A nine cent radio

I tend to think of environmental issues as being the major challenge for my generation. We could waste some effort cursing the earlier generations that brought us to this point (CFCs, desperate overpopulation, resource depletion and so on…) but earlier generations had their hands full with problems of their own, such as coping with the Great Depression, and defending themselves against fascism.

Some people were aware of the problems ahead, though – including Victor Papanek, a designer and educator born in 1923. Here’s what he had to say about his line of work:

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few… by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed.”

That’s a promising start, but Papanek didn’t just wring his hands about the state of the world: he set about making it a better place. He designed a taxi with disabled access in mind, an innovative method for dispersing seeds… and a radio that cost just nine cents to make. If you wanted to communicate information such as a weather warning or advice on disease control to isolated communities where literacy was still uncommon, radio was a great solution – if people could afford to own and operate one.

Papanek (and his former student, George Seegers) started work on an accessible radio in 1962. By modern standards, not a very good radio: in fact, it wouldn’t work nowadays because it didn’t have any sort of tuner and would pick up every frequency at once. That didn’t matter because the places where it was meant to be deployed only had a single, state broadcaster. Above all, it was simple, and cheap. The body of the radio was a used food tin. Similarly, the earth wire terminated with a used nail. Most unusual of all, the power source… was a candle. Much of the can was filled with wax, and a wick, while a simple thermocouple located above provided just enough power to operate a single transistor, with sound coming from an earpiece. Everything, including a hand-woven copper wire antenna, was stowed inside the can for delivery.

Papanek’s nine cent radio

This isn’t a prototype… this is the real thing.

By the time the radio was ready for mass production (more properly, cottage industry production in the target countries) in 1966, the cost had been driven down to nine cents. (Nobody claimed royalties on the design, and manufacture was done at cost.) In 2014 money, the radio cost maybe $0.65 … still impressive, despite the intervening half century during which the cost of electronic components has dropped through the floor. On a couple of occasions I’ve received a radio ‘free’ with some other purchase, but I’m still absolutely blown away by the nine cent version.

Most of all, it’s tremendously well aligned with the realities of the infrastructure of its era, when solar panels were something that only appeared on spacecraft, and when batteries were short-lived, heavy, toxic and expensive. Papanek’s radio simply met a need, very elegantly, and the fact that he was an industrial designer is evidence of his humility, given that the end product was just about the ugliest device ever. Papanek’s 1971 book, Design for the Real World is aptly titled, because the real world is not as we might wish it to be.

In the UK we venerate Trevor Baylis, and rightly so: he’s a superb engineer. (If you’re trying to remember who he is… the “clockwork radio guy”*.) After a very difficult time securing any interest in the idea, the BBC introduced him to the world and the Freeplay radio eventually appeared in 1996 – thirty years after Papanek and Seegers completed their work. It’s a much better radio – infinitely so — but it’s a also much more complex device. Perhaps that’s a sign of how far we’ve come in a short time; that society can support the widespread use of a radio that isn’t merely for maintaining a listening watch for important public information, but for enjoying sport, entertainment, and the arts.

Victor Papanek

Victor Papanek, 1923 – 1998 (Papanek Foundation)

For an encore, Papanek worked with a team that produced a television set for use in developing countries. It was ready by 1970… and cost nine dollars.


* Nowadays, the ‘clockwork’ aspect of Freeplay devices has been replaced by a simpler hand crank mechanism where the user turns a geared dynamo directly rather than winding a spring, but they continue to serve in several applications that would otherwise require batteries.


One thought on “A nine cent radio

  1. Pingback: Malawi Shows a Way Forward in Adaptation to Climate Change | Capacify

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