Televisions can be found in billions of homes around the world. But 100 years ago, nobody even knew what a television was. In fact, as late as 1947, only a few thousand Americans owned televisions. How did such a groundbreaking technology turn from a niche invention to a living room mainstay?
Today, we’re explaining the complete history of the television – including where it could be going in the future.
Mechanical Televisions in the 1800s and Early 1900s
Prior to electric televisions, we had mechanical televisions.
These early televisions started appearing in the early 1800s. They involved mechanically scanning images then transmitting those images onto a screen. Compared to electronic televisions, they were extremely rudimentary.
One of the first mechanical televisions used a rotating disk with holes arranged in a spiral pattern. This device was created independently by two inventors: Scottish inventor John Logie Baird and American inventor Charles Francis Jenkins. Both devices were invented in the early 1920s.
Prior to these two inventors, German inventor Paul Gottlieb Nipkow had developed the first mechanical television. That device sent images through wires using a rotating metal disk. Instead of calling the device a television, however, Nipkow called it an “electric telescope”. The device had 18 lines of resolution.
In 1907, two inventors – Russian Boris Rosing and English A.A. Campbell-Swinton – combined a cathode ray tube with a mechanical scanning system to create a totally new television system.
Ultimately, the early efforts of these inventors would lead to the world’s first electrical television a few years later.
The First Electronic Television was Invented in 1927
The world’s first electronic television was created by a 21 year old inventor named Philo Taylor Farnsworth. That inventor lived in a house without electricity until he was age 14. Starting in high school, he began to think of a system that could capture moving images, transform those images into code, then move those images along radio waves to different devices.
Farnsworth was miles ahead of any mechanical television system invented to-date. Farnsworth’s system captured moving images using a beam of electrons (basically, a primitive camera).
The first image ever transmitted by television was a simple line. Later, Farnsworth would famously transmit a dollar sign using his television after a prospective investor asked “When are we going to see some dollars in this thing, Farnsworth?”
Between 1926 and 1931, mechanical television inventors continued to tweak and test their creations. However, they were all doomed to be obsolete in comparison to modern electrical televisions: by 1934, all TVs had been converted into the electronic system.
Understandably, all early television systems transmitted footage in black and white. Color TV, however, was first theorized way back in 1904 – something we’ll talk about later on.
How Did Early Televisions Work?
The two types of televisions listed above, mechanical and electronic, worked in vastly different ways. We’ve hinted at how these TVs worked above, but we’ll go into a more detailed description in this section.
Mechanical televisions relied on rotating disks to transmit images from a transmitter to the receiver. Both the transmitter and receiver had rotating disks. The disks had holes in them spaced around the disk, with each hole being slightly lower than the other.
To transmit images, you had to place a camera in a totally dark room, then place a very bright light behind the disk. That disk would be turned by a motor in order to make one revolution for every frame of the TV picture.
Baird’s early mechanical television had 30 holes and rotated 12.5 times per second. There was a lens in front of the disk to focus light onto the subject.
When light hit the subject, that light would be reflected into a photoelectric cell, which then converted this light energy to electrical impulses. The electrical impulses are transmitted over the air to a receiver. The disk on that receiver would spin at the exact same speed as the disk on the transmitter’s camera (the motors would be synchronized to ensure precise transmissions).
The receiving end featured a radio receiver, which received the transmissions and connected them to a neon lamp placed behind the disk. The disk would rotate while the lamp would put out light in proportion to the electrical signal it was getting from the receiver.
Ultimately, this system would allow you to view the image on the other side of the disk – although you’d need a magnifying glass. Here’s how the system works in diagram form:
There’s a reason we stopped using mechanical televisions: electronic televisions were vastly superior.
Electronic televisions rely on a technology called a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) as well as two or more anodes. The anodes were the positive terminals and the cathode was the negative terminal.
The “Cathode” part of the Cathode Ray Tube was a heated filament enclosed in a glass Tube (the “T” of CRT). The Cathode would release a beam of electronics into the empty space of the tube (which was actually a vacuum).
All of these released electrons had a negative charge and would thus be attracted to positively charged anodes. These anodes were found at the end of the CRT, which was the television screen. As the electrons were released at one end, they were displayed on the television screen at the other end.
Of course, firing electrons against a glass screen doesn’t make images. To make images, the inside of the television screen would be coated with phosphor. The electrons would paint an image on the screen one line at a time.
To control the firing of electrons, CRTs use two “steering coils”. Both steering coils use the power of magnets to push the electron beam to the desired location on the screen. One steering coil pushes the electrons up or down, while the other pushes them left or right.
The First Television Stations in America
The world’s first television stations first started appearing in America in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The first mechanical TV station was called W3XK and was created by Charles Francis Jenkins (one of the inventors of the mechanical television). That TV station aired its first broadcast on July 2, 1928.
One of the world’s first television stations, WRGB, has the honor of being the world’s only continuously operating station since 1926 to the modern day.
The First Television Sets in America
America’s first commercially produced television sets were based on the mechanical television system – made by John Baird’s television designs. These sets were shown off to the public in September, 1928.
It would take until 1938, however, before American electronic television sets were produced and released commercially. They were an instant hit after release.
The First Remote Control for Television Sets
The world’s first television remote control was called the Tele Zoom, and it can barely even be categorized as a remote control. The Tele Zoom was only used to “zoom in” to the picture on the television. You could not use it to change any channels or turn the TV on or off. The Tele Zoom was released in 1948.
The first “true” remote control was produced by Zenith and released in 1955. This remote control could turn the television on or off and change the channel. It was also completely wireless.
The First Television Program in America
Today, American networks play thousands of different programs every day. Every single one of these programs, however, owes its existence to America’s first television program, which was called The Queen’s Messenger. That program was first shown in 1928 by WRGB station.
We’re not 100% sure that The Queen’s Messenger was the first TV program shown in America. In 1928, the program was thought to be broadcast only to four television sets. Not 400. Not 4,000. Four. Thus, we have some ambiguity and debate over whether this was actually the first television program.
America’s First Television Commercial
The first television station in America started broadcasting in 1928. For the first 13 years of its existence, television remained blissfully commercial-free. The first commercial broadcast in America did not take place until July 1, 1941, which is when the first American advertisement aired. The ad was for a Bulova watch and lasted for 10 seconds. It aired on NBC.
Color Television in America
Color television traces its roots as far back as 1904, when a German inventor received a patent for color television. However, that inventor did not actually have a working color television – it was just a patented idea.
A conceptualized color television system appeared in 1925 from inventor Vladimir Zworykin. However, this system was never converted into reality. All attempts to convert it into reality did not succeed.
Color television was placed on the backburner for about 20 years. In 1946, the idea of color television was renewed in earnest. As TheHistoryOfTelevision.com explains,
“By 1946, the Second World War was history, and people in America wanted to make up for all the time lost to the war. Black and white television was thought of as old and it was time to do something new. This is when color television systems first began to be considered seriously.”
The color television war in America was fought between two industry giants: CBS and RCA. CBS was the first company to create a color television set. However, the main drawback was that it was a mechanical television based on John Baird’s original system. Thus, it was not compatible with black and white TV sets in use across America.
Despite this major flaw, the FCC declared that the CBS color television was going to be the national standard.
RCA protested, stating that it was unfair to make CBS color TV the standard when it could even be used by millions of customers across America (most of whom owned RCA televisions).
Unfazed, RCA continued to develop their own color television system that would be compatible with its customers RCA sets. In 1953, the FCC acknowledged that RCA’s color TV system was better. Starting in 1954, color RCA TV systems were sold across America.
Color TV had a similar initial problem as 3D TV and other technologies: people owned the color TV technology, but broadcasters weren’t producing color TV content. Few people owned color TV sets between 1954 and 1965. However, starting in 1966, color TV programming was broadcast across America, leading to a surge in sales of color television sets.
Timeline of TV History Between the 1950s and 2000s
Between the 1950s and 2000s, television turned from a niche technology into a critical form of communication found in living rooms across the nation. A vast number of changes and improvements took place in the second half of the 20th century to make the television into what it is today. Here’s a timeline:
- 1949: In January, the number of TV stations had grown to 98 in 58 market areas.
- 1949: The FCC adopted the Fairness Doctrine, which made broadcasters responsible for seeking out and presenting all sides of an issue when covering controversy. This act was a supplement to the Communications Act of 1934, which required broadcasters to give equal airtime to candidates running in elections.
- 1951: I Love Lucy, sponsored by Philip Morris, was born. The half-hour sitcom ranked as the number one program in the nation for four of its first six full seasons.
- 1951: On June 21, CBS broadcasted the first color program. As mentioned above, CBS’s color system only worked with a small number of TVs across America. Only 12 customers across America could see the first color TV broadcast. 12 million other TVs were blank for this program.
- 1952: Bob Hope takes his comedy from radio to TV as The Bob Hope Show debuts in October, 1952.
- 1952: By the end of 1952, TVs could be found in 20 million households across America, a rise of 33% from the previous year. U.S. advertisers spent a total of $288 million on television advertising time, an increase of 38.8% from 1951.
- 1953: RCA releases its color broadcasting system, which worked on 12 million TVs instead of 12.
- 1954: NBC launches The Tonight Show with comedian Steve Allen.
- 1955: Gunsmoke, the classic western TV show, began its 20 year run on CBS.
- 1958: 525 cable TV systems across America serve 450,000 subscribers. In response, CBS takes out a two page advertisement in TV Guide stating that “Free television as we know it cannot survive alongside pay television.”
- 1960: Four debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were broadcast throughout the year across the country, forever changing the way presidents would campaign.
- 1963: For the first time in history, television surpasses newspapers as an information source. In a poll this year, 36% of Americans found TV to be a more reliable source than print, which was favored by 24%.
- 1964: The FCC regulates cable for the first time. The FCC required operators to black out programming that comes in from distant markets and duplicates a local station’s own programming (if the local station demanded it).
- 1964: 73 million viewers watch The Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.
- 1965: NBC calls itself The Full Color Network and broadcasts 96% of its programming in color.
- 1969: Astronaut Neil Armstrong walks on the moon for the first time as millions of American viewers watch live on network TV.
- 1970: The FCC implements the Financial Interest Syndication Rules that prohibit the three major networks from owning and controlling the rebroadcast of private shows. This meant 30 minutes of programming each night were given back to local stations in the top 50 markets, encouraging the production of local programming.
- 1971: Advertisements transition from 60 seconds in average length to 30 seconds.
- 1979: Some people believe it’s the “beginning of the end for TV” as a poll indicated that 44% of Americans were unhappy with current programming and 49% were watching TV less than what they did a few years earlier.
- 1979: ESPN, a network totally devoted to sports, debuts on cable. ESPN would go on to become the largest and most successful basic cable channel.
- 1980: Ted Turner launches Cable News Network (CNN), a channel devoted to showcasing news 24 hours a day.
- 1980: Music Television (MTV) makes its debut in August of 1980.
- 1986: After years of rising rates, ABC, CBS, and NBC have trouble selling commercial time for sports programs for the first time. Commercial rates for the 1986 NFL season dropped 15% from the 1985 season.
- 1989: Pay Per View begins to leave its mark on the television landscape, reaching about 20% of all wired households.
- 1992: Infomercials explode with growth. This year, the National Infomercial Marketing Association estimates infomercials generate sales of $750 million, double that of 1988.
- 1993: At the start of 1993, 98% of American households owned at least one TV, with 64% owning two or more sets.
- 1996: Digital satellite dishes 18 inches in diameter hit the market, becoming the bestselling electronic item in history next to the VCR.
- 2000: The Digital Video Disc (DVD) is introduced.
- 2004: DVDs outsell VHS tapes for the first time.
- 2005: Flat screen TVs and HDTVs are introduced for the first time.
- 2006: Flat screen TVs and HDTVs become affordable for the first time.
- 2006: Sony releases its Blu-ray disc format, capable of holding up to 27GB despite being the same size as a DVD.
- 2010: 3D televisions start hitting the market, spurred by popular 3D blockbusters like Avatar.
Today, online television and other broadcasting technologies have changed the future of traditional TV. With more and more people “cutting the cord”, it remains to be seen if traditional TV can survive in an era filled with Netflix and other technologies.