The History of Television

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | iHeart Radio | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

It has been called the idiot box and the boob tube, but the fact is that perhaps no invention was as important to the latter half of the 20th Century as the television. 

Once the problems of moving pictures and wireless audio had been solved, it took quite a bit longer to solve the problem of wireless moving pictures. 

Once it was solved, it revolutionized the world.

Learn more about the history of television, how it was developed and how it took over the world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The development of a working television that could receive moving images via electromagnetic waves and then display them on an electronic device took many different innovations before they could all be packaged together in a working product.

The first steps which lead to the development of television go back far earlier than most people realize. 

It all started with the ability to send a facsimile of an image over a telegraph line. A system for sending an image via a telegraph line was developed shockingly early after the telegraph itself. 

The first patent for transmitting an image over a telegraph line was filed in 1843 by the Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. The quality of the image was extremely poor, it was incredibly slow, and it really wasn’t practical. 

In 1884, a German student by the name of Paul Gottlieb Nipkow invented a device known as a Nipkow Disk. The Nipkow disk was an extremely important device that allowed images to be scanned. 

The disk was a circular disk with holes in it in a spiral pattern. As it spun, the light passing through the holes could take a slice of the image which could then send light to a detector. 

If you remember back to my episode on solar power, it was discovered in the 19th century that the element selenium was discovered to be photoconductive.  Not only was this important in the development of photoelectric cells, but also in light receptors which became used in what became known as “mechanical television”. 

The word “television” was first coined in 1900 in a paper by the Russian scientist Constantin Perskyi which was delivered at the Paris World’s Fair. The word fit with the other inventions of the era including the telegraph and the telephone. 

The first working system which integrated all of these components was demonstrated in 1909 in Paris. They created a grid of 64 selenium photoreceptors, or as we’d say today, it was an 8×8 pixel image. 

It could instantly transmit a very simple image over wires, which for the demonstration, was nothing more than letters of the alphabet. 

In 1908, the Scottish engineer Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton proposed that a cathode ray tube could replace the Nipkow disks as both a transmitter and a received to create what he called “distant electronic vision”. 

In 1911, the first images were transmitted using a cathode ray tube, but again, this was more of a proof of concept. It wasn’t producing real images. 

The cathode ray tubes were very crude at this point, but they improved dramatically over the next several years. 

In 1926, the Russian-American scientist Vladimir Zworykin, working for Westinghouse, developed a cathode ray tube that could display images. It was dubbed the “Iconoscope”.

Here I should briefly explain exactly what a cathode ray tube or CRT is, because it is central to television for the next 80 years.

A CRT is basically a stream of electrons that is shot out of a tube towards a photosensitive screen, initially made out of selenium. A coil inside the tube influences the stream of electrons which allows the stream to create images on the photosensitive screen.

In 1926, a huge leap was made when the Scottish inventor James Baird demonstrated what is considered the first true television to a group of 50 scientists in London. In 1927, he managed to transmit a television signal over 438 miles of telephone lines from Glasgow to London. 

In 1928, he sent the first transatlantic television signal to New York and the first wireless signal to a ship at sea. 

Also in 1928, the Federal Radio Commission granted an experimental amateur license to Charles Jenkins, call sign W3XK, to broadcast an experimental television signal from his home in the suburbs of Washington DC. His signal broadcasted movies with a resolution of 48 lines. 

In 1929, Vladimir Zworykin show his system to the president of the Radio Corporation of America, RCA, David Sarnoff. 

Sarnoff’s RCA was one of the biggest radio companies in the world and he saw the potential for broadcasting televised images. 

However, neither Baird nor Zworykin are considered the father of modern television. 

That distinction belongs to an American inventor who grew up on a farm in Utah and didn’t even have electricity at his house until he was 14. 

Philo Farnsworth.

In 1927, at the age of 21, he developed a prototype of his own television system, and according to legend, came up with the idea while in high school during chemistry class.

His innovation was what he called an “image dissector.” Basically, he broke down an image into lines. Those lines were then transmitted and displayed by a cathode ray tube which rapidly scanned those lines across the screen. 

This idea of scanning lines of an image became the basis for all analog television and is still the basis for digital displays today. 

Being a kid fresh off the farm, he was immediately sued by RCA for patent infringement, but he famously won his case with the US Patent office in 1934, and he was awarded $1 million dollars in damages by RCA. 

It didn’t stop RCA from appealing the case and further harassment, but Farnsworth had won. 

RCA adopted the scanning line system and they introduced their television system to the world at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The RCA broadcast division, known as the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC, broadcast the opening ceremony and a speech by President Franklin Roosevelt. 

There were only 400 television sets that could receive the broadcast, but there was an estimated audience of 5,000 people who gathered to watch. 

The adoption of television slowed to a crawl due to World War II. The war effort prioritized cathode ray tubes for military use. This was the first time there was the widespread adoption of CRTs, primarily for things like RADAR and oscilloscopes. Most television stations either stopped broadcasting during the war completely or limited themselves to just 4 hours of broadcasting a week. 

The very first TV sets were tiny. The screens would only be about 5, 9, or 12 inches. The average smartphone screen today would have been bigger. 

They were also extremely expensive. TV sets in the early 1940s cost between $200 and $600, and this was at a time when the average American salary was around $1300 per year. 

In the early 40’s NBC rival radio company, the Columbia Broadcasting System or CBS began to air their own television programs. 

In an effort to avoid competing standards, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a nationwide television standard in 1941 of 525 lines of resolution and a refresh rate of 30 frames per second. 

In Europe, 625 lines of resolution was adopted as the standard. A standard which, surprisingly, was first established in the Soviet Union. 

Once the war was over, television exploded in popularity. 

In 1948, the popular radio show, the Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle, began broadcasting on television. Berle, being one of the first TV stars was given the nickname “Mr. Television”. 

By 1949 there were 1,000,000 television sets in the United States, and a year later there were 6,000,000. 

By 1955, half of all American households had television sets. 

Of course all the television sets at this point at one thing in common. They were all black and white. 

Ever since people began experimenting with television, people were thinking about sending color images. 

One of the earliest demonstrations used three Nipkow wheels, one for each primary color: red, green, and blue. However, mechanical televisions weren’t practical, and with everyone owning electronic televisions after the war, the quest was on to find a practical color television system that was compatible with currently existing black and white TVs.

The National Television System Committee, or NTSC, developed a compatible color TV system which was approved by the Federal Communication System in 1953. 

The NTSC system separated the brightness information, which could still be used in black and white, and the color information. Initially, the color image would have had a much lower resolution than the same black and white signal.

The first color television show was made by NBC on August 30, 1953. It was an episode of the children’s program Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, but it was only shown at the NBC headquarters. 

A full public broadcast of a color television program was made on October 31, 1953. It was of the opera Carmen. 

Public adoption of color television was much slower than the initial adoption of black and white television.  Color television sets wouldn’t outnumber black and white tv sets in the United States until 1972. 

The next big innovation in television came with the adoption of cable TV.

As I mentioned above, wires were initially used for television before wireless signals. The earliest use of cables to send actual television signals was in the 1940s when it was used to bring television to homes in mountain valleys that couldn’t get a signal. 

However, it soon became obvious that delivering television by coaxial cable had many advantages over terrestrial broadcasting. You could deliver way more channels, and you wouldn’t have to worry about government licensing of the airwaves. 

It allowed for the creation of cable-only networks like HBO, CNN, and MTV. Cable penetration reached 50% of the United States in 1988.

Back in the mid-70s, my family was one of the first to get cable TV in our area. I remember they had a weather channel that consisted of nothing but a camera pointed at a thermometer. 

With the rise of cable networks, many of them also broadcasted to local cable companies via satellite, and soon customers were able to pick up these signals if they had a Ku band satellite dish. 

As TV entered the 90s, the limitations of the television standards were becoming apparent. For starters, television was broadcast in a 4:3 aspect ratio, whereas movies were shown in a more widescreen format such as 16:9, and sometimes even wider. 

In the 1960s, NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, began experimenting with higher-quality television.  They rolled out a system with 1,125 lines of resolution in the 1970s, and high definition systems were being demonstrated throughout the 1980s. 

High definition systems were slow to catch on, similar to color TV. it was a chicken and egg problem. No one wanted to buy a high-definition TV when there was no programming, and no one wanted to make programming if no one owned television sets. 

Also, these first HD systems were all analog, which required much more bandwidth than regular TV. 

Analog HD was eventually abandoned in favor of a digital signal. A digital signal could be compressed which saved bandwidth. 

The first public HD broadcast was in 1998 and it was the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery carrying John Glen to orbit. This is also when the first HD television sets went on sale for between $5,000 and $10,000. 

Once HD programs and television sets were in production, it only took 12 years until 2010 until half the American population was watching high definition TV, which is defined as at least 720 lines of resolution progressively scanned, or 1080 lines which are interlaced. 

Not only were television standards out of date, but CRT televisions were extremely heavy. A 32-inch CRT was a beast of a television set and weighed so much that it could barely be moved by one person. I know this because I had to do it myself once.

The first CRT replacement was plasma television sets. The first practical plasma monitor was developed at the University of Illinois in 1964. The primary benefits of plasma monitors were that they were very thin and they could be made very large. 

The problem was they were expensive and not very energy efficient. The last plasma displays were produced in 2015. 

What worked far better as a flat-screen television were LCD screens. LCD screens are cheaper, lighter, are not as hot, and are far more energy-efficient.  These screens are now in everything, and I’d be willing to bet, in whatever device you happening to be listening to this right now.

Of course, if 1080 lines of resolution are good, then more must be better. In the early 2000s standards were developed which would quadruple the image resolution of high definition systems at the time. 

The standard which was adapted for TV goes by 4K, as there are close to 4000 lines of resolution. The 4K format is technically 3840?×?2160 pixels. 

50% of the US market owned television sets capable of showing 4k content in 2020. 

There is now also talk of 8k and 16k video formats. However, these resolutions are so high that it is almost impossible to notice the difference unless you happen to have your face just a few feet from the screen. 

One thing which has been increasing is the size of televisions. Where 32 inches was large for the CRT televisions, 32” would be considered small for an LCD television. 

I’ve seen 85” televisions for sale that are only $1,200, but if you are willing to shell out over six figures, you can buy one that is over 300 inches. 

The worst TV set you could buy today is a glorious masterpiece compared to what you could buy just 20 years ago. It is cheaper, lighter, more energy-efficient, and with much higher image quality. 

Television has come a long way in 100 years when it was just light being captured through a rotating disk.


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Rocket Surgery over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

Great Show!

I started listening to the show on 4/28/2022 and I have caught up to all 699 shows as of 6/5/2022. I’m part of the completionist club, Gary where are my keys to the clubhouse? I’m looking forward to new shows each day. Thank you.

Thanks, Rocket Surgery! If we were collecting stats on individual listeners, you’d probably be leading the league in your listening average for the last month. 

As for the clubhouse, your keys are in the mail. Note that there is no lifeguard on duty, and the soft drinks in the refrigerator are free. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.