Wednesday Oct. 18, 2017

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My next poem will be happy,
I promise myself. Then you come
with your deep eyes, your tall jeans,
your narrow hands, your wit,
your uncanny knowledge, and
your loneliness. All the flowers
your father planted, all
the green beans that have made it,
all the world’s recorded pianos
and this exhilarating day
cannot change that.

“Daughter” by Lisel Mueller from Alive Together. © Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1954 that the first transistor radio appeared on the market.

Transistors were a big breakthrough in electronics — a new way to amplify signals. They replaced vacuum tubes, which were fragile, slow to warm up, and unreliable. During World War II, there was a big funding push to try to update vacuum tubes, since they were used in radio-controlled bombs but didn't work very well. A team of scientists at Bell Laboratories invented the first transistor technology in 1947. But the announcement didn't make much of an impact because transistors had limited use for everyday consumers — they were used mainly in military technology, telephone switching equipment, and hearing aids.

Several companies bought licenses from Bell, including Texas Instruments, who was bent on being the first to market with a transistor radio. Radios were mostly big, bulky devices that stayed in one place — usually in the living room — while the whole family gathered around to listen to programming. There were some portable radios made with vacuum tubes, but they were about the size of lunch boxes, they used heavy nonrechargeable batteries, they took a long time to start working while the tubes warmed up, and they were fragile. Texas Instruments was determined to create a radio that was small and portable, and to get it out for the Christmas shopping season. They produced the transistors, and they partnered with the Regency Division of Industrial Development Engineering Associates, who manufactured the actual radios. Their new radio, the Regency TR-1, turned on immediately, weighed half a pound, and could fit in your pocket. It cost $49.95, and more than 100,000 were sold.

Texas Instruments went on to pursue other projects, but a Japanese company called Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo decided to make transistor radios their main enterprise. They were concerned that their name was too difficult for an American audience to pronounce, so they decided to rebrand themselves with something simpler. They looked up the Latin word for sound, which was sonus. And they liked the term sonny boys — English slang that was used in Japan for exceptionally bright, promising boys. And so the company Sony was born. Soon transistor radios were cheap and prevalent.

With transistor radios, teenagers were able to listen to music out of their parents' earshot. This made possible the explosion of a new genre of American music: rock and roll.

It's the birthday of New Yorker journalist A.J. (Abbott Joseph) Liebling (books by this author), born in New York (1904). As a young boy, he fell in love with the newspapers his father brought home from work every day. He said: "It is impossible for me to estimate how many of my early impressions of the world, correct and the opposite, came to me through newspapers. Homicide, adultery, no-hit pitching, and Balkanism were concepts that, left to my own devices, I would have encountered much later in life."

So he became a newspaper reporter, writing about crime and local tragedies. He said: "I [would] pound up tenement stairs and burst in on families disarranged by sudden misfortune. It gave me a chance to make contact with people I would never otherwise have met, and I learned almost immediately what every reporter knows, that most people are eager to talk about their troubles."

He tried to get a job at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. In order to attract the attention of the editor, he hired a man to walk for three days outside the Pulitzer building wearing a sandwich board that said, "Hire Joe Liebling." Nobody noticed the sign, but Liebling got a job there anyway.

He went on to join the staff of The New Yorker in 1935, and he worked there for the rest of his life, writing about gourmet food, bare-knuckle boxing, and World War II, among other things.

It's the birthday of Ntozake Shange (books by this author), born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey (1948), author of the play For colored girls who considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1975).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®