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…
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
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 9