Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized Transistor Radio Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Sony introduced a transistorized pocket radio that could be priced affordably, thereby creating a mass market for portable electronics and transporting personal entertainment devices out of the living room and into public spaces.

Summary of Event

The invention of the first transistor by William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter H. Brattain of Bell Laboratories in 1947 was a scientific event of great importance. Its commercial impact, however, was negligible. Although great predictions were made for the commercial future of the transistor when it was introduced, the years that followed did not mark a revolution in communications and electronics. Sony Corporation Transistor radios Electronics TR-63 radio[TR sixty three] [kw]Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized Transistor Radio (1957) [kw]Transistor Radio, Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized (1957) [kw]Radio, Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized Transistor (1957) Sony Corporation Transistor radios Electronics TR-63 radio[TR sixty three] [g]Asia;1957: Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized Transistor Radio[05370] [g]Japan;1957: Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized Transistor Radio[05370] [c]Inventions;1957: Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized Transistor Radio[05370] [c]Radio and television;1957: Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized Transistor Radio[05370] [c]Science and technology;1957: Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized Transistor Radio[05370] [c]Manufacturing and industry;1957: Sony Develops the Pocket-Sized Transistor Radio[05370] Bardeen, John Brattain, Walter H. Shockley, William Morita, Akio Ibuka, Masaru

The commercial potential of the transistor lay in the possibility of using semiconductor materials to carry out the functions performed by vacuum tubes, the fragile and expensive tubes that were the electronic heart of radios, sound amplifiers, and telephone systems. Transistors were smaller, more rugged, and less power-hungry than vacuum tubes. They did not suffer from overheating. They offered an alternative to the unreliability and short life of vacuum tubes.

Further research at Bell Telephone Laboratories Bell Telephone Laboratories produced another major invention in 1951 the junction transistor produced by Shockley. This type of transistor was simpler and more efficient than the point-contact. It became the pioneer of the first generation of devices that went into production.

Bell Laboratories had begun the semiconductor research project in an effort to find a better means of electronic amplification. This was needed to increase the strength of telephone signals over long distances. Each new transistor produced by the Bell Laboratories team was tested as a speech amplifier. Therefore, the first commercial use of the transistor was sought in speech amplification, and the small size of the device made it a perfect component for hearing aids. Engineers from the Raytheon Company Raytheon Company , the leading manufacturer of hearing aids, were invited to Bell Laboratories to view the new transistor and to help assess the commercial potential of the technology.

Before the transistor could be incorporated into new products, the United States government had to approve the diffusion of this technology. Many applications of semiconductors were to be found in military equipment, where small size and rugged dependability were at a premium. The armed forces promised to be frequent customers for transistors, and their support was essential in the development of the technology. The removal of the secret classification for semiconductor research opened the door for its commercial application.

After securing the necessary patent protection, Western Electric Western Electric Company announced in 1951 that it would issue licenses for the manufacture of transistors. The license fee was twenty-five thousand dollars. About twenty-five companies purchased licenses and began to search for uses for semiconductors. The first transistorized consumer product, the hearing aid was soon on the market. The early models built by Raytheon used three junction transistors and cost more than two hundred dollars. They were small enough to go directly into the ear or could be incorporated into eyeglasses.

The major direction of the commercial application of semiconductors was to replace the control and amplification functions carried out by vacuum tubes. The perfect opportunity for this substitution was the radio set, a consumer product that stood in millions of homes. Vacuum tubes were the most expensive part of a radio set and the most prone to break down. The technical barrier that had to be overcome before radios could be transistorized was the poor performance of transistors at the high frequencies required by radio. The early junction transistors operated best at low frequencies, and subsequently more research was required to produce a commercial high-frequency transistor. Several of the licensees embarked on this quest including the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the Texas Instruments Company, and the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company of Japan.

The Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company of Japan, formed in 1946, had produced a line of instruments and consumer products based on vacuum tube technology. Its most successful product was a magnetic tape recorder. In 1952, one of the founders of the company, Masaru Ibuka, visited the United States to learn more about the use of tape recorders in schools and found out that Western Electric was preparing to license the transistor patent. With only the slightest understanding of the workings of semiconductors, the company purchased a license in 1954 with the intention of using transistors in a radio set.

The first task facing the Japanese was to increase the frequency response of the transistor to make it suitable for radio use. Then, a method had to be found to manufacture them cheaply. At this time, junction transistors were made from slices of germanium crystal. Growing the crystal was not an exact science, nor was the process of doping it with impurities to form the different layers of conductivity. The Japanese engineers found that failure rate for high-frequency transistors was extremely high. The yield of good transistors from one batch ran as low as 5 percent, which made them extremely expensive and put the whole project in doubt. The great advantage of using transistors was reliability and low cost. The junction transistors were simple devices that did not need the intricate interior wiring of vacuum tubes. Replacing vacuum tubes with solid state components made of semiconductors was motivated by cost rather than performance, and if transistors proved more expensive, then it was not worth using them.

Engineers from the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company came to the United States to search for information about the production of transistors, visiting factories and laboratories to learn firsthand. In 1954, the first high-frequency transistor was produced in Japan. The success of Texas Instruments in producing the components for the first transistorized radio (introduced by the Regency Company in 1954) spurred the Japanese to greater efforts. Much of their engineering and research work was directed at the manufacture and quality control of transistors.

In 1955, they introduced their transistor radio, the TR-55 TR-55 radio[TR fifty five] , which carried the brand name of Sony. The name was chosen because the executives of the company believed that this product had an international appeal and therefore required a brand name that could be recognized easily and remembered in many languages. One of the cofounders of the company, Akio Morita, was convinced that the future of the organization depended on a connection with the West, and the cumbersome title of Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company was changed to Sony in 1957. This company had acknowledged its roots in the technology of sound and revealed a global marketing strategy.

Although Sony’s transistor radios were successful in the marketplace, Ibuka and Morita were committed to further development of their basic product. Continual efforts were made to reduce the cost of manufacturing transistors and increasing the range of frequencies with which they could operate. Ibuka was disappointed that the transistor radio was still comparatively large and cumbersome, despite the fact that the tiny transistors replaced the array of vacuum tubes.

Ibuka decided to make full use of the advantages of transistors and develop a radio in which all elements should be miniaturized, including the loudspeaker, the capacitor, the transformer, and the batteries. This was certainly not the first attempt to reduce the size of a radio, for the United States Army had produced a specification for a handheld radio set in the 1940’s. What was different about Ibuka’s strategy, and significant in the growth of the Japanese electronics industry, was that a technological path was determined by the expectations of the market for the product. Ibuka saw a consumer market for a miniature radio and gave his engineers the task of designing a radio small enough to fit into a shirt pocket.

The pocket-sized transistor radio, the TR-63—given the trade name “Transistor Six”—was introduced in 1957. It was an immediate success. Sony sold them by the millions, and millions of imitations were also purchased under brand names such as “Somy” and “Sonny.” This product became an indispensable part of the youth-oriented popular culture of the late 1950’s and 1960’s, when transistor radios provided a cheap and convenient entree into the crowded airwaves of commercial radio. This product could be taken anywhere and used at any time. Its very low cost enabled the masses to enjoy radio wherever there were broadcasts—from New York to Tokyo.


Ibuka’s strategy of reducing the size of the radio was an important event in the relationship of technology to the user. The pocket-sized radio was the first of a line of electronic consumer products that brought the technology into personal contact with the user. Sony was convinced that miniaturization did more than make products more portable, it established a one-on-one relationship between people and machines. Sony produced the first all-transistor television in 1960. Two years later, it began to market a miniature television with a 13-centimeter screen in the United States. The continual reduction in the size of Sony’s tape recorders reached a climax with the portable tape player introduced in the 1980’s. The Sony Walkman was a marketing triumph and a further reminder that Japanese companies lead the way in the design and marketing of electronic products.

The successful development of the pocket radio was also an important event in the rise of Japanese manufacturing. Sony had to convince its suppliers to follow its lead and design its own components rather than copy them from American or European parts. Like many other Japanese manufacturers, Sony bought many of the component parts of its products from small subcontractors. The development of the “pocketable” transistor radio required exhaustive dialogue with the subcontractors to decrease the size of their components. In the case of the loudspeaker and batteries, smaller sizes lessened the performance of the component and was therefore resisted by the contractors. The successful introduction of the pocket-sized transistor radio in 1957 was as much a testament to the negotiating skills of Ibuka as it was to Japanese engineering.

The new consumer electronic products coming from Japan in the 1950’s were indications of the growing self-reliance of an industrial base emerging from the ravages of World War II. American scientific research and American inventions were often the starting point for important new products, but the Japanese excellence in manufacturing and their skill in marketing was to give them the commercial benefits of new electronics technology. Sony Corporation Transistor radios Electronics TR-63 radio[TR sixty three]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luh, Shu Shin. Business the Sony Way: Secrets of the World’s Most Innovative Electronics Giant. Oxford, England: Capstone, 2003. A history of the Sony Corporation detailing its business practices, as well as its technological innovations. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyons, Nick. The Sony Vision. New York: Crown, 1976. A popular history of the Sony Company that follows its activities to the 1970’s. Well illustrated and informative, this book gives a full account of the development of many of the company’s most important products.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morita, Akio, with Edwin Reingold and Mitsuko Shimomura. Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986. A personal account of the rise of Sony from the end of World War II to the late 1980’s. Gives Morita’s philosophy of business and provides insights into Sony’s strategy, but often sinks into promotion of the company and Japanese culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Queisser, Hans L. The Conquest of the Microchip. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. A clear and concise overview of the history of electronics from Edison to present. This technical history describes the technology in terms that the average reader can understand. Places the transistor in a broader context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, T. R. The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. This history of business and technology begins with the transistor and shows how the integrated circuit came about. Reid’s acquaintance with the leading figures provides useful insights into the electronics industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Otto J. The Creative Ordeal: The Story of Raytheon. New York: Atheneum, 1974. This history of one of the leading companies in electronics gives the story of the application of the transistor from the American viewpoint.

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Categories: History