Allegan County News & Union Enterprise Commercial Record Courier-Leader & Flashes

Life as Performance Art

     For all true geeks and geekettes, December 12th was a milestone day on the calendar,  a seventy-fifth anniversary of considerable importance.
     That was also the day I walked into a friend’s shop and saw a magnificent Skyscraper style radio, straight out of the 1930s. They are rare because during the Great Depression GE didn’t make many Skyscrapers. This one is in museum condition.  The model got its name because the cabinet is about five feet tall, narrow, and with enough imagination looks a bit like a skyscraper.  It is also one of those wonderful old vacuum tube radios that take a while to warm up before they produce any sound.  To find a station means tuning in up and down the dial. It is truly ‘old’ technology.
     I was tempted to buy it as an early Christmas present for myself. After all, I have been sooooo good this year. And all this year, I hasten to add.  Then my friend pointed out that a couple of the tubes are dead, and the tuning coil is sufficiently dry that it must be replaced.  A beautiful cabinet or not,  without searching for the parts to make  the major repairs it would be a good place for a Boston fern.  Of course,  we’d first have to buy the fern, and if we did that we would have to feed,  water, and trim it on a regular basis.
    My friend and I talked about taking out the innards of the radio and replacing it with a transistor one.  We both winced:  Sure it could be done,  but it wouldn’t be the same. It would be like the cathedral style model with the built-in transistors and a cassette tape player.  Or, like the reproduction and kit cars that are for sale.  It just would not be the same because it would not be authentic.
     When her ladyship saw it a day or so later, she agreed it was beautiful.  Then, she hastily added how nice it will look in someone else’s front parlor.  I took that as a hint not to buy it.
    The visit to the shop and the 75th anniversary came together,  because they fell on the day when the transistor was invented. Seven years later,  in 1954,  Regency produced the first battery powered transistor radio.  In practical terms,  that meant instead of carrying around a heavy wooden cabinet filled with fragile tubes,  and using a long extension cord,  anyone could buy a radio that fit in a shirt pocket.  My father had one so he could listen to the baseball games wherever he went.
    With that little radio,   the world began to rapidly change.  My father, who had intended to go to the Brown Institute of Radio in Minnesota,  and had his plans interrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii,  must have breathed a sigh of relief that his original plans didn’t work out. Beginning that day, homes were no longer visited from the television repairman who could work his magic in minutes so we could watch our Saturday cartoons, professional wrestling, and Lawrence Welk.  Radio repair shops gradually went out of business.  And we began to replace big television consoles for smaller ones.   Behind it came cable television, and birds had to find a new roost when the antennas disappeared off our roofs.
    Before long we didn’t have to make the trek across the living room carpet to change channels. That work was done by a remote, and whosever controlled the remote pushed a button from his or her easy chair or recliner made of genuine naugahyde.   I was never too happy about having to get up to change channels or adjust the antenna for Dad, but in the winter, nothing was as much fun as shuffling back across the Berber carpet and zapping my pesky little sister with a bit of static electricity.
     We didn’t realize it in 1947, perhaps not for almost another two decades,  but our world shifted from an industrial to an information driven economy. The typewriter ribbon business, the carbon paper companies, and the purveyors of White Out were hit hard, thanks to the transistor.  The word processor made the fabled IBM Selectric machines, the one with the dancing ball, obsolete.  Gone, too was the delicious smell of mimeograph fluid.  
      So were telephone and elevator operators. We could push our own buttons. People who grew up using a push-button cash register at stores,  and knew how to make change without looking at a digital screen,  either retrained or found other work.  Today, many big box stores have self-check-out kiosks – all based on transistors.
     Transistors changed everything. Huge computers that required semi-trailer truckloads of punch cards became desk tops, then lap tops,  and now an array of devices.  No high school student dreams of a lifetime career of being a key punch operator. We can now use one of those transistor devices to contact or  Echo, Siri or Alexa or someone else to tell our Roomba that there are crumbs under the dining room table that need to be cleaned up.  Crumbs excised, and Roomba tells the device that texts us so we know the floor is clean again.  It saves all the extra energy of turning our head to look for ourselves.
     Apparently, the new etiquette in some parts of the country is to text someone from their own doorstep, rather than ringing the bell.  Or, as one doormat I saw for Christmas told guests, “Please do NOT ring the doorbell. There is no reason to involve the dog.”
     The world has become completely dependent on the transistor.  But will it last?  Probably not. Already there is considerable discussion about quantum computing that will be so fast transistors, at least as we know them today,  will go the way of the television tubes.
     I do not think any of us, as much as we grouse and grumble about it,  want to go back and live in a pre-transistor age.  It would be like our grandparents going back to a pre-electric era, or one without indoor plumbing and toothpaste.  Or worse – before splinterless toilet paper.  Most of us don’t want to trot off to the library to look up everything – not when we can search the web for it. It is easier to use the internet to know how to spell a word than a dictionary.
      We like to listen to music, but I don’t think too many of us would feel a pitter-patter of joy in our heart if every three minutes or so we had to change a 78 rpm record, change the steel needle,  and wide up the Victrola.  Once in a while is a novelty; but not all the time.  That’s tedium.
    But I still miss zapping my little sister’s ear.

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