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T.I. Unveils Transistor Radio

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On 18 October 1954, in Dallas, Texas Instruments announced the first commercial transistor pocket radio, the Regency TR1, created in collaboration with IDEA Corporation and available in time for the holiday shopping season. Sony followed in 1955. The era of portable electronics had begun.

IDEA (Industrial Development Engineering Associates) was a corporation founded by two former RCA engineers, Joe Weaver and John Pies. Setting up shop in Indianapolis after World War II, they developed a successful line of signal boosters to improve television reception in rural areas.

Meanwhile, in 1951, Texas Instruments (TI), an instrument maker for the oil industry and the Navy, decided to license the technology for constructing solid-state silicon transistors from Bell Labs. Although transistor technology had existed since 1947, the major radio builders continued to produce receivers using vacuum tubes. Early transistors were fragile and difficult to control, and Bell Labs hoped that by licensing the technology at the relatively low cost of $25,000, its quality would improve. TI’s vice president, Pat Haggerty, bet that transistors could be used to miniaturize consumer products and turn his small company into an electronics giant, and joined about two dozen other licensees experimenting with the technology.

Haggerty pushed TI’s engineers to develop transistors made of silicon, rather than germanium, because they could work at higher temperatures and therefore have more applications in the industrial and military markets. By May 1954, TI surprised its rival licensees by making silicon transistors that worked. Nevertheless, this technology was too expensive for the consumer market, and Haggerty wanted TI to dominate the mass production of transistors before his competitors could catch up. So he decided to find an application for germanium transistors that could be produced in volume. Haggerty understood that scaling up production would drive down the future costs of transistors. Radio seemed like a promising option. Haggerty committed a huge portion of TI’s budget ($2 million for a company that generated $25 million in revenue) to this research.

TI’s early prototypes used eight transistors, which was too costly for a product that Haggerty hoped to sell for $50—more than a conventional tube radio, but not too much to pay for an exciting new product. TI searched for a manufacturing partner, and found it in IDEA, which had set up a consumer products division called Regency and employed a staff of capable and talented engineers who were familiar with building products for the general public. In June 1954, TI and IDEA agreed to build a transistor-based radio under the Regency label that would be ready for Christmas.

In only a few months, TI developed a method for mass producing inexpensive high-frequency transistors. To get the cost of a transistor set down to $10, TI developed dozens of processes to improve quality and performance. At the same time, at IDEA, Regency’s master engineer Richard Koch simplified TI’s prototype by reducing its transistor load from eight to four. Nearly every component had to be shrunk down to fit inside a plastic case the size of a shirtfront pocket. Koch created a new circuit board design that allowed components to be directly soldered onto the board.

The Regency TR-1 met its production goals and was brought to market in October 1954. It contained four germanium transistors and was powered by a 22.5 volt battery providing over twenty hours of life. Weighing eleven ounces, it cost $49.95. Like its successors the Walkman and the iPod, the TR-1 was marketed as a stylish accessory and sold in a variety of colors. Although it was a modest commercial success, its greater impact was its effect on the consumer electronics market. Transistors changed the way people listened to music, watched television, and, by the 1970s, interacted with computers. Miniaturization became the standard for the industry.