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Who Designed the TR-1?

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

by Vicki Matranga


David Painter, Victor Petertil, and James Teague, the Chicagoans who designed the elegant appearance of the world’s first transistor radio, could hardly have forecasted the international acclaim their aesthetic decisions would excite. Working under intense time pressure, they created an attractive and functional plastic case (whose perforated grille echoed the pegboard display wall in their office) for the Regency TR-1 transistor radio, a technological breakthrough and cultural sensation.

From Left: David Painter and James Teague, holding a transparent model of TR-1 that reveals its internal components, and Victor Petertil. The designers stand in front of pegboard panels that they might have used to display drawings in the office. (Matranga archive)


Young Design Firm Ready for the Challenge of a Lifetime

Painter, Petertil, and Teague had worked together at Barnes & Reinecke, Chicago’s largest design and engineering office. Founded in 1934, the firm swelled in size during World War II because of its engineering capabilities. Barnes & Reinecke’s clientele included numerous radio manufacturers, including Motorola.


David Painter, a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, had studied industrial design at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC). After graduating in 1936, he began his career at Barnes & Reinecke. Within a few years, he became the firm’s lead designer and rose to vice president. Victor Petertil and James Teague had also attended SAIC and joined the firm after working elsewhere.


James Barnes and Jean Otis Reinecke ended their partnership in 1948; Barnes continued with engineering services, and Reinecke focused on design, creating the firm Reinecke and Associates. Painter, Teague, and Petertil joined Reinecke’s office as associates. In 1950, David Painter formed Painter, Teague & Petertil. Reinecke continued his practice in Chicago and agreed to collaborate with the trio as they opened their office in the same building, 230 East Ohio, where they had been working for years.


A tri-fold brochure presenting the capabilities of Painter, Teague & Petertil (undated). The dot pattern suggests the TR-1 transistor radio case. (Matranga archive)


Enter the Transistor Age

Technological innovations spurred by World War II fueled new applications as industry shifted to manufacturing for postwar consumer needs and government-supported scientific projects. Chicago’s economy was intimately woven into this web, including the development of transistor radios and televisions. For example, companies that manufactured communication devices for the military, such as Motorola, shifted to radios and televisions for the growing number of middle-class households. Other companies developed audio/visual devices and early computer equipment for commercial and industrial clients.


Transistor technology was invented in 1947 at the American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) Company’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Its creators won the Nobel Prize. Chicago was the home of Bell’s partner companies, Western Electric and the Automatic Electric Company, as well as its researchers at the Bell Labs complex in suburban Naperville/Lisle. These Chicago plants manufactured nearly all the telephones used in the United States, along with the required systems and equipment.


The Chicago metro area also supported a vibrant network of scientists and engineers employed at many companies that had been producing radio equipment since the 1920s. Considered the Silicon Valley of the time, Chicago was home to a thriving ecosystem of tool and die makers and producers of plastic radio cabinets, microphones, knobs, tubes, wiring, and packaging. The synergy present in postwar Chicago provided a rich environment for clients and partners of Chicago designers and contributed to the design of the first transistor radio.


Today, we can’t imagine life and work before computers, mobile phones, or interstate highways or when airplane travel was a rare event. Quick communication in those years relied on the telephone, telegrams, messenger services, travel by train and car, and partners in close physical contact. Development of the first transistor radio demanded a trusting collaboration between Dallas, Indianapolis, and Chicago that propelled a leap in technological innovation in a five-month sprint.(1)


The Dallas-based Texas Instruments, Inc. was formed in 1951 from a company that produced scientific and defense electronics. Texas Instruments licensed transistor technology from Bell Labs and was determined to apply it to consumer products. By 1953, Texas Instruments had produced the first transistor and aimed to be the first to introduce a battery-operated radio whose transistor would replace vacuum tubes.(2) In May 1954, Texas Instruments created its first prototype for a transistor radio for the mass market—and set a goal to have a product in stores before Christmas. Being first in the marketplace was worth the financial gamble, and Texas Instruments expected high-volume sales.


Texas Instruments contacted every major radio manufacturer in the country, but no company was willing to risk the effort. Then one of Texas Instruments’ engineers spotted a magazine ad for a TV antenna booster made by the Regency Division of Industrial Development Engineering Associates, Inc. (I.D.E.A.), an Indianapolis-based company that produced and marketed electronic products for the public.(3) When the Texas Instruments vice president leading this secret project met with the president of I.D.E.A. at a trade show in Chicago,(4) the company had finally found its partner. The talented engineering and marketing staff of this small, relatively unknown company would be a good match for Texas Instruments’ technical experts. They launched their joint venture in June.


I.D.E.A. was founded in 1946 to make signal boosters for home TV antennas, some marketed under its own Regency brand name and others sold by Sears under its Silvertone label. Painter, Teague and Petertil may have known the entrepreneurs who built I.D.E.A. because of their wartime work at Barnes & Reinecke, as military clients were secret and their assignments were classified. Painter, Teague & Petertil designed I.D.E.A.’s signal boosters, so the firm was well-positioned at the start line for the race.


Crucial Teamwork and Timing

During the summer of 1954, teams in Dallas, Indianapolis, and Chicago worked at a fever pace to coordinate the TR-1’s development. Suppliers around the country produced components to fit into a shirt-pocket-sized radio.(5) For example, as Texas Instruments’ engineers devised ever-smaller transistors, a source in Nashville, Tennessee flew its daily production of capacitors to Indianapolis to I.D.E.A.’s factory,(6) where the radios were assembled.


Painter, Teague & Petertil offered several concepts for the radio’s 3-inch x 5-¼-inch plastic case. Using dummies for the internal parts, they created possible case alternatives and revised designs as they learned of changes in the size of the components.(8) Painter, Teague & Petertil could draw upon its local network for this fast-track project. For example, Jensen Manufacturing Company in Chicago produced the speaker. The Insurok copper-clad printed circuit was produced by The Richardson Company, which had a plant in Melrose Park, a western suburb in easy reach of Victor Petertil, who lived in nearby Oak Park; Richardson also maintained a facility in Indianapolis.(9) The volume control was made by Chicago Telephone Supply Corporation in Elkhart, Indiana. Chicago model makers surely crafted the prototypes of the case, and Chicago photographers staged the publicity photos.(10)


I.D.E.A. INC., Regency transistor pocket radio [1954] product view. David Painter Papers, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago. Digital file # 199504_201110-001.



I.D.E.A. INC., Regency transistor pocket radio [1954] product view reverse. David Painter Papers, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago. Digital file # 199504_201110-002.


I.D.E.A., INC. Regency transistor pocket radio [1954]. David Painter Papers, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago. Digital file # 199504_201110-005.



Miniature Radio Creates a New Market and Excites the Teen Culture

Originally offered in ivory, black, grey, and red, the TR-1 premiered at $49.95 (11) (equivalent to $480 in 2020 (12)), far more expensive than the portable tube radios commonly available. Earphones and a leather carrying case were also available. Introduced in October in time for the 1954 Christmas sales season, it sold out almost immediately. Teenagers lusted after the transistor radio, which allowed them to carry their rock ‘n’ roll music everywhere. (And the triangle points on the TR-1’s dial indicated channels for the civil defense system, handy for Cold War bomb drills and for adults to buy for family bomb shelters.)


Texas Instruments and I.D.E.A. expected high demand for this high-tech novelty. But despite the radio’s steep price and poor sound quality, the surging demand immediately outpaced supply and the overwhelmed producers struggled to fulfill orders. Only about 100,000 were sold in the first year. Had the radio been priced higher, the greater revenue would have allowed the producers to increase manufacturing capability.


Large U.S. radio makers, with their efficiencies of scale and distribution, quickly rushed to enter the booming market for transistor radios. Lacking the capital to compete, within a few years both Texas instruments and I.D.E.A. abandoned consumer transistor radios. Texas Instruments became a giant in the semiconductor industry; it manufactured transistors for IBM and drew on its TR-1 experience to develop calculators and electronic watches. Regency eventually sold its consumer products business and focused on commercial/industrial electronics products.(13)

By enabling teenagers to move with their music and their friends, the Regency TR-1 had propelled the youth culture and popular music that burst forth in the 1950s. It also triggered the rush to high-tech miniaturization and the silicon age that would revolutionize consumer electronics and lead to major shifts in the world economy in the decades ahead.


The British magazine, "Design," praised the TR- 1by commenting, “Styling devices which mar the majority of radio receivers have been omitted and the design relies for its smartness on good proportion, the contrast of materials and attention to detail.”


Hero Designers Return to a Less Hectic Pace and Next Projects

The TR-1 brought Painter, Teague & Petertil wide attention. The trim radio appeared in Industrial Design, the primary magazine of American design business,(14) was lauded in the British magazine Design,(15) and it was included in the 1955 exhibition of American design in Paris.(16) After the debut of the TR-1, the firm continued to design technical communication products for I.D.E.A.’s Regency Division. Together the three designers served manufacturers of office, industrial, and consumer products until 1960, when Painter established his solo firm. Chicago designers and local manufacturers soon developed competitive transistor radios in the next few years to satisfy market demand and position their brands in the rapidly changing popular culture of the 1950s.


The names of the Chicago designers behind the TR-1’s appearance faded in design history, overshadowed by subsequent famed creators of products that reached larger audiences and lasted longer in the marketplace. To read more about the TR-1 and how the TR-1 influenced the design of future portable audio devices by Bill Buxton, check out the "Related Post" section below this post.


Learn more about the Regency TR-1 here:

https://www.collectornet.net/regency/index.html


Sources

1. The distance between Chicago and Indianapolis is 185 miles. With today’s cars and roads, this can be traveled in under three hours. 2. Eric Wrobbel, The Regency Family, Woodland Hills. CA, 1994. www.ericwrobbel.com 3. Numerous producers of communication and broadcasting equipment were based in Indiana, and RCA established a plant in Bloomington, near Indianapolis, in 1940. 4. Robert J. Simcoe, “The Revolution in Your Pocket,” American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Volume 20, Number 2, Fall 2004, 13, 15. 5. Companies in Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Pennsylvania also produced capacitors, “Electronic Design 40 Years Ago,” Electronic Design, December 16, 1994, 8. 6. Simcoe, 16. 7. Simcoe, 16. Petertil patented several designs: D176,480 was the version accepted; the design of D175,481 was rejected. Patents applied for on February 10, 1955, granted December 27, 1955. 8. “Pocket Radio,” Design, Number 85, January 1956, 39. The Council of Industrial Design, London. 9. “First Transistor Radio Made Possible… by INSUROK® copper-clad printed circuits,” advertisement in Electrical Merchandising, September 1955, 291. https://www.collectornet.net/regency/pix/Electrical_Manufacturing-9-55-p291.jpg 10. Promotional photograph by Ken Schmid Studio, 835 W. Washington Blvd., Chicago. I.D.E.A., INC. Regency transistor pocket radio [1954]. David Painter Papers, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago. Digital file # 199504_201110-005. 11. Photo caption for I.D.E.A., INC. Regency transistor pocket radio [1954]. David Painter Papers, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago. Digital file # 199504_201110-005. Subsequent versions of the TR-1 were also produced in red, green, and other colors. 12. Median income in 1954 for a U.S. family was $4,500. 13. Simcoe, 17. 14. “Design Review: Audio Fair…Hi Style for Hi Fi,” Industrial Design, Volume 2, Number 1, February 1955, 93. 15. “Oversea Review, International Miscellany, USA Pocket Radio,” Design, Number 85, January 1956 30, The Council of Industrial Design. 16. In April and May of 1955, The American Art and Design exhibition, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, was shown at the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, presented by the American Embassy. Industrial Design magazine, Volume 2, Number 2, April, 1955, 72.

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