Current Exhibit

“You Can Take it With You” the Portable Radio in American Life (December 2009–December 2010)

This exhibition traces the development of portable radios from the heavy “lugables” of the late 1920s to the high-quality miniature digital devices of today. Segments illustrate:

Early “Portability”

Early “portable” modes of wireless meant heavy equipment that only a horse or wagon could carry. Until regular radio broadcasting began in 1920, consumers had no need for a portable way to listen in. The first radios intended to be carried from place to place appeared by the mid-1920s. But with their required batteries, speakers and/or earphones, they were cumbersome and heavy—upwards of 40 pounds or more in many cases. You could take radio listening to the beach or on a picnic, but it took a lot of effort. And thus the portable radio was rare before 1930.

Take it Anywhere: To 1945

By the 1930s, some radios were dubbed “universals” as they could use batteries or home electricity. The modern portable—a small light radio intended for carrying about—appeared late in the decade as vacuum tube and battery technology improved and allowed smaller components. Smaller tubes also required less power to operate. But growing world tension also contributed to the desire to have radios that could work anywhere. Once war broke out (1939–45) listeners wanted to stay in touch with developments wherever they were, and the little tube-powered radios made that possible.

Four Decades of Zenith’s “Trans-Oceanic”

First introduced in 1942, the Zenith “Trans-Oceanic” receiver was for four decades among the best available portable radios. It’s changing design, transition from tubes to transistors, and from American to overseas manufacture mirrors the larger story of American portable sets. Every model combined several short-wave bands with AM broadcasting, only adding FM capability in the late 1950s. Several companies tried to compete with this leading Zenith receiver, though usually unsuccessfully.

Smaller and Smaller: Post-War Portables

Ease of portability forced designers to concentrate on making receivers as small and light as possible. Consumers saw (and made buying decisions based on) a set’s visible design and price. Few knew how the technical changes inside made such portability possible. Many portables were known as “lunchbox” radios as they were about that size. Others used flip-open covers to protect delicate controls. As radio began to face competition with television in the living room, so that watching became more important than listening, radio’s ease of portability became central to its survival.

Rockin’ Radio: 1950s and 1960s

The first transistor radios—one could easily fit into a shirt pocket—appeared in late 1954. They were marketed just as rock‘n’roll music was taking hold and the combination of take-it-anywhere radio and such performers as Bill Haley and the Comets and then Elvis Presley placed radio in the center of teenage lifestyles. Stations soon promoted their programs to mobile listeners. To suggest their capabilities, receiver makers advertised how many transistors they used in each model, often right on the case, just as radios once touted their number of tubes. In fact, because tiny size was their chief sales pitch, most early “transistors” were difficult to tune and suffered from poor sound quality. Colorful plastic and metal highlights provided a modern look.

Adding FM: 1970s and 1980s

Portable radios began to include the FM channels in the late 1960s as that service became more popular. “Transistor sisters” now went everywhere. But a more substantial change crept into radio as Japanese and other low-cost Asian manufacturers began to provide sets for the American market by the late 1950s. Many initially used tubes or circuits licensed from the U.S., and during the 1960s came to dominate the radio receiver market. By the 1970s, virtually no consumer radios were made in America as all were imported. Quality improved as did the listening experience. Novelty radios—those made to look like something else—became widely popular as well.

Competing Portability: Since 1990

Radio began to share the world of portable audio as consumers were given an expanding variety of devices, among them the Sony “Walkman” that would play music cassettes while on the move. And Sony was but one of the Japanese firms that by this point dominated the consumer electronics market. Sound quality was much improved, batteries lasted longer (some could be recharged), and headphone size was shrinking too. Over the past two decades, the digital revolution has remade radio and recordings alike. Digital technology makes for ever-smaller devices with multiple applications (broadcast radio is now merely one of many) and often surprisingly good sound quality. The ubiquitous iPod keeps users in tune with their music, though rarely with broadcasting signals. They are so tiny that they can be used anywhere—even (horrors!) in a classroom.