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How the Television Became our Most-Loved Household Item - a Brief History

How the Television Became our Most-Loved Household Item - a Brief History

16th Feb 2021

If you follow us on Twitter, you might have seen one of our recent polls celebrating #InventorsDay. Despite an overwhelming majority of our followers believing Leonardo Da Vinci was their favourite inventory of all time, we expressed our love for one gentleman named "Philo Farnsworth", born in 1906. What he went on to invent in his (albeit rather short) life of 65 years would change the way we live our lives forever.

Having lived in a house with no electricity up until the age of 14, at the ripe old age of 23 in 1927, inventor Philo Farnsworth's first pioneering move in the invention of televisions came when he successfully transmitted a dollar sign onto the small-screen. Maybe surprising to some, the most common question which followed this feat wasn't "How is this possible?", but instead "When will we see some dollars in this thing?".

His ground-breaking invention turned out to be bittersweet in the end; a patent dispute with US electronics company RCA resulted in Farnsworth ultimately winning and being awarded a settlement plus royalties and the key role he played in the invention of the television is now a thing of the past.

Nevertheless, Philo Farnsworth's ingenious breakthroughs in transmission technology lead to the creation of Sesame Street, sitcoms, blockbuster movies and every other television programs possible. But how has the television evolved over the years?

Image Credit: I Love History

Over time, despite still being in a primitive form, the television became more and more popular alongside gradual improvements in its technology. So popular that in 1930 the BBC began regular TV transmissions. By 1936 there were around 200 television sets that were in use worldwide - only owned by the most affluent at the time. During this decade a crucial leap in television technology was discovered: the coaxial cable. These cables were capable of transmitting television, telephone and data signals. 

Soon after, the possibility of colour televisions became a reality. Hungarian-American engineer Peter Goldmark was recognised as the first person to demonstrate a working colour television, which produced colour pictures by having a red-blue-green wheel spin in front of a cathode ray tube. Although this mechanical system was eventually replaced by a more sophisticated electronic system, Goldmark was recognised as the first to introduce a broadcasting colour television system.

In an effort to make cable television universal, Pennsylvania was chosen as the first rural area where the service was introduced to. At this time in history, one million homes in the USA had access to television sets.

Up to this point, televisions could only be controlled by using buttons on the product itself. Remote controls had been developed, but had failed to perform miserably in direct sunlight. Robert Adler, however, had different ideas. The rather formidable-sounding "Zenith Space Commander" became the first wireless remote controller capable of changing the sound, channel and turning the television on or off - all at the push of a button. Alas, with the dawn of infra-red technology in the 1980s, this ultrasonic-tone technology slowly died out.

Image Credit: Wired

1960. A year that pitted man against man on national television in America. Kennedy vs. Nixon. Television just got real. Usually, the public had to listen to these exchanges over radio broadcast, but could tune in and watch the real thing on television this time - live. With a debate of this calibre, the introduction of television brings with it a whole new world of possibilities. Unlike radio, the body language of the two politicians can be analysed; their appearance judged - maybe even mocked by some people. As a result, people's motives for voting can change dramatically. Nixon, tried and tested, was believed to have been stronger in the debates for those listening in on the radio. But seeing a young, charismatic John F Kennedy speak into the cameras and into the nation's heart eventually led to him being elected as the 35th US President.

Nine years later, as promised by the previously mentioned John F Kennedy, Man was put on the moon for the whole world to see - something otherworldly, quite literally. The TV transmission made from the moon was watched by some 600 million people. For many, it was a moment of national unity. For others it was simply surreal.

Image Credit: Science and Media Museum

Not long after this monolithic feat in 1972, half of the world's television sets were in colour format. A year later, the first giant screen projection TV was marketed. The next decade saw a period of consolidation - including Sony's Betamax, the first home cassette recorder; the introduction of HDTV's; Dolby Surround Sound and Super VHS.

By the turn of the millennium, a billion TV sets were being used worldwide. 

The 21st century so far has been a period of extreme technological advancements, especially in the television industry. By 2008 Plasma televisions were offered user the ultimate viewing experience, but only a few years later saw the introduction of 4K televisions which appeared far more lifelike in the images they displayed on-screen.

Image Credit: Los Angeles Times

And now, 8K televisions with excessive HDR capabilities are swooping the planet. In many cases, it's a case of waking up one day and a new piece of technology has been invented.

Ultra-thin televisions, 4K, 8K, QLED, OLED and all the other jargon-riddled vocabulary that you'd associate with televisions is a manifestation of how far technology has come in the past twenty years. Like all other forms of electronic tech, televisions are becoming more and more streamlined and are quite quickly becoming alike computers with the ability to browse the internet and stream movies and other TV shows - now known as Smart TV's.

When the first HD television was made in the 1980s people believed that was the pinnacle of such technology, but fourty years later the technology is advancing at a blistering pace and is showing no signs of stagnating. The question is: how far can this digital innovation come before it reaches a standstill?