60s transistor radios
If there was one object that defined the sixties, it was the transistor radio. The sixties was the decade of pop music. Pop and the transistor radio went hand in hand. Young people used transistor radios to listen to music outdoors, in the street, in the park or at the beach. The older generation criticised them wherever they went.
In the late 1950s, the transistor radio was an expensive novelty. In the 1960s its price dropped making it affordable to teenagers. Far Eastern imports from Hong Kong drove the price drop and squeezed out UK manufacturers.
By the end of the 1960s, the transistor radio helped people throughout the world keep in touch with news and opinions. For those living under authoritarian regimes in Europe, Africa and Asia, it was the only way to find out what was really going on.
Radio broadcasts in the 1960s
In the 1960s there were no commercial stations in the UK. There was only BBC national and regional radio.
The BBC did play some pop music on the Light Programme and Radio 1 started in 1967. However, many pop listeners tuned into foreign stations, particularly Radio Luxembourg and the pirate stations in the middle years of the 1960s.
It was also possible to receive many other overseas stations on AM in the UK.
Many radios from the 1950s and 1960s show a host of exotic foreign stations on the dial.
- Hilversum (Netherlands)
- Helsinki (Finland)
- Lyons (France)
- Budapest (Hungary)
- Oslo (Norway)
- Moscow (USSR)
- Brussels (Belgium)
- Munich (West Germany)
- Allouis (France)
The invention of the transistor
The transistor was invented in 1948. It replaced the thermionic valve, or tube, as an electronic component that could amplify sound.
As well as the transistor, the printed circuit board (PCB), which was developed in the Second World War, made construction of smaller-sized electronic circuits possible.
Texas Instruments, in the United States, marketed the first transistor radio, the Regency TR1 for Christmas 1954. It was also the first 'shirt pocket' radio.
Japanese companies were not far behind. A few years later, Sony established itself as the market leader in the USA.
Transistor radios in Britain
The UK market was sheltered from the Japanese invasion and British manufacturers dominated the market in the late 1950s. Sometimes their products looked the same as portable valve sets of the early fifties. Sometimes they were the same. The Bush transistor portable, the TR82 from 1959, used the same case as the company's valve portable, the Bush MB-60.
Before the end of the 1950s, smaller-sized transistor radios were available in the UK. The Harrods' Christmas catalogue of 1958 showed a Pye radio which was 6 inches by 4 inches. It weighed 22½oz and cost 18 guineas (or £335 in 2023 money).
British manufacturers lagged behind Japanese and American makers in miniaturisation. The original Regency TR-1 from 1954 was just 5 inches by 3 inches and weighed just 12 oz. The Sony TR-610 (1958) was smaller and lighter still.
In 1961, the British public bought two million transistor radios; most were made in the UK. Prices had come down to just over £10 for the cheapest. It was a week's wages for many people and two weeks' wages for a teenager in their first job.
The small size and weight of the transistor radio meant it could be carried anywhere. Many young people listened to music on the move, but unlike today's MP3 players and earlier Walkman cassette players, listening to music on the trannie was far from a personal thing. Few made use of the tiny earphone provided with the set and proudly blasted out their favourite pirate radio station hits for everyone to hear.
In May 1961 a journalist complained that there were no bands playing in London's parks; instead, visitors had to put up with transistor music blaring from every second teenager's radio.
It was not only teenagers that could annoy with a transistor radio. In 1962 postmen were banned from taking a transistor radio on their rounds in St Helen's in Lancashire. In Capri, transistor sets were banned from the beaches and all public places. There was also concern that criminals were using transistor radios to tune into police radio. The transistor was well and truly here and making its presence felt.
Personal or portable?
In the early 1960s British-made radios varied in size from 4 by 3 inches to 10 by 12 inches and in weight from 10 ounces to 10 pounds.
Larger radios were more expensive and sounded better. The combination of a plywood cabinet and a quality speaker produced a better listening tone.
The smaller radios had similar circuitry to their bigger cousins crammed into a very tiny space. There was some ingenuity needed to fit them in the box. Despite the efforts of engineers, there was no substitute for a quality speaker and that meant a larger radio.
There was a market for both types. The radio had been ousted from its position in the sitting room by the television in the 1950s. Portable radios could be carried from room to room. Console radios that plugged into the mains were not popular in the 1960s.
How much did a transistor radio cost in the 1960s?
These are some typical prices of transistor radios in the UK in 1962:
- Fidelity Coronet (UK) - £10 10s (launch price)
- Ajax TR220 (Hong Kong) - £14 4s 6d
- Pye P191BQ (UK) - £14 3s 6d
- McMichael M103BT Personal (UK) - £14 3s 6d
- Roberts R200 (UK) - £18 8s
- Sony TR620 (Japan) - £19 8s 6d
- Ever Ready Sky Leader (UK) - £21 10s
Japanese radios started to penetrate the UK in 1962. Sony opened a factory in Ireland which allowed imports to the UK. You could buy the Sony TR-620 in the UK in 1962. It was a much lighter radio, weighing just 7 ounces, but was expensive at £19 8s 6d. The cheapest UK radio, the Fidelity Coronet, launched in 1961, was the first to go on sale for under a tenner when the price dropped to 9 guineas or £9 9s.
The biggest threat to the UK market was not from Japan. Within a few years thousands of cheap radios were coming to the UK from Hong Kong. They were easy to import as Hong Kong was a British colony in the 1960s. The radios were assembled with Japanese components and undercut both Japanese and UK makers on price.
It was radios from Hong Kong that made the teenage use of transistor radios a reality.
By 1966 it was possible to get a Hong Kong-made transistor radio for under £3 10s. Most ranged from £4 to £6. They were sold under a variety of different brand names such as:
- Caroline - playing on the popularity of Radio Caroline
Many used automotive styling with shiny chrome look trim.
British manufacturers, unable to compete with home production, did deals with Hong Kong makers to make sets with their brand in Hong Kong.
By the mid-sixties, the transistor radio became a standard accessory for the Mod movement. It was as essential as a scooter, mohair suit or parka. Transistor radios also found their way into high office. Harold Wilson was pictured with one on his desk.
Very soon it was the Japanese transistor radio that set the standard in the UK as well as the US. This Sharp model, pictured left, is typical of the better-quality Japanese radios available. They were usually supplied in a leather case giving the impression of a valuable scientific instrument.
There was still room for British radio manufacturers in the 1960s. They were excluded from the cheap pocket radios on price, but people still wanted good quality receivers.
Larger portables with medium wave and long wave bands were made by British manufacturers. Some portables offered bandspread (BS) tuning which gave a larger band to the medium wave. This was useful for tuning into popular stations such as Radio Luxembourg.
To the pop fan medium wave was the most important band. To devotees of classical music FM was important. FM offered sharper tuning and less interference than medium wave. It was closer to listening to concert-quality music.
FM broadcasting started in the 1955. The BBC broadcast their three national radio programmes: the Light Programme, the Third Programme and the Home Service on FM.
Most of Britain's manufacturers produced better quality AM receivers and AM/FM receivers throughout the 1960s.
By the end of the 1960s British manufacturers were facing competition from West Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland and the USSR, as well as Japan, at the top end of the radio market.
What were the best transistor radios from the 1960s?
Which? the magazine of the Consumers' Association published several reviews of transistor radios in the 1960s. It was a technology area that was changing quickly. Reports were out of date in a couple of years. There was also a vast number of constantly changing makers.
Hacker VHF radios did well in most of the tests. The Hacker Sovereign was a 'Best Buy' in 1966 and 'Good Value for Money' in 1969. The Hacker VHF Herald was a 'Best Buy' in 1969.
The Hacker Herald (AM) version did not stand out in any of the tests Which? did.
Which? tested AM radios in 1962 and 1965. There was no brand that really stood out as being outstanding across all the tests. In 1962 Which? picked best buys:
- Bush TR90
- Defiant A55
- HMV 1424
- Roberts R200
- Ultra TR70
In 1965 they picked:
- Decca TP99
- Dynatron Jewel TP30
- Marconiphone 4114
- Perdio Caralux
None really stood out in any of the tests. This may be because most of the circuits were similar.
One observation I can make is that Roberts radios did no better than average in many of the tests. Perhaps their reputation today is built on being a 'posh' brand or the style of the cabinets, which won a design award in 1958.
In the tests Which? did the smaller personal radios always performed less well. Of the small radios, those made by well-known Japanese makers did best in the tests. Some were also expensive. Those made in Hong Kong were cheap, but often of poor quality.
Best for design
Radio cabinet design followed two schools: simple modern design, or automotive inspired excess. Which you like is a matter of taste.
The Council for Industrial Design (COID) included the following radios in its index:
- Bush TR90 - original design by David Ogle for the MB-60 c1957
- Roberts R200
- Ultra TR70 - designed by Eric Marshall, included in the index in 1961. This set also won the Duke of Edinburgh's Prize for Elegant Design in 1961
- HMV 2114 c1965
- Bush TR106 c1965
- Hacker Sovereign MkII c1969
Murphy was another firm that won design awards. Two Murphy sets were featured in 'Designers in Britain 6' (1964): Murphy 6 pocket transistor radio and an export Murphy radio.
Automotive styling can be seen in radios by KB, Ever Ready, Dansette and Defiant. By the second half of the 1960s this look, associated more with the previous decade, was less popular.
By the end of the sixties, the transistor radio had become an essential item in most peoples' lives. There was one in every kitchen and people listened to them at work. Even in places as remote as Afghanistan there was a radio service. People in almost every country in the world wanted a transistor radio to listen to the BBC World Service or local broadcasts.
British manufacturers were hanging on, but their future was uncertain at the end of the 1960s.
By Steven Braggs, updated January 2023
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Your comments on the transistor radio
"I own a Sharp TR- 185 and have never, ever seen another. Does anyone out there own one or know someone who might? If so, please get back to me. Peace, " Edward....