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Widget Of The Week

Spectra Radio Spectacles, 1963

Over the years the reinvention of the wheel has been a recurrent theme in dustygizmos. Adding to the list of apparently modern gadgets that have been around in one form or another for 50 years or more are these Spectra Radio Spectacles, dating from 1963 or thereabouts. In fairness today’s ‘wearables’ tend to have rather more exotic functions than just a simple AM radio. But the point is, whether the spectacles in question have a Bluetooth connection to smartphone media apps, tiny video screens, cameras or 3D vision LCD ‘shutters’, the idea of cramming a shed-load of miniature technology into the confines of a pair of sun glasses is nothing new. Back in the early 1960s shoehorning a three-transistor Medium Wave radio into such a limited space would have been seen as every bit as remarkable as today’s high tech specs.

 

The Spectra Radio Spectacles look pretty normal head on. The black frame and dark glass lenses are a timeless sunglasses design that has never gone out of fashion. However the Temples – the side parts that go over the ears -- look a bit odd. They’re unusually thick, and each one has a small round knob. Needless to say they's also quite heavy.

 

The one on the wearer’s left is for on/off and volume and the one on the right is the tuner control. The electronics are split between the two temples. In the left one there’s a two-transistor amplifier, the earphone module that pipes sound to left ear through a transparent tube, and the battery, or rather a single 625A 1.5volt button cell. The right side houses the tuner components. This is back to basics, super-regenerative circuitry, involving just a handful of components, most noticeably a tuning capacitor, a diode, a single transistor and a coil wound around a ferrite rod, which makes up the antenna assembly. In truth it’s little more than a fancy crystal set but sensitive enough to pick up strong medium wave stations in the vicinity. It’s a very tight fit on both sides and it has to be said that the standard of construction is quite average and they look hand assembled. This is in contrast to the rest of the item – the glasses are a quality item – but if the radio fails they suddenly become a lot less interesting, which probably explains why so few of them have survived.

 

This one came my way via ebay a few months ago at the height of the C19 pandemic. Rare, unusual and novelty radios tend sell quite well so I didn’t think the chances of me grabbing a bargain were very high. Even so I tagged it, more out of curiosity than any expectation. I followed it for a week and was surprised to see it had no bids on the morning the auction was to end. Still anticipating a last minute scramble I entered my £15 bid in the last few seconds and was amazed when it won, unopposed, for the opening price of £6.00.

 

The seller truthfully described it as being in good cosmetic condition but non-working. After a thorough internal and external wash and brush up, removing the thin layer of corrosion on the battery contacts seemed like a good place to start the repair process. All that achieved was to change its status from totally silent to a very faint click when it was switched on. There were no loose or broken wires so the next step was to use an AF/RF injector and tracer, to find out how far down the line signals managed to progress before they disappeared. It turned out that the amplifier stage was where it all went wrong. The two transistors checked out, which pointed to a pair of electrolytic capacitors as the prime suspects. 1960’s caps are notoriously prone to failure after a couple of decades. Authentic-looking replacements that would fit in the very confined space are hard to find so I replaced them with a couple of tantalum capacitors close the correct value. That did the trick with a loud hiss and couple of stations coming out of the earpiece tube when the tuner knob was turned.  

 

The fact that it still works – admittedly after a few simple repairs -- more than excuses any shortcomings in its performance. Not that there’s much to listen to on the Medium Wave these days. It was then, and still is a genuinely innovative example of micro engineering. It is also worth remembering that transistors had been developed barely 10 years before this radio was built, and the miniature ones it uses had probably only been in production for a year or less when it rolled off the production line.

 

What Happened To It?

Nothing is known about the Hong Kong manufacturer who made it; like so many other small companies around at that time they either disappeared or were swallowed up by larger concerns, leaving little or no evidence of their existence. This particular model was probably commissioned for a UK company called Dragon Wire Products of Smethwick. They’re mentioned on the box as the sole distributors and along with a Design Reg. Number. This refers to registrations made between March and June 1963, which is reasonable indicator of the date of manufacture. That’s about as far as its online history could be traced; a visit to the Records Office might reveal more. Even less is known about Dragon Wire Products of Smethwick – as always any information is welcome.

 

This design of radio spectacles appeared to have had the market pretty much to themselves; the only other examples I’ve been able to find from that era clearly came from the same factory but with small variations in branding (Sakura, New Transistor & Ross) colour and styling; there’s also a distinctive ‘cat’s eye’ version for the ‘ladies’. Things go quiet from the late 60s onwards then, at some point in the late 70s or early 80s, radio sun glasses make another appearance, thanks to further advances in miniaturisation and circuit design. They never really go away after that and the next big change occurs in the 1980s with the arrival of stereo FM reception, and newly developed ‘radio-on-a-chip microcircuits. The most recent advances include things like the ill-fated Google Glass, essentially a head mounted smartphone, and countless Bluetooth equipped sunglasses that connect to a wearer’s smartphone. And very impressive they are too; like most modern microchipped widgets they’re cheap, but sadly just a bit soulless.

 

Vintage radio sunglasses like this Spectra model don’t appear very often on ebay, and when they do the sellers are often in the US where it looks like most of them were sold; I have yet to see one at an antique fair or car boot sale. This either indicates that not many were sold in the UK, or they simply didn’t last very long, which judging by the electronic circuitry seems the more likely explanation. Their apparent scarcity isn’t currently reflected in the prices they sell for, if my admittedly brief monitoring of sales is anything to go by (between £20 and £40 plus the same again for shipping from the US), so if you ever spot a pair in the UK going cheap, you will know what to do…


DATA

First Seen:                 1963

Original Price:            £15.00?

Value Today:              £30.00 (0720)

Features:                    Medium Wave receiver 6-transistor super regenerative tuner, ferrite rod antenna, built-in earphone, rotary tuning and volume on/off

Power req.                      1 x 1.5 volt 625A button cell

Dimensions:                    145 x 45 x 170mm

Weight:                           85g

Made (assembled) in:      Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    9



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