A tremendous upside to the Internet auction, and one I was not at all sure about at the outset, is that business is conducted extremely reliably. In more than 80 transactions, I have not had a single bad business experience. Radios arrive according to promised schedules and most often in the condition described. In the few instances when the condition has not been as described, sellers have cheerfully taken the item back and provided a full refund. What does it mean when you can have this many successful transactions with strangers you will likely never see eye-to-eye, strung out all across the world? My interpretation is that either people are basically honest, or the federal laws against mail fraud are among the most potent deterrents ever brought to bear on human behavior.
I’m about to enter phase two of Internet collecting-having my own auctions on eBay. Of all the transistors I have collected to date, probably half are keepers. The also-rans will soon take their place among the 200 to 300 transistors available weekly on eBay. I am anxious to find out if, on average, I can recoup my original expenditures. From informal tracking, it appears that prices for identical models in similar condition can vary by as much as 100 percent, so it is difficult to predict how the selling phase will turn out. But I need cash desperately to be able to continue. Although I have nearly satisfied my craving for the radios that remind me of my adolescence, and have far too many to fit on my nightstand, I have also moved on to new territory. My original motivation has shifted as the result of a startling discovery about what else is on the Internet auction-which turns out to be just about everything I could want for a well-rounded collection of striking industrial design.
For example, during the same four-year search for the elusive transistor radios, I was also on the lookout for an even more obscure Polaroid “Polavision” instant 8mm movie system. This novel and technologically remarkable product was the brainstorm of one of my inventor-entrepreneur idols, Dr. Edwin Land. Sadly, Polavision never caught on with consumers. Because it had a short lifespan and meager sales, finding an outfit 25 years later proved fruitless over the course of the multiyear search. But one night, while on the Internet auction, I decided to search under the word “Polavision.” Nothing came up the first time or for the first two months. But eventually it appeared, and for $51 I bought a complete Polavision outfit in mint condition from a seller in Anchorage, Alaska. It even came with four cartridges of home movies of a 1970s Christmas. (Only once over the years had a used-camera dealer professed to be able to put a “Polavision” camera in my hands, and this was at a price of $1,000-if his source still had it, which they didn’t.)
Recently, just out of curiosity, I returned to one of the local antique malls that I used to comb through periodically hoping to score a radio. With five floors, a couple hundred dealer booths, and thousands of items, I needed to switch into a mode of concentrated scanning, allowing my gaze to lock in only on small boxlike objects with metal grills. After an hour of intense searching I departed empty-handed, as usual. But instead of feeling let down, I felt incredibly smug about being hooked up with a cable modem to the Internet: the mall of all malls, open 24 hours a day for my convenience, with a built-in scanning mode that locks in only to “transistors.” It’s almost too good to be true.