A Brief Introduction to the History of Television

  • SumoMe

The history of television could be said to have had its start near the end of the 19th century. Like many inventions, television didn’t happen overnight. It came in bits and pieces. For many of those still living today, television seemingly first burst upon the scene during the first years following World War II. In truth, there were television broadcasts taking place back in the 1930’s, although the viewing audiences were quite small, television sets were prohibitively expensive, and the television shows themselves were more or less novelties.

The CRT Started It All


Television could be said to have had its start with the invention of the radio, when it was discovered that voice could be transmitted over long distances through the ‘ether.’ It’s one thing to transmit voice however and quite something else to transmit an image. In 1878, a scientist named William Crookes invented the cathode ray tube (CRT). It is quite unlikely that Crookes had anything like television in mind. His purpose was to study the emission of radiation from a coated terminal called a cathode, and he needed an evacuated tube to conduct those studies. The CRT remained the central component in television technology until the advent of flat screen monitors.


The next step in the history of television occurred about a dozen years later when another scientist, Karl Ferdinan Braun developed a scanning device. Now the dot that the cathode ray formed in the cathode ray tube could be moved around, or at least up and down and sideways. Since the cathode ray beam could now be moved back and forth, forming what today is called a raster, the next logical step would be to figure out some way to modulate the beam to make it brighter or darker, thus producing an image. This didn’t happen all that quickly, although as far as the cathode ray tube itself was concerned, a number of scientists had taken up studying the device and its potential uses by the turn of the century. One such scientist, a Russian, introduced the term ‘television’ at the 1900 World’s Fair and went so far as to predict there would be color television transmissions in a hundred years’ time.


From CRT to Kinescope to Image Dissector


By 1907, cathode ray tube scanning had progressed to the point where a crude image could be viewed on a phosphorous-coated screen and 15 years later the first television transmitting tube, the iconoscope, and the first television receiver tube, the kinescope, were developed. By 1925 images of cartoon characters and recognizable images of human faces could be displayed, and moving objects were able to be displayed by 1926. A year later Philo Farnsworth applied for a patent on what would be the first compete television system. Farnsworth called it an Image Dissector. That same year, Bell Labs gave the first public demonstration of television. Herbert Hoover, yet to be president, was in attendance.


Viewing a 40 minute Program on a 2-Inch Screen


The first experimental television station, WGY-TV produced a 40-minute program in 1928. The viewing audience consisted of those clustered around four television sets. Plans were afoot at the time to broadcast “radio movies.” By 1929 RCA was broadcasting television programs two hours a day. The standard television receiver at that time had a 2-inch screen. The first color television system was demonstrated in 1929 also.


CBS began experimental programming in 1931 and NBC got into the act a year later. The first large scale news event to be televised was that of the coronation of King George VI in London in 1937. There were two thousand television sets in existence in England at the time. The Wimbledon tennis finals were also broadcast.


Television viewing slowly became more widespread in the United States by 1939 as the first major league baseball game and first NFL football game were broadcast in New York. President Roosevelt became the first president to appear on TV when the opening of the New York World’s Fair was televised. By 1941 there were an estimated 7,000 TV sets in the United States, but production was halted during World War II.


Howdy Doody, Uncle Miltie, and I Love Lucy


Events surrounding the history of television began to happen thick and fast following the end of the war. The first post-war television sets went on sale in 1946 and several networks began scheduling prime time programs. By 1947 the number of television sets in the U.S. had grown to over 44,000, and it was in 1947 that two of the more famous television programs, Howdy Doody and Meet the Press went on the air. By 1948 there were an estimated 350,000 sets in existence, Milton Berle was on the air, and cable TV was first introduced. By 1950 there were nearly 10 million sets in homes across the country.


I Love Lucy debuted in 1951 followed by the Today Show. Color television had its commercial introduction in 1954, the first satellite to send TV signals, Telstar, was launched in 1962, followed by Intelstat I in 1964. The next ten years saw the advent of the VCR, early flat-screen experiments, and the Cable News Network. The rest they say, is history.

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