Television - a Brief Story of Technological Change

Television – a Brief Story of Technological Change


By Elton Camp

            In 1950, I was ten years old and had never seen a television set, but that was when they began to become available in the rural areas of North Alabama where I live.  A wealthy, older couple, Mr. & Mrs. T.D. Thompson, astonished our town when they purchased one for their home.  Since there were two television stations in operation in Birmingham, people in more prosperous parts of the state undoubtedly already had them.  But to those of us in the outlying areas they were a new development. 

            Since we had lived next door to the Thompsons in a small rental apartment, my parents visited them one day, undoubtedly with the hope of seeing the television in operation, although they’d never have directly asked.  We were seated in the living room and there it stood, mute and dark.  The screen must have been about fifteen inches diagonal, but it was enclosed in a magnificent wood cabinet several feet long. 

            After the usual chit-chat, my parents managed to work the conversation around to the television.  They were just as anxious to see it in operation as I.  Mrs. Thompson asked if we’d like to see how it worked and my father allowed that he would. 

            After a lengthy warm-up, the picture appeared on the screen, but it was fuzzy and partly obscured by glitter that was called “snow.”  My parents praised the amazing device and its fine picture, but I was distinctly disappointed and said nothing.  Anyway, it hardly mattered as the talk was that the set had cost a thousand 1950 dollars which would be equivalent to far over ten thousand in present dollars.  It was beyond our reach and we all knew it. 

            The first of many changes took place sooner than anyone could have anticipated.  Cheaper version of television sets began to appear.  Priced at only a few hundred dollars, they were a stretch for most families, but not entirely out of reach.  The few stores that sold them, placed running sets in their windows and crowds gathered around to watch. 

            Unbelievable as it sounds, when a family bought a set, its home became a gathering place for the neighbors, invited or not invited.  All sat in silence in darkened rooms and not a word was said as all eyes were transfixed on the little screen.  The visitors stayed as long as they dared, but relief was always in sight for the beleaguered hosts.  The stations played the National Anthem and signed off no later than midnight and didn’t commence broadcasting until the next morning. 

            To my complete surprise, television entered our home in 1952 when I was in the seventh grade.  My father wasn’t given to extravagances, but this was something that caught his attention.  Our set was a Motorola “table model” that had a cheap plastic housing and set on spindly, wooden legs.  Just the same, we thought it to be very fine. 

            Reception required a fifty-foot tall metal antenna placed at the highest point of the house roof.  Guy wires ran in all directions to keep it standing and flat cables reached the set through a partially open window.  Despite the precautions, the antennae often crashed onto houses in a moderate wind.  A heavy gale might bring them all onto roofs. 

            We could watch any station we pleased as long as it was either channel 6 or channel 13, both located in Birmingham.  Picture quality had improved from the older set owned by the Thompsons, but channel six had several distinct lines of glittering interference on every set, including those in the big city itself. 

            Changing channels or volume required getting up and walking over to the set.  A loud series of clicks when moving from one station to the other.  Nobody had even imagined a remote control.  The theoretical channel choice ranged from two to thirteen.  That there could ever come to be as many as twelve channels in operation seemed impossible in the extreme. 

            Each morning a test pattern appeared on the screen prior to sign-on.  Often it was an image of a Plains Indian with full feathered headdress.  Multiple knobs on the back allowed adjustment of size, centering, brightness and other features.  Like a guitar that seems to require tuning each time it’s used, the adjustments lasted a single day.  With a flourish and the Star Spangled Banner played, the station came on the air.  As the day progressed, it was common for the picture to slip sideways into zig-zag lines and manipulation of the “horizontal hold” was required. 

            The sets were unreliable and broke down frequently.  The repairman made house calls, but if he had to take the set to his shop, there would be a substantial bill to pay.  Contrast that with the extreme reliability of today’s sets and the fact that they are usually simple replaced if they malfunction years after purchase. 

            Color broadcasts and sets capable of receiving them followed by the end of he decade, but were a luxury that many couldn’t afford.  By no means were all programs broadcast in color.  TV Guide magazine designated those broadcast with the new technology so those who had suitable receivers could locate the coveted programming. 

            I was a junior in college before I actually saw a color set.  The boys in our dorm all chipped in and we collectively bought one for the lounge.  Bonanza showed the Cartwrights riding out in “living color.”  We were all duly impressed and there was standing room only when it was on the air. 

            In my home now we have five television sets, all color, all with remote control, one with a fifty-five inch screen and three hooked up to TiVo recording devices.  Hundreds of channels are at our disposal as are movies to download.  We “pause” even live television, speed through commercials, hold a program during a phone call and all the other things that would have been laughed at as utter fantasy only sixty years ago.  That’s a lot of technological change in one lifetime. 

            I think that this story will get few “reads.”  Most of those old enough to remember those days will never see it since it’s likely don’t know how to operate computers and younger people won’t care about such ancient times.  Hey, young folks, if you are reading this, print it out and show it to grandmaw.  But whatever the case, here it is. 

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A lot of change in sixty years.