Science & Technology in History of Rock & Roll
Mean, Clean, and Loud
The invention of the electric guitar, an instrument that could produce the kind—and amount—of volume necessary to match a band's horn was key to the development of the rock sound. Specifically, the solid-body guitar created by radio repairman Leo Fender, took strumming to a whole new level. First, Fender's model was louder than any of the original versions of electric guitars. Second, it sounded cleaner, more controlled, than the harsh tones produced before. Third, and most importantly, the Fender electric guitar, with its simple design and easy assembly, could be cheaply produced, and therefore sold at a far lower price than any other electric guitar on the market. By the mid-fifties, several companies were distributing a variety of good quality, relatively inexpensive—and loud!—electric guitars and bass guitars.
These innovations transformed the sound of jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues music from which rock and roll derived, and would later come to represent the most recognizable tool of the rock trade. But it wasn't the medium through which people learned about rock and roll. For rock to become a national—and international—phenomenon as quickly as it did, for the sound of these wicked new instruments to reach the ears of teens everywhere, another crucial invention would be needed.9
Little, Lean, and Cheap
In May 1954, Texas Instruments (yes, the very same company that makes those massive calculators!) put the finishing touches on a new device: a small, transportable transistor-based radio receiver—otherwise known as a "transistor radio." Through the use of tiny transistors, radio signals could be amplified. A much smaller radio could transmit more waves, produce more sound, and do all that with less power than that which was needed for larger radio devices. In other words, it could be moved from room to room with ease.
Months later, an Indianapolis company called I.D.E.A. developed the Texas Instrument invention into a product ready for the consumer market. The Regency TR-1 became the first commercially produced transistor radio available in the United States. But it wasn't cheap! The average sticker price for a Regency TR-1 was $49.95, which in 2007 dollars would be roughly $380.
Still, as with any major technological innovation, it was only a matter of time before technicians working with manufacturers discovered ways to produce the device more efficiently and at a lower cost, thus making it possible to lower the price paid by the consumer. By March 1957, Sony, a Tokyo-based telecommunications company, managed to do just that by creating the first mass-produced pocket-sized transistor radio. At first the imported radios were priced comparably to the Regency model, but by the end of the decade a Sony transistor radio could be purchased for half the price of a Regency device. It was a portable radio for the masses!
The Disc Jockey and His Secret Audience
As historian Robert Palmer noted in his book, Dancing in the Street, rock's first audience was really a "secret audience—teenagers gathering after school, cruising in their cars, or lying awake under their bedclothes deep in the night, their ears pressed to tinny little transistor radios."10 The invention of the small, portable radio made it all the more possible for young people—especially young white teens—to enjoy the sizzling new tunes served up by local disc jockeys with an ear for innovative sound, largely rhythm and blues-inspired tunes with howling guitar licks and sensual lyrics. And so, at least for America's young white masses, rock and roll began as a steamy, forbidden pleasure, one enjoyed against the wishes of parents, teachers, ministers and other authority figures. Rock and roll was a drug, the disc jockey was the pusher, and young America had to get its fix! It's no wonder this music phenomenon spread so rapidly.