Will Television Catch On?

My oldest brothers were born in 1928. That’s the same year RCA and General Electric ran an experiment by installing television sets in three homes in Schenectady, New York. The ‘modern’ devices displayed a one and a half inch square picture.

I’m not sure which I find more fascinating – the idea of trying to watch a TV program on a screen slightly larger than a postage stamp, or the fact that the prototype of any device was that small. Typically, we humans make things big to start with and then find ways to streamline them.

Obviously the experiments worked. The engineers and scientists were able to transmit pictures and sound through thin air and have it come out on their receiving devices. But the television didn’t find its way into living rooms until the late 1940’s. By then, the picture had grown to as much as thirteen diagonal inches.

Another obvious observation: by the late 1940s, the marketing geniuses had gotten involved. A scientist might have described the screen as being ten by twelve inches. But a salesperson, wanting to make the screen sound bigger and better, measured it diagonally. Note that the screens continue to be measured diagonally.

The first TV purchased by my parents was a thirteen inch console, which meant the cabinet was more than twice the size of the screen. I’m guessing they bought the TV in the early 1950s.

Many of the old timers who read my blog might well remember the various things we’d do in an effort to get a clearer picture.

Snow was a common problem – especially for those of us who relied solely on rabbit ears. Sometimes, a proper wrapping of aluminum foil around one or both of the ‘ears’ worked wonders.

If the picture began rolling vertically or horizontally, there were knobs – usually in the front, but often found in the back of the set – that could be carefully turned to stop the rolling.

When all else failed, the repairman would be called in. It seemed the TV set had at least two vacuum tubes for every conceivable function. In most cases, the repairman could replace one or two tubes and the set would be as good as new. The only words we all dreaded were, “I’m afraid it’s your picture tube.” At that point, it was time to shop for a new television.

Sometime later in my youth, my parents moved up to a twenty-one inch portable. By that time Mr. Reed’s drug store had a tube tester installed. That meant we could avoid the cost of the service call. We’d simply pull out all the tubes and take them in for testing. (It should be noted that some people were confident that they knew precisely which tubes were causing the problem – those tubes were foggy or had a tell-tale spot on them – and took only the suspect tubes to Mr. Reed’s store. These folks often made multiple trips.)

Once the replacement tubes were purchased, we had to try to figure which tubes went where and put them all back in. If all went well, our set would be working fine once more. Otherwise, we’d call the repairman again.

With our first TV, we had a choice of WDTV Channel 3 – the Dumont Television Network. I believe their broadcasting day began around three or four in the afternoon and ended following the eleven o’clock news and semonette. The remainder of the day was either nothing or a test pattern.

When the Westinghouse Broadcasting Network bought out Dumont, they moved to channel 2 and took on the call letters KDKA – the same as the world’s first commercial radio station.

Eventually, channels 4, 11, and 13 were added. Years later, channel 53 came on the air, but if a television wasn’t equipped with a UHF tuner, channel 53 could not be viewed.

A friend of mine recently told me his father had invented the first remote control device. It was a long wooden pole with a forked end. The man could sit in his easy chair and change channels, control the volume, and, with tremendous dexterity, stop the vertical or horizontal rolling. I’d imagine he could also adjust the brightness, contrast, and fine tuning.

Today, most of those knobs are long gone. With some sets, it’s even difficult to find the on/off switch. Take away the electronic remote control device and the television set is basically useless.

We now have huge flat screens (that are still measured diagonally), surround sound, and the technology that allows you to connect it to your computer and other household devices so you can check your email and pot roast all from the comfort of your easy chair.

And one more thing, when we think of the one and a half inch square screens on the original experimental sets, we should take a look at the cell phones and iPods now used by many people to watch movies and television. They’re about the same size.

What goes around, comes around.

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