If there is a brand name known by everybody in the industrialized world this must be SONY. Japanese electronic and radio products are now regarded as the best that technology can produce and that money can buy. Sony's innovative and glamorous products have surely been (and still are) at the cutting edge of technology and at the top end of the consumers' market.
Small pocket sets are usually the most loved by the transistor historian and collectors so we are going to concentrate on these.
SONY is definetely THE transistor radio maker but has not always been so. I can remember when, in the fifties, Japanese products were considered cheap, nasty and bad copies of their western counterparts. Japanese cameras were definetely far inferior to their German matches and Japanese electronics were just lagging behind western lead.
1955 = models TR-55 and TR-52
Then, suddenly, in 1954 TOKYO TSUSHIN KOGYO LTD (as SONY used to be known at the time) acquired the Bell Laboratories patent and Western Electric licence to make transistors in Japan. After several attempts (the contract with Western Electric did not include the know-how) SONY succeded in doing this and finally, in August 1955, they produced their first coat pocket transistor radio: the model TR-55.
If you talk to a serious transistor radio collector about his most wanted set he will tell you that he will trade his granmother for one of these. The reason being that only a few TR-55 were made and the entire production remained within the Japanese islands.
SONY had tried earlier (in April of the same year) with the model TR-52 (also known as the "UN building" for its peculiar shape) but when the cabinet of their first few sets produced started to unglue themselves and fall to pieces, it was thought better to withdraw the project rather than risk damaging SONY's reputation.
1956 = models TR-72 and TR-6
After the TR-55, and a couple radio kits, came the TR-72, a large wooden affair which was also exported to Canada under the GENDIS (GENeral DIStributors) trade name; also in Holland and Germany. About 40,000 sets were made in 1956. Even Mitsukoshi, a Tokyo department store, decided to enter the transistor portable radio race by selling the TR-72 under their own label (model TR-72MA and MB).
Another model produced in the same year, the TR-6, was instead a plastic cased coat pocket set which was even used by SONY to give birth to its own "SONY boy" character. In a sense the TR-6 was the first modern and properly designed transistor set ever built but it lacked the attraction and the appeal that the real miniature sets would soon be offering and somehow failed to reach great sales numbers (34,098). SONY did even play with a project for a solar powered version but never put it in production.
1957 = model TR-63
The first real shirt pocket Japanese radio exported all over the world was the model TR-63. This was what, at the time, marrying technology with glamour was really about. It was an amazing achievement of miniaturization and design that took the world by storm. Yes the American Regency TR-1 (the first transistor radio ever produced) got there first but the TR-63 was the first properly designed miniature radio. It was nothing like any other on the market at the time. It was the smallest (112 x 71 x 32 mm) six transistor set in regular production in the world. Sadly, of the 114,536 sets ever produced very few seem to have survived their fate of ending up into the rubbish bins.
It was supplied in a presentation box together with a soft leather case, an earphone with its own leather case, a 9 volt battery (which later became the standard in small portables), instructions with schematic diagram and even a piece of antistatic cloth to wipe the set clean (!). It was something which consumers had never seen before. They liked it (I did: I bought one!) and it was a success.
Instead of the mixture of old and new technology which could be found in the TR-1 (127 x 76 x 33 mm), the TR-63 was made with an all new imaginative design with many purposely built miniature components (for example its microscopic solid dialectric variable capacitor). It was still an hand wired printed circuit model but within its elegant plastic case it had an overall air of modernity and innovation which had never appeared before on the market (and besides it worked much better than the TR-1)
By then SONY had established its name at the forefront of the consumers' goods production.
1958 = models TR-610 and TR-65
After the success of the TR-63 and a negligible interlude with the TR-65 (10,003), SONY came out in November 1958 with the model TR-610.
If you think of a transistor radio you cannot help thinking about the TR-610. This is the most typical of all transistor radios ever produced. It was sold all over the world in vast quantities (436,952) and it set the standard of design later adopted by many competitors and by which all other sets were going to be judged. Its sleek, pleasing and clean lines have that sense of practical appeal that nobody can resist.
1959 = models TR-86, TR-84, TR-810 and TR-714
A year later (1959) SONY produced an eight transistor pocket set: the TR-86 with moderate success (100,287), the "super sensitivity" TR-84, the "superthin" TR-810 (119,973), the elegant TR-710B (124,992) and the first mass produced two band (MW and SW) shirt pocket set: the TR-714, a nice, good working little radio (245,938).
Models TFM-151 and TR-620
In November 1958 SONY managed to overcome the inerent limitation of the low frequency characteristics of transistor manufacture by producing the TFM-151, one of the first FM transistor radio ever.
But the peak of their transistor shirt pocket production must be the model TR-620 (June 1960) which, with its even more diminutive size, contributed to disseminate Japanese sets in everybody's pocket and into popular culture and heritage.
Models ICR-100 and ICR-120
The sets which followed are too numerous to be commented here but the ICR-100 of March 1967 (one of the first integrated circuit radios) and the ICR-120 (the smallest loudspeaked radio ever built) are worth a mention if only for their historical importance.
Japan might have lost the war but Japanese people did not lose their love for minutia and accuracy. The compactness of their products reflects their frame of mind and their dedication in trying to achieve perfection.
SONY might not be the best firm in the world (especially now that rules the music market in a somehow harsh way) but surely it is among the ones who contributed to make technology a reality of our everyday's life.
- Genryu, SONY Challenges 1940-1968, publisher: SONY Corporation, 1988
Copyright © 1996 Enrico Tedeschi
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