Transistors, Rock & Roll, And — Polkas?

I just read somewhere that it’s the 60th anniversary of the invention of the transistor, and thinking about that while scanning through tunes on my little MP3 player made me ponder how far we’ve come in handling portable music. It also took me back to a time in the 1950’s when my Dad bought our first portable transistor radio.

We weren’t rich – far from it – and although my Dad was a good provider, he was also so tight that he squeaked. But when expensive little portable radios first began appearing on the market, he was like a thirsty deacon in a tavern — even though he knew he should resist, temptation was tough to overcome.

He became obsessed by the little gadgets and – in a pattern I’ve since recognized in myself – began studying all the choices, comparing features and availability, but especially price. I don’t know what my Dad earned weekly at that time, but it’s safe to say that it was less than the cost of any of these radios. It was a lot of money to be investing in a gizmo we didn’t really need, and the whole process probably involved lots of consultations (and trade-offs) with my Mother.

However, the purchase was eventually made and we were the proud owners of a brand-new GE P715 “all-transistor pocket radio”, complete with rechargeable batteries, charger, and a keen zippered leather case*. It was about the size of a paperback book and was AM only, but that’s what most of us listened to. FM was for the long-hair types with their console models and roof antennas. This radio had a pull-out wire handle that I think was supposed to double as an antenna, but I doubt that it got anything other than local stations.

Retail for that radio was about $60 and discounts were rare in those days, so I’m reasonably sure that’s what my Dad paid. Not an amount to be sneezed at — to give you some perspective, in the 1950’s gasoline cost less than a tenth of what we pay now. But he was happy with his new toy. After all, it was perfect to take on picnics — that is, you know, if we had gone on any.

But that’s not to say the radio wasn’t used. My Dad traveled on his job, a wide circuit that went from St. Louis to Pittburgh, and began to take the radio along. But that created another problem. Not unlike today’s road warriors with their laptops, he constantly had to worry about his beloved gadget being stolen. His eventual solution was to reluctantly leave it home, with strict instructions that it was to be left alone.

Of course, I was a chip off the gadget-loving block so I couldn’t keep my hands off, but I don’t remember doing it any harm other than introducing it to a new kind of music. And if the radio played rock and roll for me, it was balanced out by Dad, whenever he was home. His tastes ran to music by the Harmonicats or any kind of polka, preferences he kept for his entire life.

Dad, this one’s for you: Frankie Yankovic – “Pennsylvania Polka.”

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*Photos courtesy of Bob Davidson’s M31 Galaxy of Transistor Radios.

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