Transistor radios had been around for a while but it was Sony, a small startup company, and other far-east imports that brought the price down and made “the transistor” a standard part of the baby boomer’s accessories. It weighed a half of a pound, could fit in a pocket, and ran all day on one or two small batteries (the 9 volt was invented to be the same shape as the case). Best of all, they were portable and had tiny earphones, so Rock music could be played without parents listening in.
At the height of their popularity, Sony’s transistor radios went for around $25. That’s the inflation adjusted equivalent of about $200 today, so they weren’t really cheap. By the mid 60s, Hong Kong manufacturers had the price down to about $15. That was still the equivalent of $120 today, so transistor radios became prized posessions.
Along with the portable transistor, car radios took a big step when they moved from vacuum tubes to transistors. Once the tubes were gone, radios came on quickly, and the drain on the battery was a lot less (if you went “parking” with a vacuum tube radio, your battery went dead quickly!).
As compact as they were, early transistor radios were AM only and stereo was a long way in the future. The tuning was a bit fussy, twisting or moving the radio changed the volume and tone, and the analog tuners had trouble holding a station. FM radio broadcasting with its higher frequency response was still a few years off.
When I originally wrote this article, I said that Intel is able to pack over a million transistors into a single chip. The current count is now over half a billion and still growing. It’s amazing that these early transistor radios did their work with only 4 or 6 transistors.