The “Idiot Box” and the History of Television

The television, the T.V., the idiot-box, the electronic babysitter. That magical screen in our living-rooms which has brought us news, sports, weather, education, entertainment, excitement, bemusement and rage, has come a long way since its inception nearly 100 years ago.

This posting will have a look at the history of television, from its beginnings to the commencement of regular programming.

The Television and Us

For most of us in the 21st century, life without television is inconceivable. There are those of course, who were born without it, but with it or without it, chances are, if you watch it regularly today, you would be hard-pressed to imagine your current and future existence without this magical device in your living-room. How many incredible events have been brought to us through the television? How many amazing films have we seen? Famous and memorable TV serials, and even advertisements. Everything from “Happy Days” to “Brylcreem” (just remember, only use a LITTLE dab), to “Are You Being Served?”

Mankind’s love-affair with the TV is inseparable, unstoppable and unthinkable that it should ever go away. But where does TV come from?

A World Before Television

In a dark and soul-less time, before computers and fax-machines and mobile telephones, when eggs were 5c a dozen and penny-candy was really a penny, mankind tuned into the radio.

From the early 1920s, until the late 1950s, we enjoyed a roughly 30-year period where radio was king. When we literally had to tune in and warm up, to enjoy a program over the air. This was the Golden Age of Radio. It brought us such memorable events as the Hindenburg Crash of 1937, the Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Declaration of War in 1939 and countless famous old-time radio programs, from “Gang Busters” to “Dragnet”, to “Richard Diamond” and “Abbott & Costello”.

If you want to read more about that, have a look here.

Back then, the family radio-set was an important piece of household equipment. But even by the 1930s, its dominance in our living-rooms was being threatened by a new kid on the block called television.

The Invention of Television

The word ‘television’ comes from the Greek ‘tele’ meaning ‘from afar’. Just like how telephone, and telegraph mean sounds, and writing, or messages, from afar, television means pictures from afar.

So, who invented television?

As with many great inventions, from airplanes to motor-cars, telephones, the fountain pen and the typewriter, television cannot be wholly attributed to one man.

Experiments in transmitting images over a distance have dated back as far as the late 1800s, however, television as we would recognise it today, that is, moving images transmitted to a screen, did not emerge until the mid-1920s. The man responsible for its creation was Mr. John Logie Baird, a Scotsman (1888-1946). To this day, the Australian TV industry still holds the “Logie Awards” every year in his honour.

Mr. Baird was experimenting with transmitting images over the air for a long time, starting in the early 1920s. However, it was not until the early 1930s that the first TV sets that we might know today, ever appeared in shop windows.

Early Television

Named after its inventor, this is the Baird Televisor, ca. 1933, one of the first ever residential TV sets! It’s hardly widescreen, but it is a television.

Back in the 20s and 30s, radio was the dominant force for entertainment, education and news, and T.V. programming was often limited to a few hours, or even a few minutes a day, and nothing more than black and white film with no sound, or sound, with no pictures! T.V. during the interwar period was little more than a fairground attraction, or a toy for the rich.

By the second half of the 1930s, TV started becoming more accessible, and more advanced, although it still had a limited market. Picture-quality was not what it might be, but now, TV sets had sound! Sets were still expensive, but those who could afford them, bought them from famous department-stores like Selfridges in London. In the United States, T.V. broadcasting started in the 1930s and Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first American president to appear on television, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Nazi-Vision

That’s right! Nazi-Vision!

Believe it or not, but it was the Nazis who created one of the world’s first national television networks. German factories started producing early TV sets in 1934, and the Nazis were among the very first people on earth to realise the potential for television to reach several audiences at once, and spread the glorious Nazi ideologies of Strength through Joy, racial purity and an abundance of bratwurst for all!

Based in the German capital of Berlin, the Nazi-controlled broadcasting station and studio produced everything from propaganda movies, to Nazi rallies, speeches and other material, which was transmitted to the screens of loyal Germans fortunate enough to own the first generation of home television-sets. While most of the programming was broadcast live, and was not recorded, some 250-odd reels of ancient film remains, which gives us a tantalizing look at television under the Nazis, from 1935-1944.

Although the Nazis could see that TV could be a great technology for spreading their ideologies and propaganda, they also realised that the technology would have to be greatly improved before it would work properly. The limitations of early cameras meant that picture-quality was mediocre at best. Their solution was to record their broadcasts onto film, and play it back later, like they did with any other movie. This not only improved quality, but it also had the unintended side-effect of giving us a record of Nazi television that has survived to this day.

Despite the Nazis grand vision, the relative expensiveness of television sets meant that the audience for their programming was always rather small. Few people owned sets. Those who did were usually party-members with the money to spend, people in positions of power, money or authority, and a chosen lucky few private citizens. The rest of the sets were set up in public “Television Parlors”, scattered around Berlin. They were little more than simple movie-theaters, where the big screen had been replaced by the small one.

Another opportunity for the Nazis came in 1936. That’s right, the Berlin Olympics of 1936, where Jesse Owens beat the Aryans and humiliated Hitler, were the first Olympics to be publicly televised!

However, the fact remained that, despite the Nazis best efforts, early television remained impractical on a large scale. They had improved some things, such as picture-quality and sound, but a limited audience meant that until the medium was more widely adopted and accepted, and better recording, broadcasting, and receiving means had been devised, TV would be little more than a toy. Indeed, even by the outbreak of the Second World War, the entire nation of Germany had only about 500 television sets, scattered around the country.

Television and the War

By the early 1940s, some semblance of regular TV broadcasts had begun. In 1941, CBS in the United States was broadcasting televised news in 15-minute bulletins, twice a day. Regular programming began to introduce the TV shows that we would recognise today, although the limitations of the studio-cameras and lights of the period left much to be desired when it came to picture-quality. The war itself played a big role in holding back the development of TV. Rationing and shortages of almost everything needed to make TV sets, from wood to metal to glass, made them expensive luxury-items. And at any rate, the companies that made TV. sets were more interested in making radios and other electronics for the war effort.

These shortcomings and interruptions severely affected the widespread use of televisions, and it wasn’t until after the war, in 1947, that regular T.V. broadcasting really took off in the United States.

In Germany, where television was being exploited for propaganda purposes, advances in technology had been made, but even then, programming was brief. Usually only a few hours a day, if at all. By autumn of 1944, with constant, heavy bombing-raids on German cities, and the war going badly for the Nazis, the national broadcasting company in Germany ceased transmissions.

Please Check your Local Paper for the Times

The war is over! Yay!

In the late 1940s, TV programming really started taking off. With the war over, more technology and research could be profitably spent developing and improving the emerging medium of television. For the growing number of television-owners, there were now more frequent telecasts and a greater variety of options, everything from news programs, sitcoms, and early kids’ shows like the famous “Howdy Doody” program, starting in 1947!

There was stiff competition from radio during this time, but one by one, popular radio programs of the 1930s and 40s slowly shifted from the old, to the new, setting up regular TV spots for themselves on the weekly schedule. For a while, some actors and performers ran concurrent TV and radio programs; “Dragnet” used to do it for nearly a whole decade!

By the early 1950s, TV was becoming more and more accepted, and popular shows such as “Amos & Andy” (1951) and the Jack Benny Program (1950), were big hits on TV. Radio-writers and musicians who found themselves suddenly unemployed, began scriptwriting for these newfangled television-series, and writing and recording music for TV shows.

The Shape of the Box

Early televisions of the 1930s and 40s closely followed the styles of furniture and radios of the period. A typical 1930s radio-set was large, with a handsome wood case, cloth-covered speakers and handsome bakelite knobs. Television sets were made in the same style. Here’s an RCA 360, from 1947, one of the first postwar televisions to be mass-produced and available to the public:

By the 1950s, as with many other things, from typewriters to radios to kitchen gadgets, sleeker lines, newer materials and different colour-palettes were the rage. Boxy old wood-case televisions were out. More simplistic and uncluttered looks were in…

In the 50s, televisions were the latest and greatest thing around. Some people who couldn’t actually afford a set, would just buy an aerial and stick it on their rooves, just to pretend that they did, so that they could keep up with the Joneses.

Remote Television

Almost as soon as TV started taking off, people started looking for ways to make the technology more appealing to the everyday user. Why should you have to get up and flip a dial and knob whenever you wanted to change the channel? That arduous, six, seven, or nine-foot trek to the set, and back again, is such an inconvenience! Surely there’s a better way?

I See the Light!

As early as 1950, the first TV remote-controls had been invented. Originally connected to the set itself by long cables, the first wireless TV-remotes, of the kind we recognise today, came out in the mid 1950s. One of the first wireless remotes was the Flashmatic, from 1955. It worked quite simply: You pressed the buttons on the controller and aimed it at the television. A beam of light from the remote hit a photoelectric panel on the TV set, which changed the channel.

Brilliant, but problematic. See, the light-sensitive electric cell on the television-set did not differentiate between the beam shot from the remote, and any other source of light. If you turned on an electric lamp near to the television, or even if you opened the curtains and let in the sunlight, the channel would change automatically, even without the remote!

A Click and a Switch!

Early TV remotes worked on light-beams affecting light-sensitive electric panels on the television set. They worked well enough, so long as you had a decent aim and there weren’t any interfering light-sources, but the drawbacks of their over-sensitivity and fiddly operation made them somewhat impractical. A better type of TV remote was invented shortly after, which relied not on light, but on sound. Pressing the remote-buttons let off clicks of different frequencies, which could be picked up by the TV-set. Each frequency related to a specific command – changing the channel, or the volume, as the case may have been. But even this could be problematic, when people with sensitive hearing could hear the pulses of sound (which were designed to be outside the human hearing-range).

Slice and Dice!

Don’tcha just hate it that, just when the show gets to the interesting bit, it suddenly breaks for a commercial?

You can thank TV remotes for that.

After the invention of the remote, it was discovered by studio bigwigs that airing commercials between shows was ineffective. Once a show was over, you could just turn the set off, or flip to another channel. And you didn’t have to watch the stupid commercial for Remington typewriters, or Brylcreem, or Pepsodent, or whatever other boring junk those commercial schmucks were trying to peddle in your own living room! How dare they invade your privacy like this!?

To remedy this, the modern format of television was created, where shows were split into segments or acts, just like a play at the theater. This allowed for advertising, but it also meant that people were less likely to flip away from the channel, in case they missed the return of their favourite TV episode, thereby increasing the viewer-numbers of TV commercials.

Crafty bastards…

The Golden Age of Television

The Golden Age of Television is defined as the period from the early 1950s up to the 1970s. It was during this period that many of the classic and famous TV shows that we know and love and remember, were broadcast. But more importantly, it was during this time (especially in the 50s and 60s), that TV gained dominance over radio for the first time in history. Also, it was during the 50s and 60s that TV developed its own style, format and language.

Previously, TV shows were modeled after radio-programs, but not everything used in radio was possible on television, which necessitated various changes, which led to the evolution of modern television. Shows produced on TV during and after this changeover, are considered classics of television.

What shows, you might ask? Well, how about Dragnet? The Jack Benny Show? Amos & Andy? Leave It To Beaver? Life with Luigi, and numerous other programs.

Good Night, and Good Luck

Along with regular programming, the television revolutionized the broadcasting of news. Previously, you had the radio and the newspaper. But now, the nightly, six o’clock bulletin was the mainstay of news, sports and weather. The news anchor and reporters became staples of nightly broadcasts. Programs like the 1950s “See it Now“, began to replace radio broadcasts as the method for spreading news to the public. The line “Good night, and good luck”, was the sign-off line used by famous reporter Edward R. Murrow, notable for reporting on the Blitz in London, and MacCarthyism during the 1950s.

We Return You to Your Regularly Scheduled Program…

By the 60s and 70s, TV had become the mainstay of most well-to-do households in the developed world, and had finally replaced radio as the main medium for electronic entertainment, music and news. It had by now, reached the format which we’re most familiar with.

The 60s and 70s saw many of the most famous TV shows in history take to the air, like Gilligan’s Island, the Addams Family, Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Dragnet (which transferred from radio in the 1950s), and the Dick Van Dyke Show.

It was in the early 1970s that the first TV-recording equipment arrived on the scene. These days, we have DVD recorders and other technology that will allow us to pause, rewind, record and watch multiple shows at once. But we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if the VCR and the video-cassette didn’t get there first. Entering the market in 1971, the VHS tape and the VCR remained the standard method for recording TV-programs for thirty years, until the end of the 20th century. Tricks like putting sticky-tape over the slots in the tape-cassette to disable the anti-recording feature on some cassettes, would enable people to use almost any cassette to record movies, TV shows and almost anything else that they wanted, right off their TV sets. VCDs, and eventually, DVDs, and their accompanying recorders, would of course replace them starting in the late 1990s, but VHS tapes paved the way.

That brings us more or less to the modern day, so far as TVs are concerned. Some things have changed, such as digital TVs from old cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs, and the lack of a need for a pair of rabbit-ear antennae, but in the past few years, not much else has changed about the basics of television as we know it today.

Want to Know More?

“Television under the Swastika – The History of Nazi Television”

A History of Television from the Grolier Encyclopedia

 

2 thoughts on “The “Idiot Box” and the History of Television

  1. Hi Shahan!

    Sherelle Holmesette from HN here.

    This was a fascinating and well-written article! I wasn’t aware of how much the Nazis used TV. And it was fun seeing your pictures of old TVs and mentally contrasting them with our huge, modern, flat screen TVs.

    I have a question for you. I’ve been absent from Holmesian.net for many months due to my life having gone haywire. Now, when I try to access the forums, they seem to have disappeared! I’ve tried everything. Do you know what is going on?

     
    1. Long story short, they no-longer exist. They’ve been out of action for months now, and by the looks of it, will be forever. If you want to build a new forum or something, let me know. I might be able to help.

       

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