Televisions can be found in billions of homes across the world. But 100 years ago, nobody knew what a television was. In fact, until 1947, only a few thousand Americans owned televisions. How did this groundbreaking technology go from niche invention to living room mainstay?
Today, we're explaining the full history of television, including where it might go in the future.
Mechanical televisions in the 19th and early 20th centuries
Before electric televisions, we had mechanical televisions.
These first televisions began to appear in the early 19th century. They involved mechanically scanning images and transmitting those images to a screen. Compared to electronic televisions, they were extremely rudimentary.
One of the first mechanical televisions used a rotating disk with holes arranged in a spiral. This device was created independently by two inventors: Scottish inventor John Logie Baird and American inventor Charles Francis Jenkins. Both devices were invented in the early 1920's.
Before these two inventors, the German inventor Paul Gottlieb Nipkow had developed the first mechanical television. This device sent images over wires using a rotating metal disk. Instead of calling the device a television, however, Nipkow called it an "electric telescope". The device had 18 lines of resolution.
In 1907, two inventors, Russian Boris Rosing and Englishman A.A. Campbell-Swinton - Combined a cathode ray tube with a mechanical scanning system to create an entirely new television system.
Ultimately, these inventors' early efforts would lead to the world's first electric television a few years later.
The first electronic television was invented in 1927.
The world's first electronic television was created by a 21-year-old inventor named Philo Taylor Farnsworth. This inventor lived in a house without electricity until he was 14 years old. Starting in high school, he started thinking about a system that could capture moving images, turn them into code, and then move them via radio waves to different devices.
Farnsworth was far ahead of any mechanical television system invented up to that point. Farnsworth's system captured moving images using an electron beam (basically, a primitive camera).
The first image broadcast on television was a simple line. Farnsworth would later broadcast a dollar sign using his television after a potential investor asked, "When are we going to see any money on this, Farnsworth?"
Between 1926 and 1931, mechanical television inventors continued to tweak and test their creations. However, they were all doomed to be obsolete compared to modern electric televisions: by 1934, all televisions had been converted to electronics.
It is understandable that all early television systems broadcast images in black and white. However, color television was first theorized in 1904, something we'll talk about later.
How did the first televisions work?
The two types of televisions listed above, mechanical and electronic, worked in very different ways. We've hinted at how these TVs worked before, but we'll go into more detail in this section.
Mechanical televisions relied on rotating disks to transmit images from a transmitter to a receiver. Both the transmitter and the receiver had rotating disks. The disks had holes spaced around the disk, with each hole slightly lower than the other.
To transmit the images, you had to place a camera in a completely dark room and then place a very bright light behind the disc. This disk would be rotated by a motor to make one revolution for each frame of the television picture.
Baird's first mechanical television had 30 holes and rotated 12.5 times per second. There was a lens on the front of the disk to focus the light on the object.
When light hits the object, that light is reflected by a photoelectric cell, which then converts that light energy into electrical impulses. Electrical impulses are transmitted through the air to a receiver. This receiver's disk would rotate at exactly the same speed as the transmitter's chamber disk (the motors would be synchronized to ensure accurate transmissions).
The receiving end featured a radio receiver, which received transmissions and connected them to a neon lamp placed behind the saucer. The disc would rotate while the lamp emitted light proportionally to the electrical signal it received from the receiver.
Ultimately, this system would allow you to see the image from the other side of the disk, although you would need a magnifying glass. This is how the system works in diagram form:
There's a reason we stopped using mechanical TVs: electronic TVs were far superior.
Electronic televisions are based on a technology called cathode ray tube (CRT) as well as two or more anodes. The anodes were the positive terminals and the cathode the negative terminal.
The "cathode" part of the cathode ray tube was a heated filament inside a glass tube (the "T" in CRT). The cathode would release a beam of electronics into the tube's empty space (which was actually a vacuum).
All these released electrons were negatively charged and would therefore be attracted to the positively charged anodes. These anodes were found at the end of the CRT, which was the television screen. As electrons were released at one end, they were displayed on the television screen at the other end.
Of course, shooting electrons at a glass screen does not produce images. To make images, the inside of the television screen is coated with phosphor. The electrons would paint an image on the screen one line at a time.
To control the firing of electrons, CRTs use two "drive coils". Both drive coils use the power of magnets to push the electron beam to the desired location on the screen. One steering coil pushes the electrons up or down, while the other pushes them left or right.
The first television stations in America
The world's first television stations began appearing in the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The first mechanical television station was called W3XK and was created by Charles Francis Jenkins (one of the inventors of mechanical television). That television station broadcast its first broadcast on July 2, 1928.
One of the world's first television stations, WRGB has the honor of being the world's only continuously operating station from 1926 to the present day.
The first televisions in America
The first commercially produced televisions in America were based on the mechanical television system, made by John Baird Television Designs. These sets were shown to the public in September 1928.
However, it would take until 1938 before American electronic televisions were produced and commercially released. They were an instant hit upon release.
The first remote control for televisions
The world's first television remote control was called the Tele Zoom and it can hardly be classified as a remote control. Tele Zoom was only used to "enlarge" the image on television. You cannot use it to change any channels or turn the TV on or off. The Tele Zoom was released in 1948.
The first "true" remote control was produced by Zenith and released in 1955. This remote control could turn the television on or off and change channels. It was also completely wireless.
The first TV show in America
Today, American networks air thousands of different programs every day. However, each of these shows owes its existence to America's first television show called The Queen's Messenger. This program was first shown in 1928 on station WRGB.
They were not100% safethat The Queen's Messenger was the first television show to air in the United States. In 1928, it was thought that the show would be broadcast to just four television sets. Not 400. Not 4000.fourSo we have some ambiguity and debate as to whether this was actually the first TV show.
America's first television commercial
The first television station in America began broadcasting in 1928. For the first 13 years of its existence, television was blissfully commercial-free. The first commercial broadcast in the United States did not take place until July 1, 1941, when the first American advertisement aired. The ad was for a Bulova watch and lasted 10 seconds. It aired on NBC.
Color Television in the United States
Color television has its roots in 1904 when a German inventor received a patent for color television. However, this inventor did not have a working color TV, it was just a patented idea.
A highly regarded color television system appeared in 1925 from inventor Vladimir Zworykin. However, this system never became a reality. All attempts to make it come true were unsuccessful.
Color television took a backseat for about 20 years. In 1946, the idea of color television was completely revamped.As TheHistoryOfTelevision.com explains,
“In 1946, World War II was history, and people in America wanted to make up for all the time lost in the war. Black and white television was considered old fashioned and it was time to do something new. It was then that color television systems began to be seriously considered.
The US color television war was fought between two industry giants: CBS and RCA. CBS was the first company to create a color television. However, the main disadvantage was that it was amechanicaltelevision based on John Baird's original system. Therefore, it was not compatible with the black and white televisions used in the United States.
Despite this major flaw, the FCC declared CBS color television to be the national standard.
RCA protested, stating that it was unfair to make CBS color television the standard when it could be used by millions of customers in the United States (most of whom owned RCA televisions).
Undeterred, RCA proceeded to develop its own color television system that would be compatible with its customers' RCA equipment. In 1953, the FCC recognized that RCA's color television system was better. Beginning in 1954, RCA color TV systems were sold in the United States.
Color television had an initial problem similar to 3D television and other technologies: people had color television technology, but broadcasters did not produce color television content. Few people owned color televisions between 1954 and 1965. However, starting in 1966, color television programming was broadcast across the United States, leading to an increase in sales of color televisions.
Timeline of television history between the 1950s and 2000s
Between the 1950s and 2000s, television evolved from a niche technology to a critical form of communication found in living rooms across the country. Many changes and improvements took place in the second half of the 20th century to make television what it is today. Here is a timeline:
- 1949:In January, the number of television stations increased to 98 in 58 market areas.
- 1949:The FCC adopted the Fairness Doctrine, which holds broadcasters accountable for seeking out and presenting all aspects of an issue when covering a controversy. This law was a supplement to the Communications Act of 1934, which required broadcasters to give equal airtime to candidates running for election.
- 1951:I Love Lucy was born, sponsored by Philip Morris. The half-hour sitcom was ranked the number one show in the country for four of its first six full seasons.
- 1951:On June 21, CBS aired the first show in color. As mentioned above, the CBS color system only worked with a small number of televisions in the United States. Only12customers in the United States were able to watch the first color television broadcast. Another 12 million televisions were blank for this program.
- 1952:Bob Hope takes his comedy from radio to television when The Bob Hope Show debuts in October 1952.
- 1952:By the end of 1952, televisions could be found in 20 million US homes, a 33% increase over the previous year. American advertisers spent a total of $288 million on television advertising, a 38.8% increase since 1951.
- 1953:RCA launches its color broadcast system, which ran on 12 million televisions instead of 12.
- 1954:NBC launches The Tonight Show with comedian Steve Allen.
- 1955:Gunsmoke, the classic western television show, began its 20-year run on CBS.
- 1958:525 cable television systems in the United States serve 450,000 subscribers. In response, CBS ran a two-page advertisement in TV Guide saying that "free TV as we know it cannot survive alongside pay TV".
- 1960:Four debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were broadcast across the country throughout the year, forever changing the way presidents campaigned.
- 1963:For the first time in history, television surpasses newspapers as a source of information. In a poll this year, 36% of Americans consider television a more credible source than the press, which was favored by 24%.
- 1964:The FCC regulates cable for the first time. The FCC required carriers to block programming arriving from distant markets and to duplicate a local station's programming (if required by the local station).
- 1964:73 million viewers watch The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.
- 1965:NBC calls itself The Full Color Network and broadcasts 96% of its programming in color.
- 1969:Astronaut Neil Armstrong walks on the moon for the first time as millions of American viewers watch on live television.
- 1970:The FCC implements the Financial Interest Syndication Rules that prohibit the three major networks from owning and controlling the rebroadcast of private programs. This meant that 30 minutes of programming was returned nightly to local stations in the top 50 markets, encouraging the production of local programming.
- 1971:Ads range from 60 seconds in average length to 30 seconds.
- 1979:Some people believe it is the "beginning of the end of television", as a survey indicated that 44% of Americans were not satisfied with current programming and 49% watched less television than they did a few years ago.
- 1979:ESPN, a network devoted entirely to sports, makes its cable debut. ESPN would go on to become the largest and most successful basic cable channel.
- 1980:Ted Turner launches the Cable News Network (CNN), a channel dedicated to showing news 24 hours a day.
- 1980:Music Television (MTV) makes its debut in August 1980.
- 1986:After years of interest rate hikes, ABC, CBS and NBC are having trouble selling commercial time to sports programs for the first time. Trading fees for the 1986 NFL season were down 15% from the 1985 season.
- 1989:Pay Per View is starting to make its mark on the television landscape, reaching around 20% of all cable households.
- 1992:Infomercials explode with growth. This year, the National Infomercial Marketing Associationlove commercialsgenerate sales of $750 million, double that of 1988.
- 1993:In early 1993, 98% of American homes owned at least one television and 64% owned two or more sets.
- 1996:The 18-inch-diameter digital satellite dishes hit the market, becoming the best-selling electronic item in history along with the VCR.
- 2000:The digital video disc (DVD) is displayed.
- 2004:For the first time, DVDs outperform VHS tapes.
- 2005:Flat screen TVs and HDTVs are introduced for the first time.
- 2006:Flat panel televisions and HDTVs become affordable for the first time.
- 2006:Sony launches its Blu-ray disc format, capable of storing up to 27 GB despite being the same size as a DVD.
- 2010:3D TVs are starting to hit the market, fueled by popular 3D blockbusters like Avatar.
Today, online television and other streaming technologies have changed the future of traditional television. With more and more people "cutting the cord", it remains to be seen whether traditional television can survive in an age filled with Netflix and other technologies.
Electronic television was first successfully demonstrated in San Francisco on Sept. 7, 1927. The system was designed by Philo Taylor Farnsworth, a 21-year-old inventor who had lived in a house without electricity until he was 14.Did television exist in the 1800s? ›
Prior to electric televisions, we had mechanical televisions. These early televisions started appearing in the early 1800s. They involved mechanically scanning images then transmitting those images onto a screen. Compared to electronic televisions, they were extremely rudimentary.How has television changed over the years? ›
The screen got better picture quality, and the speakers provided better sound. The television had gotten drastically smaller, and definitely more convenient for many people. Because of the new technology the TV became smaller, the screen stayed the same size as the other pieces of the technology got smaller.When did TV start existing? ›
The first "television" system broadcast was a straight-line by Philo Farnsworth on September 7th, 1927. The press was presented with this scientific breakthrough on January 13, 1928 and it even headlined a few major nationwide papers.What is 2 facts about the history of TV? ›
First American television station started working in 1928, and BBC transmission began in 1930. Television became widely popular after the end of World War II. Over 1 million American homes had television in 1948.What was TV originally used for? ›
The very first TV was invented by Philo Taylor Farnsworth in 1927. Until the age of fourteen, Farnsworth lived in a home without electricity, and his original idea for a TV-like device was to create moving images using radio waves.When was the golden age of television? ›
As noted above, the period that ran roughly between 1948 and 1959 is referred to by many historians and scholars of the medium as the “Golden Age” of television.What changes take place in television? ›
Earlier it was black and white. Now it is coloured. Earlier it was limited to some selected programmes and fixed time-slots. Gradually its scope was enlarged to include educational programmes, news bulletins, detailed reporting of the tours of the President and the Prime Minister.What was the first TV called? ›
However, many people credit Philo Farnsworth with the invention of the TV. He filed a patent for the first completely electronic TV set in 1927 He called it the Image Dissector.How has television changed society? ›
Improved Social Interaction
TV allowed people with similar interests to connect over their shared love for different programs. Before the internet, watching television shows was a social event. Friends and family members would gather to watch and enjoy their preferred programs.
Almost from the beginning of television, the medium has served as the main source of political news and information. Its influence expanded rapidly during the 1960s, when advances in TV technology allowed viewers to experience major political events, such as debates and nominating conventions, live as they happened.What existed before TV? ›
It may surprise you, but before television took off, radio was the medium of choice. Not just with music stations and talk shows, radio shows captured the hearts and minds of generations with the radio drama.What did the first TV look like? ›
The earliest commercially made televisions were radios with the addition of a television device consisting of a neon tube behind a mechanically spinning disk with a spiral of apertures that produced a red postage-stamp size image, enlarged to twice that size by a magnifying glass.What was the first TV channel? ›
In 1928, WRGB (then W2XB) was started as the world's first television station. It broadcast from the General Electric facility in Schenectady, New York. It was popularly known as "WGY Television".Why is it called television? ›
The word television comes from the Greek prefix tele and the Latin word vision or “seeing from a distance.” The TV camera converts images into electrical impulses, which are sent along cables, or by radio waves, or satellite to a television receiver where they are changed back into a picture.What is the importance of television? ›
Television is an inescapable part of modern culture. We depend on TV for entertainment, news, education, culture, weather, sports—and even music, since the advent of music videos. With more and more ways of viewing TV available we now have access to a plethora of both good quality and inappropriate TV content.What is television short essay? ›
Television is a vast medium of entertainment, information, and education of the modern age. Television was invented in 1925 by John Logie Baird. Television enables children to learn moral lessons in a fun way with special channels and programs meant for children.How did TV work before cable? ›
Cable made it possible for many people to enjoy quality television. Before cable, consumers relied on line-of-sight radio waves to a source station. Consumers who had an object, like a building or a mountain, blocking the signal received poor reception.What year was the 1st color TV? ›
At the 1939 World's Fair, RCA laboratories–now a part of SRI International–introduced the all-electronic television system. The invention of the television created an industry that forever changed the world. By 1953, RCA devised the first complete electronic color TV system.When did TV quality improve? ›
TVs made a giant leap forward in the late 2000s, though, when “full high-definition” (FHD) televisions hit the shelves. These sets featured 1,920 pixels across the face of the screen, and 1,080 pixels down the screen vertically – so they quickly became known as “1080p” screens.
Television contributes to our education and knowledge. Documentaries and information programs give us insight on nature, our environment and political events. Television has a huge impact on politics. In election years, discussions, speeches and campaign news of candidates are broadcast almost every day.Do you think television has changed in the past few decades? ›
Television has had a major overhaul in the past decade, with the era of streaming changing how viewers watch the small screen forever. With the emergence of multiple platforms and the dropping price of high quality TV sets, consumers found reasons to let go of their cable boxes and embrace cord-cutting for good.What is the old type of TV called? ›
A CRT TV is a type of CRT television that was most widely used back before the invention of the flat screen television. CRT stands for cathode ray tube.When was the first TV used in homes? ›
This was the first time that Americans were able to have some sort of visual entertainment in their home. The television was first developed in the 1930's. Broadcasting had begun in 1939 at the New York Worlds Fair. One year later there were 23 television stations and over ten thousand homes had a television in them.How has technology changed the way we watch TV? ›
Technology such as Apple TV and Google TV have effectively given TV internet access and computer capabilities. This means there isn't a use for HDMI cables to stream videos to a TV, as well as online access to content – like movies and TV shows.
Television influences many individuals by race, gender and class. It reshaped many cultures by stereotypes. At first, the majority of the people who appeared on American programs were Caucasian. Television presented a normal life for Caucasians which presented as news, sports, advertisements and entertainment.How did television help in the social development? ›
The article states that television can help young people discover where they fit into society, develop closer relationships with peers and family, and teach them to understand complex social aspects of communication.
They went outside. They read, they had conversations, they played games, they sang and they went to bed early. There was a time, back in history, where they would go to bed around eight for their “first sleep”. Around midnight they would get back up and socialize with neighbors and do other activities.What's the oldest TV show? ›
In the experimental days of television, the very first full-length program broadcast in the US was a drama in one act called The Queen's Messenger by J. Harley Manners. The WGY radio station in Schenectady, New York first aired the drama on September 11, 1928.How did people pass time before technology? ›
And that's not even mentioning the internet. Before the internet, people obviously had distractions at work. They took smoke breaks, read magazines and newspapers, paid bills, wrote letters, called friends, played games and likely did a lot to avoid work.
Origins. The oldest broadcasting network in the United States, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) came into being on November 15, 1926, with a gala four-hour radio program originating from the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.What were the 3 original TV channels? ›
In the United States, for most of the history of broadcasting, there were only three or four major commercial national terrestrial networks. From 1946 to 1956, these were ABC, CBS, NBC and DuMont (though the Paramount Television Network had some limited success during these years).Who first invented television? ›
TelevisionWho invented TV first and when? ›
In 1927, at the age of 21, Farnsworth completed the prototype of the first working fully electronic TV system, based on this “image dissector.” He soon found himself embroiled in a long legal battle with RCA, which claimed Zworykin's 1923 patent took priority over Farnsworth's inventions.What was the first television? ›
On 25 December 1926, at Hamamatsu Industrial High School in Japan, Japanese inventor Kenjiro Takayanagi demonstrated a TV system with a 40-line resolution that employed a CRT display. This was the first working example of a fully electronic television receiver. Takayanagi did not apply for a patent.Who invented television first time? ›
Philo Farnsworth, in full Philo Taylor Farnsworth II, (born August 19, 1906, Beaver, Utah, U.S.—died March 11, 1971, Salt Lake City, Utah), American inventor who developed the first all-electronic television system. Farnsworth was a technical prodigy from an early age.What did the first television look like? ›
The earliest commercially made televisions were radios with the addition of a television device consisting of a neon tube behind a mechanically spinning disk with a spiral of apertures that produced a red postage-stamp size image, enlarged to twice that size by a magnifying glass.What did people before TV? ›
It may surprise you, but before television took off, radio was the medium of choice. Not just with music stations and talk shows, radio shows captured the hearts and minds of generations with the radio drama.What were TVS first called? ›
In May 1914, Archibald Low gave the first demonstration of his television system at the Institute of Automobile Engineers in London. He called his system 'Televista'.When did TV become common in homes? ›
Home television ownership, a rarity during the 1940's, exploded in the post-war boom years of the 1950's. While only around 9% of Americans owned TV's in 1950, by 1960 that figure had jumped above 80%.
The first practical TV sets were demonstrated and sold to the public at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. The sets were very expensive and New York City had the only broadcast station.How did TV get its name? ›
The word television comes from the Greek prefix tele and the Latin word vision or “seeing from a distance.” The TV camera converts images into electrical impulses, which are sent along cables, or by radio waves, or satellite to a television receiver where they are changed back into a picture.When was the first color TV? ›
At the 1939 World's Fair, RCA laboratories–now a part of SRI International–introduced the all-electronic television system. The invention of the television created an industry that forever changed the world. By 1953, RCA devised the first complete electronic color TV system.