The 1940s media technology nothing can better


There is an adage that says, don’t try to reinvent the wheel: that is, if an invention is perfect, leave it be. One of these perfect inventions, I believe, is the transistor radio. That’s because

  • It is light and portable, and you can buy one small enough to fit in a pocket;
  • The battery lasts for months, perhaps years, depending how much you use it;
  • It always works, as long as you’re in range of radio waves. No electricity, recharging, modem or internet capability needed;
  • When the weather is very hot or very cold, it still works;
  • You can do other things while you’re listening to the radio—you can drive, garden, cook, whatever;
  • There’s a world of entertainment for everyone, young, old and in between, and broadcasts available in almost every language. There are music of all types, dramas, news, advice shows, arts shows, science shows, chat and talkback.

In fact, radio was the world’s first live interactive media. When talkback started in the 1960s, the law in Australia had to be changed, because it was illegal to record phone calls, and radio stations needed a slight delay so they could censor inappropriate callers.

When I was about 9, my parents bought me my first transistor radio. It was a palm-sized red one with silver buttons. Back then, my favourite show was the children’s story request program on Sundays, starting at 6am.

In those days, also, I can remember my grandparents still had a ‘radiogram’ that was a big piece of cabineted furniture, in a polished wood that my grandmother would put a vase of flowers and family pictures in silver frames on top of. They called this piece of furniture the ‘wireless’, and it used valve technology rather than transistor technology. No doubt they thought the radiogram a superior being to the transistor, which was invented in 1947.

When I was a teenager living in Auckland, New Zealand, the soundtrack to my life was the cool music on Radio Hauraki, so called because it had started as a pirate station broadcasting from a boat out in the Hauraki Gulf from 1966-70.

By the time I was listening to Radio Hauraki, it was many years after those pirate days, and it was well established as a legal land-based station. But it still had that edge of being rebellious and even a bit dangerous, with Kevin “Blackie” Black (1943-2013) the coolest of all DJs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Imagine my excitement when, as a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I actually got to interview the great Blackie himself at his house.

These days, of course, you will tell me that radio has been modernised and that I should stream it over the internet using an app on my phone. Yes, I can do that. But somehow it’s not the same: it eats my phone battery charge, for a start.

And I rarely listen to the radio for the music these days, because I can download any song I like and play it whenever.

But in today’s new environment of music on demand, something has been lost. I remember how, as a 14-year-old, I used to sit eagerly by the radio, finger poised on the red ‘record’ button of my cassette player, ready for when a favourite song happened to be played. It felt like winning a raffle when a song you’d been waiting for actually came on.

I still like a transistor radio. My current one is a retro-styled powder blue, which I did an ink and watercolour painting of, as you can see above.

I’m getting another one soon, a digital pocket-sized number. But essentially, it’s the same perfect invention even in the 21st century: simple, easy to use, strong, and lasts forever.

The perfect inventions: top 11

Apart from the ancient essential inventions, such as the wheel and fire, and the obvious modern inventions, such as antibiotics and X-rays, and world-changing new media, such as the internet and computers, what are the inventions that make our everyday life better than it would otherwise be? What are the inventions that just can’t be beaten? I’ve made a list of some of my favourites. To make the list, they had to have longevity, be sturdy if not unbreakable, be cheap and provide an essential function. Here, then, are my top 11 inventions, in no particular order.

 1.Transistor radio: you need never feel lonely and a couple of batteries will last for a very long time. I have a transistor in the bathroom. Steam from the shower doesn’t bother it, I don’t need to pay anything or use up any data to listen to live radio shows at any time of the day or night. I can get news, real current affairs, interviews, travel updates, music, talkback, lifestyle information, comedy and more. Even my cat likes to sit and listen to the radio.

Radio Lucy: my cat likes to listen to the radio. I've heard they also like a CD, and there are some specially made for cats. That might be taking it a bit far. Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013.

Radio Lucy listens to the morning pet show on the radio. I’ve heard they also like a good music CD, and there are some specially made for cats. That might be taking it a bit far.                                  Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013

2. Ballpoint pen: doesn’t go forever, but goes for a long time. Tiny, and never needs batteries. A $20 bundle of pens from the Post Office shop has so far lasted me 10 years. Granted, I don’t hand-write much these days, but there are doodles, occasional lists, scribbled reminders, class rolls. Great books have been written with one of these. Roald Dahl wrote by hand in his garden shed. Students with late essays would never be able to use the excuse that their “computer broke down”.

3. Paperback book: probably the most dodgy on the list, because people will say that ereaders have superseded it. Well, not necessarily. I love my Kindle and my iPad for reading, too, but they have limitations. Obviously, with the iPad, its battery life is a problem (though some flights now allow you to recharge). And with the basic Kindle, although the battery life is great, you still can’t operate electronic gadgets when a plane is taking off and landing, meaning you have to find something else to read then. I often take a paperback, as well as my Kindle, for the no-electronics times. And marginalia, although it can be made electronically, is just not the same. I recently found a text I’d had to read as an undergraduate student, and in the margin, I’ve written in pencil, “Soooooo tedious”.

4. Automatic analogue watch: all you have to do is wear it every day and it just goes. Or you can wind it up. No battery ever needed. My father had the same automatic watch almost all his life (though he owned lots of other watches, too).

5. Toothbrush: I’m talking the manual kind over the electric. I recently went back to this old fashioned gadget that never needs charging or a battery, is easy to clean, is good for three months or more, and is very cheap—the one I just bought cost $1.

6. Plastic comb: minimal cost, you use it every day and it fits in your purse or pocket. All you have to do is wash it every so often. I’ve had the same comb for more than 20 years, and now it has sentimental value.

7. Automatic kettle: most of us still have one, even though we can heat up water in the microwave quicker. My twentysomething brother doesn’t have one though, so perhaps times are a-changing.

8. Electric non-stick toasted sandwich maker: a meal in five minutes, barely any mess, maximum satisfaction and you can pick one up for $30 or less. You can also make omelets in the compartmentalised ones. I like the sandwich-press style these days, which you can also use as a mini grill.

9.  Digital camera: ‘new’ technology but so much better than film cameras (for everyday snapshots at least—proper photographer/artists might have a different opinion). The concept of putting a camera in our phones was brilliant. It’s so easy now to illustrate my blog, for example.

10. Scissors: imagine if they didn’t exist. We could still cut things, but it would be a pain. I have scissors in just about every room of the house. They’re cheap, simple, and although they are sharp, there’s much less chance you’ll accidentally injure yourself with them (unless, as the old saying goes, you run with them—even then…).

11. Dried pasta: lasts for ages without refrigeration, is very cheap (from 65c a packet), filling and incredibly versatile. The simplest of pasta dishes is also my favourite: for two people, boil half a packet (or less) of dried spaghetti in salted water until just al dente, then drain it (do NOT rinse). Meanwhile, in a deep-sided fry pan, heat two tablespoons or so of olive oil (or 1 of olive oil, one of butter) and, on low heat, add a couple of cloves of finely chopped garlic and fresh or dried chilli. Fry for a few minutes until the garlic starts to brown, then add one or two bottled anchovy fillets with a little of their oil, and a squeeze of lemon. Fry for a couple of minutes, stirring to break up the anchovy. Add the spaghetti and stir well in the sauce until it is piping hot. Serve  garnished with parsley, black pepper and parmesan, and you have aglio e olio, superb, simple and tasty comfort food.