I have just finished tearing open a package that I was too excited to open with my usual savoir faire. In my haste I remained careful not to damage the precious contents which now rest safely in my hands-a rare and stunning 1958 Toshiba transistor radio. It is a completely oddball-looking design with the tuning dial perched like a robot head atop a perforated metal speaker “body.” It sports a couple of unusual features.
The tuning dial lights up at the push of a button, making it very bedside-friendly. More peculiar is a microphone jack in the side (anticipating karaoke I suppose). Remarkably, although 40 years old, it is in nearly perfect condition with no noticeable scratches, dents or dings. As I turn it around slowly, admiring all sides and features, I feel a sense of smugness. This jewel of a transistor did not come to me easily, but is in fact the pinnacle of a four-year search.
My interest in transistor radios began with a beautifully designed coffee-table book, Made in Japan: Transistor Radios of the 1950s and 1960s. Given to me by a friend who knows of my background in industrial design, the book captures the variety and vitality of the first transistorized consumer electronics. Perhaps, I mused, it would be nice to get one of these cool little transistor radios to keep on my nightstand. Little did I know what I had unleashed on my unsuspecting household.
The search got under way officially on a family vacation about four years ago with casual poking around antique and “collectible” shops. (To reduce my guilt about dragging my 7-year-old son along, we also started to collect figures and models from the era of the first Star Wars films.) After several years, our territory had reached small towns in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and occasionally more distant locations-Nebraska and Oregon. My wife and son were extremely good-natured about this preoccupation and became accustomed to the refrain-“Let’s pull over here. This is just the kind of place that will have one.”
The results, however, were downright disappointing. Four years of poking around and pulling over later, I had managed to collect only about a dozen second-rate radios. Not a single one was pictured in my inspirational coffee-table book. When I asked shop owners about the scarcity, one of three answers came back: “There was a guy here last week who bought them all, he comes through looking about once a month”; “We used to have a lot, but not anymore”; “People just throw ‘em away when they stop working, they’re not worth anything.” With such discouraging results, my enthusiasm and interest waned.
In desperation, I even tried a radio club annual meet which involved a long drive, sans family. More meager results. I was slightly encouraged last winter when friends invited me to an auction of “scientific instruments.” The merchandise turned out to be much more eclectic than advertised, and included two nice transistor radios. Although they were not nearly as striking as the ones in my book, I bought them anyway. When I asked the auctioneer about the date of his next auction, he revealed that it took about a year to find enough items to have such a specialized event. Great. So in another year I might get a look at two more radios.
Then, a couple of months ago, I was having a conversation with a colleague at work totally unrelated to my languishing quest. We were talking about the Internet and she mentioned that her husband had found an interesting auction site: eBay (www.ebay.com). In a few days, the circuit was completed and the light bulb went on above my head: transistor radios! I called to get the Web address, and, within 10 minutes of logging on, I was in total shock, looking at a list of more than 300 transistor radios for sale. The postings had detailed condition reports and, best of all, most included a photo. To my delight, many were recognizable as being from my original source of inspiration, Made in Japan: Transistor Radios of the 1950s and 1960s.