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Spica 6 Civil Defense Transistor Radio, 1959
It might not look like it, but this apparently
quite ordinary Japanese 6-transistor AM pocket radio played a small but
important part in US public safety and Civil Defense (CD) operations during the
Cold War. If fact you have to look very closely indeed at the Spica Transistor
Six’s tuning dial to spot clues to it’s role in warning of
disasters, nuclear annihilation and the like.
On the tuning dial, between the numbers 16 and
10 and 7 and 6, there are two tiny red triangles. They indicate a pair of very
specific Medium Wave frequencies of 640kHz and 1240 kHz, which belonged to the US Key
Stations System, later to become Conelrad (from CONtrol of Electromagnetic
RADiation), more recently the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) and currently
the Emergency Alert System (EAS).
It was set up in the early 1950s and in the
event of an emergency all TV and radio stations would be shut down and only
Government and Civil Defense sanctioned news, information and instructions to
the public would be broadcast on the two designated frequencies. All AM and FM
radios sold in the US were required to have so-called ‘CD-Mark’ symbols on
their tuning scales. Mostly they were white, the rest, like this Spica radio were red.
Some specialised radios even had a built-in alarm if an alert was activated.
Sadly this wasn’t once of them, in fact by most technical standards the Spica
is fairly ordinary but it does have a couple of features worth mentioning.
The first is build quality; they really knew
how to make them in those days, which is probably why this one has survived for
so long, in such good condition. It’s deceptively heavy, and that’s largely
down to the hefty little speaker and several other components that, back in the
late fifties were only partway through the rapid miniaturisation process that
by the early sixties resulted in a deluge of shirt-pocket sized transistor
radios from scores, if not hundreds of far-eastern manufacturers.
The actual radio is a fairly conventional
6-transistor superhetrodyne design, and as you can see from the internal photo,
densely packed with chunky components. Oddities that you rarely, if
ever, seen on modern portable radios of that era, include twin 3.5mm mono jack
headphone sockets. It’s a mono, AM-only tuner -- stereo FM portables took
another decade or so to appear – so in the absence of any solid evidence to the contrary, my
best guesses are that they were meant for sharing the sound, later a common
feature on first generation Walkman-style stereo tape cassette players, or
maybe it was some sort of pseudo stereo effect using two earphones or
headphones. If anyone knows, do tell!
There are only two controls, on/off volume and
rotary tuning. Power comes from four 1.5-volt type 915 cells. These are now
obsolete but they were the predecessors of the AA cells we know and love today.
They are broadly similar to AAs but a millimetre or so shorter. This makes
cramming modern batteries into this radio a risky business. The difference in
length is more than enough to fracture the brittle plastic battery contact
support pillars. A quick and dirty solution, which actually worked quite well,
was to flatten the positive end caps on a modern battery with few taps from a
small hammer. It probably doesn’t do the cells any good but they last long
enough to confirm that the Spica Transistor Six was in tip-top working order
and reception through the built-in ferrite antenna was good enough to pick up a
number of stations on the Medium Wave band without the need for an external aerial
(there’s a threaded socket on the top of the case for just such a purpose).
There’s no need to dwell on sound quality, it’s about as good as it gets on MW
transmissions on pocket radios, of any age…
Overall this little radio, which came my way as
part of a collection of Cold War memorabilia from a fellow enthusiast, now
sadly passed, is in excellent condition. Minor leakage from a battery at some
point in its very long life, cleaned up easily, having done only superficial
damage to one of the battery contacts.
What Happened To It?
All that really needs to be said about this Spica radio and its ilk has been repeated many times if you look through the
Radio & Audio section of dustygizmos. It is of its time and in most
respects similar to countless other small battery powered receivers.
brand is long gone. Internet searches have mostly drawn a blank, as to the
company’s history and relatively small product range. On the other hand
there’s plenty of background on Conelrad on the web and it makes for interesting
reading should you be so disposed. The bones of it are that before the Key Station System was
implemented, by President Harry S. Truman in 1951, the public was alerted to
emergencies by radio and TV stations interrupting normal programmes. It was an
ad-hoc arrangement that had been successfully used during the Pearl Harbour
attack in 1941 and to issue tornado warnings in 1948,. But it was clunky and
largely uncoordinated system. and the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was put
in charge of setting up Conelrad, and establish a national network of secure
phone lines and relay stations to distribute emergency messages.
Around the world a multitude of
Civil Defence and public emergency warning systems have been developed. The current
flavour of the month, now adopted by many countries, and recently, if somewhat belatedly, trialled in the UK, is to take
advantage of the fact that pretty well everyone these days has a mobile phone
of some description, and therefore able to receive text alert messages. Given the current circumstances you would be well advised
to keep your phone battery charged...
First Seen: 1959
Original Price: $10?
Value Today: £15 - £20 (1023)
Features: 6-transistor AM-only superhetrotrodyne receiver, twin 3.5mm mono
earphone jack sockets, aerial socket, leather carry case
Power req. 4 x Type 915 1.5 volt cells
Dimensions: 125 x 85 x 35mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7