Stay Tuned for a Brief History of Television

The late great science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, once said that, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ No doubt the early viewers of television were amazed by the magic of live sound and moving images beamed through the air into a box in their living rooms. And when you stop and think about it, today’s mega flat-screen, high-definition Smart TVs seem pretty magical as well.

Like all technologies, TV has come a long way since those early days when it was not much more than a glowing blur in an obscure laboratory. And it’s been a fascinating journey.

So don’t go away. Here’s a brief look at the history of television from then to now—without commercial interruption.

Television’s Infancy

In 1880, decades before the first public radio broadcast took place on December 24,1906, the concept that would later become a working television system was presented in a speculative article in The Scientific American magazine. Shortly thereafter, the quest to create such a system was taken up by scientists all over the globe.

Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, a science student in Germany, is credited as being the first to develop a ‘mechanical module’ of television. Building on experiments in the fields of electromagnetism and radio, Nipkow developed a system using a rotating metal disk to scan and successfully send crude images with just 18 lines of resolution through wires. Nipkow patented his invention as the Nipkow Disk in 1884. Shortly thereafter, Boris Rosing of Russia combined the cathode ray tube with Nipkow’s technology to create a new television system.

The work of Nipkow and Rosing gave rise to two distinct television systems: Mechanical television and electronic television. Over the course of several years the mechanical television system went through a number of innovations. But these achievements were to be overshadowed by breakthroughs that would soon make electronic television the de facto system going forward.

The Era of Electronic Television

In 1927, a 21 year-old inventor named Philo T. Farnsworth introduced the first fully operational electronic television system to the world, beating scientists at leading laboratories such as Bell, RCA, and GE to the punch. What made the system stand out is that it made the components of mechanical television obsolete by capitalizing on earlier work with the cathode ray tube. Farnsworth’s system became the platform for all modern TVs. At the end of a long and heated battle for patent rights that saw RCA emerge as victor, Farnsworth went on to live and die in obscurity.

1938 saw the introduction of the first commercially available American electronic television sets to rave reviews. Then, in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair, network television came into being with the unveiling of RCA’s Rockefeller Plaza based NBC TV studios. Competition came on the scene a few months later when CBS began broadcasting from its new TV studios in Grand Central Station. Nearly a decade later in 1948, the American Broadcasting Company extended its operations into television with the ABC network.

Now that the big three networks were in place and vying for viewers, folks at home had a number of programming choices. But this meant having to get up and manually change the channels. That inconvenience was solved with the introduction of Zenith’s Flashmatic wireless remote control in 1955. Settling back in comfortable chairs with their remotes, eating prepackaged dinners on their TV trays, American viewers probably wondered how the TV experience could get any better. And then came:

The Era of Color TV

The technology needed for networks to broadcast shows in color had existed from fairly early on. NBC’s airing of the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day, 1954 marked the very first national color broadcast. However, due to high production costs of color programming on the network end, and the high cost of color television sets on the consumer end, it took color TV several years to catch on. It wasn’t until 1972 that all network programming converted to color. As a result, sales of color TV sets finally surpassed sales of black and white sets and American viewers abandoned monochrome for good.

Closed Captioning

In 1972, the same year that color programming dominated the airwaves to give viewers a new visual experience, a different technology known as open captioning was introduced to improve the TV experience for millions of Americans who were deaf or hard of hearing. The service, which allowed viewers to see written dialog or narration at the bottom of TV screens, debuted with ‘The French Chef,’ a cooking show hosted by Julia Child.

While the service clearly succeeded at making the show watchable for deaf viewers, the fact that open captioning was visible to all who tuned in to the show presented problems for non hearing impaired viewers who were distracted by the ongoing parade of words across their screens. As a solution, the Caption Center that provided the service introduced closed captioning, a technology that allowed captions to be seen only by viewers with television sets equipped with a special decoding device.

Broad scale adoption of closed captioning by the major networks was slow at first, as the early methods utilized for captioning prerecorded and live shows were laborious and expensive. In 1979, with the founding of the National Captioning Institute—a non-profit organization dedicated to heightening the awareness of the need for closed captioning for deaf viewers and providing greater access to the service—the networks finally came around. On March 16,1980, the first closed- captioned programs were broadcast by NBC, ABC, and PBS. A few years later CBS joined the ranks after protests caused the network to abandon plans to use its own proprietary closed-captioning system.

Over the years video captioning services have dramatically improved. However, it is still far from perfect. But like the many other seemingly magical technologies that have and will continue to play an important role in television’s history, closed captioning will only get better going forward.


Kristy Lucas