony was released to the Japanese public nine months later. Because the small Sony would not fit the even smaller Japanese shirt pockets, Sony had a batch of shirts made with a larger pocket, for their sales reps to demonstrate the radio’s portability.
It was 1957 before the newly-named Sony transistor was first exported to the USA - and in 1959, the sales of Japanese compacts to the USA numbered an amazing six million units, contributing to the rise of their electronics industry. Around this time, Australia was importing brands like Philips, PYE and Admiral. By 1958/9 Australian production was in full swing.
Transistor radios, from the first example in 1954 to those produced in the 1960s, are well sought-after, with good examples fetching hundreds of dollars. Even worn, broken or non-operating early radios are usually of interest, albeit for considerably reduced prices.
A percentage of transistor radios have paint spots and other unusual marks, due to the owner regularly painting while they had the radio playing, or perhaps the transistor was a shed radio for years. ‘Painted’ transistor radios are still worth collecting, as most marks can be carefully removed by collectors.
Australian collectors predominantly acquire Australian brands, though a few find the most striking British, Japanese and American radios also of interest. Very large multi-band American and Japanese worldwide receivers such as Zenith and National are very collectable, achieving good prices from $50 to many hundreds depending on the model and condition.
Considering the greater popularity of Australian-made radios, how are locally produced radios identified?
In the absence of a country of origin label, expert collectors can often tell by brand - leading Australian brands include AWA, Astor, STC and Kriesler - model numbers, construction style and components. In addition, a foreign set may be identified by the tuning dial only displaying numbers, instead of local Australian radio stations. Nearly all Australian radio receivers have the major radio stations for a state, or the entire country, for example, 7BU (Tas), 3UZ (Vic), and 2UE (NSW). Other indicators: many British radios have LW (long wave), which was never on our radios, and Australian radios were a single AM band until the 1970s, because we adopted FM radio much later than the Americans.
Other multi-nationals such as PYE and Philips had local assembly here, so at first glance it may be difficult to tell if a brand like PYE is from the UK or Australia; many English sets were imported by families bringing their possessions with them when they immigrated.
Occasionally transistor radios are offered for sale when they are in fact valve radios. Incorrect descriptions can lead to difficulties between buyers and sellers, but there are simple ways to identify a radio’s type. Whilst many early transistor radios were packaged in almost identical cases to their last valve counterpart, both types of portables have an opening back for battery access. Look inside. With few exceptions, you can see the components. If there are glass tubes (like small light globes), the radio is valve.
With thousands of transistor radio types and brands, from a seller’s point of view a transistor radio’s collectability mainly depends on the right potential buyer seeing it. There are barely a few hundred speciality transistor radio collectors in Australia, however thousands of people are general radio collectors, or are interested in having just one.
The serious collectors look for brand, style, colour, cracks (few or none), condition, model, accessories, original packaging and papers. Casual collectors, for example the older generation, generally prefer a radio like one they had when they were young. The twenty-somethings usually go for the ‘cool’ or retro-looking transistors. For example, eight-track tape players with round ball styling from the ‘70s are most collectable, and most items with the Coke brand are also very popular.
Less unique transistor radios from the 1960’s often realise from $5 to $50 in good condition. Whilst these are not high prices, they sell quite well and help to preserve our radio history.
Accessories add value and historical interest too, so don’t throw them away. For example, the leather or leatherette carry case, an original (flat) battery that has not leaked, the original box, matching earpiece and papers such as authentic advertising leaflets, the guarantee, operating instructions, circuits and purchase docket can all be of interest. Radio-related printed items are collectable too, from original advertisements to books, playing cards with a radio brand on, circuits and advertising signs.
Surprisingly, new radios in their box are not unusual, coming from old stores or owners who never used them. The author purchased a ‘70s radio from a champion woodchopper in Tasmania who won it as a prize at a show. Collectors may pay double or more the going rates for new in box.
Transistor radios usually employed batteries that were especially made by companies like Eveready, to suit a range of radios. Batteries were priced around 13 shillings, so some radios were not used often and were eventually placed on the shelf; this accounts for transistor radios still available in great condition.
The speciality 6 or 9-volt batteries are no longer available, but most people with electronics knowledge can tape the connector to a modern alkaline battery, battery pack or DC power pack. Always check the voltage first, and generally it is better not to cut the old battery connector off, as this reduces the authenticity and value. If in doubt regarding the connection of a battery, leave it for the experts, as a reverse connection can damage the radio. For example, the green wire on some vintage transistor battery connectors is plus!
Due to the tiny size of transistors, they were also made in thousands of novelty shapes, inclusing Coke bottles, Big M cartons, WD40 spray cans, books, cars, trains and much more. Some were premium give-aways, representing a company; they are collectable and have a good following.
Transistor radios have the added attraction in that they usually work, and the expectation that they will give faultless service indefinitely. In fact, compared to power-guzzling, high voltage valves, they are outstandingly reliable, but components such as capacitors and even transistor elements can break down with age. Poor solder joints and rough handling can also silence a transistor radio, necessitating attention. Experts will check over rare or very collectable units first, and take precautions like applying a low voltage before taking the old timer up to full power. Most scratchy volume controls and other undesirable faults can be repaired.
The humble transistors of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s had only five to nine transistor components, but they pioneered an era of hope and growth. Collecting them recalls the style and music of the era.