Monday, May 25, 2009

AM in the PM

In my grandma's living room in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the late-1930s and early-1940s was a huge Stromberg-Carlson radio with a dozen electronic tubes the size of Coke bottles, glowing like bonfires. My parents' new house, built in 1941, had a Zenith as large as a breadbox (remember breadboxes?) with salt-shaker-sized tubes. In 1950 I got a radio of my own, a little Sears Silvertone with minitubes no bigger than my little finger. Then, along came transistors, and radios shrank to the size of a deck of cards. Integrated circuits appeared in the 60s, and if it weren't for the necessity of a battery, tuner and earphones, a radio could be the size of this letter o.

The March issue of Scientific American described a radio in which the active element is a single carbon nanotube -- a radio you can't see. Forget Dick Tracy. In the 1940s, we thought his wrist radio was the cat's pajamas. Now a bacterium can wear a wrist radio, so to speak.

Not that I know what that's good for. What I see these days is everyone going around with buds in their ears listening to their own streams of sound. My daughters were extolling the virtues of Pandora the other day, a computer application that personalizes your radio content -- in effect creating as many stations as there are listeners. Sounds a little spooky to me, although my cat gave up her pajamas years ago. Maybe it's because I grew up sitting in a tight little circle with my grandma and my young aunts and uncle around that big Stromberg-Carlson, listening to Your Hit Parade, Dr I. Q., Fibber McGee and Molly, and all the rest. Radio brought folks together in that golden age; now it isolates each of us in our own little world.