curmudgeonIn this series of posts we are looking at the telecommunications technology available to the average consumer in the year 1960 and comparing it with that which exists today.  We can trace some of the changes in daily life that the technological advances of the past fifty years have brought, and also see how our ancestors “did more with less.”

Consumer data recording: aural, visual, documents:

Not Yet Available in 1960:  (aural) compact discs, cassette magnetic tape recorders, mp3 and Internet file sharing; (visual) VCRs, DVD format players and recorders, TIVO and other digital recorders, Internet file sharing,  digital still cameras, digital video cameras and camcorders, etc.; (data) computers, electronic calculators, Internet, Xerox machines.

In Use: (aural) phonograph records, reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorders; (visual) photographic roll film cameras for still pictures, 8 mm photographic film motion picture cameras; (data) handwritten documents, typewriters.

Vintage Symphonic Portable Record Player
Vintage Symphonic Portable Record Player

Lifestyle: (aural) In 1960 recorded music collections were kept almost entirely in the form of vinyl phonograph records, which were typically 12 inch diameter, 33 r.p.m. “long playing” discs for albums or smaller 45 r.p.m. vinyl discs for individual songs.  Stereo 33 r.p.m. phonograph recordings had just begun coming onto the market.  However, the idea of recording home-generated audio directly to phonograph record blanks had never become popular.  Magnetic tape (1/4″ width tape, a.c. line powered recorder/players) “reel to reel” recorders were available for both general purpose and high-end audio uses, including the first stereo-recording models, but were not in widespread adoption.  Most consumers owned no aural recording devices.  Pre-recorded audio entertainment tapes were uncommon.

(Visual) All consumer and commercial still picture and motion picture recording was done on photographic film; the digital picture system was still decades distant.  Most consumers owned and used still cameras, which ranged from simple, no-adjustments “box cameras” to professional-grade equipment.  Color snapshot photography was affordable and was in widespread use, although black-and-white photography was also still widely used.  Exposed rolls of film were taken to camera or drug stores where they were shipped to processing centers for development and printing, while some color rolls were mailed directly to manufacturers for processing.  In all cases, chemical-based processing and printing, followed by return of finished work, usually took several days.

Film was the 1960’s visual media
Film was the 1960’s visual media

Consumer motion pictures were typically recorded on 8 mm color film stock; a standard roll would record 4 minutes and 10 seconds.  The home motion picture system did not record sound, although in future years a new consumer format would be introduced that did record sound on the film, using a magnetic strip along the edge of the film stock.  Film and processing were relatively expensive, and far fewer consumers made motion pictures than took still photographs.  Consumer motion pictures typically were shown using stand-alone 8 mm motion picture projectors.  Almost no consumers owned commercial-grade 16 mm movie cameras and projectors (some of which projectors were available with integral optical sound systems).  While commercial (and Hollywood) productions could be released in the 16 mm sound format, they never were released in 8 mm silent format.  Consumers seldom purchased “pre-recorded” motion picture programming.

A photographic still picture offshoot, the Polaroid Corp. “picture in a minute” camera and specialized film system, had then been available for about a decade.  In this system after the picture was taken the consumer pulled a “sandwich” of the special film system from the camera.  Under ordinary light, the image was automatically developed and transferred to an integral paper sheet, and the finished picture became available for use after about one minute of processing.  Most consumer “instant photography” was done in black and white, although a color picture system became available in this time period.

(Data) The term “data” implies permanent paper records, which in 1960 were the only practical way in which consumer data records could be kept.  (Some commercial data was kept on rolls of magnetic tape for main-frame computer use; see below) The available technologies were few: sheets of paper handwritten upon with pens or pencils, or printed (“typed”) upon, character-by-character, using mechanical typewriters.  Consumers did customarily exchange handwritten notes, letters, and greeting cards usually through the U. S. Mail, to maintain contact with friends.

Advanced 1960 data processing – the electric typewriter!
Advanced 1960 data processing – the electric typewriter!

Typewriters were common in business offices and also in the homes of those who needed to prepare printed documents.  The less expensive typewriters operated entirely by the mechanical force of the typist striking keys on the keyboard with his fingers, while the better typewriters used a small internal electric motor to cause character printing and paper movement after a light touch on the keys.  Typewritten documents were common in business, somewhat less so in personal life.

Xerographic photocopying was just being introduced, and was generally found only in the offices of big institutions and companies.  Other photocopying techniques had been developed but were uncommon in daily life.  Personal photocopier machines for home use were unknown, and most individuals seldom made photocopies as part of their daily lives.

No digital data services including the Internet, and no personal computers to generate data, were in use at that time.

Non-broadcast radio:

Not Yet Available: VHF/UHF radio scanners, satellite communications receivers, cordless telephones, cellular telephones, radio pagers, GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth, wireless remote control devices


In Use: Short wave receivers, (limited numbers of) tunable VHF receivers, Amateur radio equipment, military surplus radio equipment, Citizens Band radio equipment, commercial two-way radios (including microwave) for land, maritime, and aeronautical mobile services

Lifestyle: In daily life, most consumers did not own or use receivers to monitor non-broadcast communications and had no reason to do so.  Additionally, unless they used early Citizens Band radio equipment, the majority of consumers owned no devices that would intentionally emit radio frequency energy upon their command (i.e., “transmit using radio waves”).  Generally, most consumers were completely separated from non-broadcast radio communications, unless they used them as an incidental part of their jobs or were Amateur or Citizens Radio licensees.

International short-wave radio broadcasting flourished, and line-operated and battery-operated portable receivers were widely available.  But shortwave was not a generally popular broadcast program source within the US, and only a minority of consumers listened to it, in contrast to citizens of other countries who used it to a greater extent.

The CB radio boom was on its way!
The CB radio boom was on its way!

Citizens Band Radio was already established, and within a decade it would enjoy a large and rapid increase in popularity, eventually leading to a consumer market “bubble.”  In 1960 CB radio was still considered “useful” and “respectable” for general consumer communications, and FCC licenses were still being issued and were required.  CB radio was the only access to two-way radio communications available to the general public.

Amateur Radio of the period, already described in other Curmudgeon pieces, was flourishing, with young people entering the Service and the numbers of licensees expanding.  On the shortwave (HF) Amateur bands single-sideband emissions had established a strong foothold and the consequent use of AM emissions was steadily declining.  Morse Code proficiency (CW) was

a requirement for every grade of license, and it was widely used on air as well.  On the VHF bands, most communications were still via AM and CW modes.  The FM and repeater mode had not yet come into widespread use; that would take about another ten years.  Digital transmission modes had not yet been developed, and other specialized modes were in very limited use.

Commercially-produced Amateur equipment was available in good supply and most Amateurs used some manufactured equipment.  But prices for these products were, on a relative basis, more expensive than at the present time.  Because of the cost, use of home-constructed systems and converted military surplus radios was then more common than today.  Most of the available equipment of all types was designed with vacuum tube circuitry.  Solid state devices (at that time mainly consisting only of discrete transistors and diodes) were expensive and had poor high frequency performance, and thus were used generally for power supply and audio frequency circuits.

Only spartan radio comms (lower left) in a 1960 cockpit.
Only spartan radio comms (lower left) in a 1960 cockpit.

Commercial Mobile Radio services existed and were in wide-spread use.  This category includes Land, Maritime, and Aeronautical mobile services.  The majority of aircraft, many in-board engine ships and boats, and the larger fleets of commercial land vehicles carried two-way mobile radio.  Mobile radio communications of the time were overwhelmingly by voice, with AM in use on HF and FM on VHF/UHF (except for aeronautical VHF/UHF, which has always remained AM).  Almost all the commercial mobile equipment still used vacuum tube circuits, although solid state devices were just being introduced for some circuits.  Mobile data communications did not yet exist, and hand-held transceivers for VHF FM service were rare.

All of today’s abundant unlicensed consumer uses of radio communications, such as WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular telephone, GPS, satellite broadcasting, and even remote keyless vehicle entry systems — would become available only decades later.  Today an average consumer may possess from five to ten devices that produce or receive non-broadcast radio signals.  In 1960 a typical consumer would own or use no such devices, unless he were either an Amateur Radio or Citizens Radio licensee.  The typical 1960 consumer was not “on the air.”

In the next post we’ll look at “digital computing” in the year 1960, and then summarize and draw a few conclusions.

curmudgeonWhat do you think?

“Let’s save the universe for RF”

The Old RF Curmudgeon

Since 1963, LBA has been providing RF equipment and engineering consulting services for radio and television broadcast and wireless communications.

About The Author

The Old RF Curmudgeon has been poking his beak into the RF world for very close to fifty years. With both commercial and amateur radio experience, close contacts in broadcast engineering, radio site management experience, lots of paper pushed into the FCC, an immense curiosity about “how things work,” and a “real gud college education,” the RF Curmudgeon has seen a lot of telecom evolution. And he remembers almost all of it, can relate historical items to “modern developments,” and has a sharp sense of “what’s proper….and what’s not!”

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