From crude mechanical systems to today‘s sleek flat panels, the history of television is defined by innovation. Each new TV format revolutionized the viewing experience – and society – by overcoming limitations of the past. In this journey through vintage TV technology, we‘ll highlight five pivotal eras that trace the evolution from black & white to color, small screens to large, and bulky boxes to streamlined panels.
The Dawn of Television: Mechanical TVs
Television‘s origins trace back to the late 1800s, but it took several decades and false starts before the technology matured. Early TV systems relied on mechanical scanning methods like the spinning Nipkow disk, with its spiral of holes that could rapidly scan lines of an image.
Scottish inventor John Logie Baird capitalized on these early scanning techniques to give the first public demonstration of a "true" television system in 1925. Using a painted ventriloquist dummy named Stooky Bill to provide facial contrast, Baird transmitted a flickering 30-line image that could be viewed in real-time on a monitor.
The following year, Baird successfully transmitted human faces, pioneering the era of mechanical television. Despite its crude 30-60 line resolution, Baird‘s system proved television could work, setting off a wave of development. By 1928, Baird was broadcasting regular TV programming in London, including plays and variety acts captured by primitive scanning cameras.
|1884||Paul Nipkow proposes scanning disk|
|1925||John Logie Baird demonstrates mechanical TV system|
|1928||Baird broadcasts regular TV programming in London|
At the same time, inventors like Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin pursued a competing approach: electronic television, based on cathode ray tubes. Despite the excitement surrounding Baird‘s mechanical system, it had fundamental limitations. The 30-line resolution produced blurry, flickering images, and the disks would burn out from friction after just a few hours of scanning.
Within a few years, the superior electronic television technology prevailed. Electronic TV combined the scanning capabilities of cathode ray tubes with amplifiers and vacuum tubes to transmit a strong signal, yielding much clearer 60-343 line images. By 1934, Farnsworth gave the first electronic TV demonstration and Zworykin‘s electronic system was adopted by RCA. The mechanical TV era was over after little more than a decade. But it established critical foundations that electronic television built upon.
Black & White TV‘s Golden Age
By 1939, electronic television was ready for public debut at the World‘s Fair. RCA‘s model with a 5" screen cost a hefty $600 (over $11,000 today) to purchase. Initially just a novelty, television took off after WWII, fueled by post-war prosperity and innovations that made sets more affordable.
The number of American households with a TV skyrocketed from under 10,000 in 1946 to over 12 million by 1951. By 1960, nearly 90% of households had a television as black & white TV became central to family life.
|Year||Number of US Households with TV|
|1946||Less than 10,000|
|1960||Over 50 million|
Early B&W sets used small cathode ray tubes to direct electron beams onto phosphor-coated screens. Magnetic coils moved the beams rapidly back and forth across each line of the screen. Images were painted line-by-line from top to bottom in a "raster" pattern to form a full frame 30 times per second, creating the illusion of motion.
With a 525-line scanning resolution, picture quality improved drastically over crude mechanical systems. 12"-15" screens became the norm by the 1950s as prices dropped. But B&W TV technology was not without limitations. Images still degraded depending on signal quality, so rabbit ear antennas had to be adjusted to pull in stations. VHF and UHF dials allowed access to the growing number of channels over the airwaves.
Why did electronic B&W TV succeed where mechanical TV failed? The scanning cathode ray tube proved far superior at transmitting clear, flicker-free images. This reliable technology could scale as demand boomed post-WWII, while mass producing mechanical spinning disks was not practical. Electronic television offered a level of performance that finally fulfilled the public expectation of television, at an affordable price.
The Game-Changing Shift to Color
While experiments with color TV dated back to the 1940s, high costs prevented mass adoption until the mid-1960s. The first color test broadcasts by CBS in 1950 proved promising but crude, with only about 12,000 color TVs in existence.
Color TV relied on combining three beams – one for each primary color – precisely synchronized to scan RGB components together line-by-line. This came at a cost, as much more data transmission was required. NTSC color signals had about 1/3 the resolution of B&W: only about 320 lines compared to over 525.
Despite this shortcoming, the appeal of color TV was undeniable. Sales boomed following the launch of NBC‘s Bonanza in vivid color in 1959. By the mid-1960s, all major networks were broadcasting primetime in color as shows like Laugh-In and Batman leveraged bright, eye-catching palettes and backdrops. The percentage of households with color TVs surpassed B&W in just a few years.
|Year||% of US Households with Color TV|
Despite the poor resolution, color TV technology was an enormous breakthrough. Early adopters tolerated the flaws and cost. For broadcasters, color TV drove demand and opened up new creative opportunities. Sports and news benefited immediately. The shared community experience of watching history unfold in color TV events like the moon landing galvanized the nation. While crude at first, color TV rapidly improved in quality and declined in price throughout the 1970s.
The Race for Bigger Screens
Even as sales of color TVs took off, screen sizes remained relatively modest. Most households still had 25" or smaller screens into the 1970s due to limits in cathode ray tube technology. Beyond 30"-40", CRT TVs become impractically heavy and suffered image distortions.
To drive screen size larger, new innovations were needed. In the late 1960s, projection technology enabled 50-60" screens by beaming CRT images onto the back of reflective screen material. But early rear projection TVs cost over $3,000, limiting adoption.
In the 1980s, prices became more reasonable. Large projection TVs found a niche market for home theaters, sports bars, and other high-end uses. But picture quality was lacking compared to direct-view CRTs. Monster 50" projection sets took up entire living room walls. While novel, the average household still opted for more moderately-sized CRT sets into the 1990s.
|Year||Average TV Screen Size|
Rear projection represented an interim solution on the road to large screens. While the huge sets appealed to home theater enthusiasts, drawbacks included lower image quality, monster footprints, and poor viewing angles. Prices were also slow to drop significantly until the rise of flat panels. For most consumers through the 1990s, direct-view CRTs still offered the best balance on price, performance and size.
The Flat Panel Revolution
By the late 1990s, the next generation of TV technology finally broke past the screen size and performance barriers of CRTs: flat panel displays. Pioneered for niche commercial use earlier, it was not until the 2000s that flat panel TVs became mainstream in homes.
Two technologies drove the flat panel revolution – plasma and LCD.
Plasma TVs use hundreds of thousands of individual pixel cells coated in phosphors. Electrodes excite a neon/xenon gas mixture in the pixels to emit ultraviolet plasma, causing the phosphors to glow red, green or blue and compose an image. Plasma pixels directly emit their own light, allowing for incredible contrast ratios and black levels.
Early on, plasma held image quality advantages over LCD but suffered from screen burn-in. As manufacturing ramped up in the early 2000s, plasma became cost competitive with projection TVs. Screen sizes up to 60" became attainable for under $5,000, fostering rapid adoption.
|Year||Global Shipments of Plasma TVs|
|2008||Over 9 million units|
LCD televisions work by sandwiching liquid crystals between polarized glass panels. Electrical current applied to the crystals manipulates the angle of light passing through them, controlling color and brightness. LCD pixels do not directly emit light, so a backlight is required.
While plasma initially led on picture quality, LCD technology was easier to scale up in size. By the late 2000s, LCD manufacturers like Samsung steadily improved image quality while slashing prices, overtaking plasma in worldwide sales.
|Year||Global LCD TV Shipments|
|2003||20 million units|
|2010||Over 154 million units|
This flat panel price war fueled exponential growth. By 2010, it was possible to purchase giant, razor-thin LCD TVs for under $1,000 – something entirely unfathomable just 10 years earlier. Today, even budget TVs boast 4K resolution, dazzling contrast, and 60-inch+ sizes at prices affordable for any household.
The plasma vs. LCD battle was the last major display technology rivalry. Improving LCD and new OLED panels have become firmly established as today‘s high-end TV technology, leaving vintage CRT and projection systems far behind. We now take affordable, giant, beautiful flat screens for granted – but their rapid rise was nothing short of revolutionary.
The history of television is defined by innovation cycles. Each new TV format – from crude mechanical scanning to today‘s immersive flat panels – built upon the foundations of previous technologies while breaking through barriers like screen size, image clarity, and affordability.
Engineers in the 1920s could hardly imagine that TV would become an indispensable worldwide medium. Yet each era of new display technology brought television closer to its potential. B&W TV turned novelty into mainstream; color added realism. Projection and flat panels finally unlocked large screen sizes for the average household.
The pace of change has been astonishing. Over just 80 years, television morphed from flickering 30-line screens into lifelike 50 inch+ panoramas. Yet pioneers like John Logie Baird and Philo Farnsworth would surely recognize their contributions in today‘s vibrant 4K images. Television has fulfilled its early promise and will continue rapid innovation. The history of old TVs shows how far we‘ve come – and hints at how far the humble television may still evolve in the future.