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Locally developed GE prototype goes to Smithsonian

Randy Wenner

In the 1950s there were no MP3 players. In fact, there was no way to slip your favorite music into your pocket. But that all changed, thanks to a scientific breakthrough that revolutionized development at one of central New York's largest manufacturers. And the result of that development will now be forever remembered at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

In the early 1950s, there were a lot of artists making the kind of music people couldn't get enough of. But there was no easy way to take your favorite music with you. So-called portable vacuum tube radios were the size of a suitcase and batteries died quickly. But a Nobel-prize winning breakthrough was destined to change all that.

The transistor promised to make electronics much smaller -- and for engineers at General Electric's electronics headquarters outside Syracuse, the race was on to develop a portable radio that you could truly slip in your pocket.

Syracuse University Communications professor Rick Wright says most Central New Yorkers have no idea how important this area was in the development of consumer electronics.

"We've got a whole generation that has no concept of General Electric and the fact there was a major manufacturer called General Electric right here in Syracuse," said Wright.

"Liverpool has a street called what? Electronics Parkway. Why is this called Electronics Parkway? I don't see any electronics out here. That was a mammoth campus, a mammoth electronics manufacturing campus," he said.  "That electronic communications division was a powerhouse."

At its peak, GE in Liverpool employed almost 20,000 people, making radios, televisions and other appliances. And by 1954, the company had developed a prototype of a working transistor radio.

"It kind of brought about the information age -- the transistor did," said Jeff Marier, who is an electrical engineer for Lockheed Martin, the company that bought GE twenty years ago.

"The batteries went from lasting 10 to 20 hours to 100 to 200 hours. And then of course size then shrunk with it," said Marier.

When it hit the market, the transistor radio empowered a new generation -- a younger generation, and Rick Wright says it was the forerunner of the today's portable music powerhouse.

"We talk about the iPod. This generation is walking around in headphones and all that, but can you imagine kids in the 1950s, man, the days of rock and roll, rhythmn and blues, the parents who didn't like the music: 'Hey! Turn that music down!' When they go to bed at night, they'd have a transistor radio under their pillow.  That was their baby," said Wright.

GE wasn't the first company to get a transistor radio on the market. But the prototype GE created of its first portable radio was turned over to the Smithsonian this week --  a lasting tribute to the once powerful General Electric electronics headquarters, in central New York.