The types of old TVs differ wildly from those we watch today. First, the pictures were black and white, without the contrast we enjoy now. And, then, you needed a small child to change the channel since there were no remote controls. Sometimes, that child also pulled double duty as an antenna arranger.
It’s difficult to imagine life without TVs since they’re in multiple rooms of houses now. But back in the day, televisions were a novelty for families who could afford them. So, let’s take a journey through time from black and white to plasmas and see the different types of old TVs.
Who Invented the Television?
It’s safe to say that no one person invented the TV, although Philo Farnsworth is often credited with it. He received a patent for the first electronic television in 1927. Over the late 19th century and early 20th century, technological advances moved the needle (like how we’re changing up the technical reference?) closer to transmitting moving images.
First, there were innovations such as the facsimile machine introduced in Scotland in 1843 by Alexandar Bain. It laid some important foundations for later technology.
Then, in 1884, Paul Julius Gottlieb Nipkow, a German university student, proposed a spinning disk platform. Holes in the disc scanned the line of an image. This scanning became a popular way to “rasterize” images.
With these and other steps along the way, scientists continued developing ways to transmit images. For example, in 1909, Georges Rignoux and A. Fournier transmitted a crude image at Paris’ World Fair.
More progress occurred until the 1914 demonstration from Archibald Low at London’s Institute of Automobile Engineers. Media and scientific excitement grew. But World War I started soon after, and Low’s research went elsewhere.
Some of Low’s work laid the groundwork for the digital TVs of today. So, the question is not so much who invented the TV, but who were the significant pioneers along the way? As scientific research grew, the types of machines capable of transporting images developed.
The Nipkow Disk
Scottish inventor John Logie Baird used the Nipkow Disk to scan and display images in 1923. First, he used a brightly painted ventriloquist dummy named “Stooky Bill” for scanning. (Because, unfortunately, human faces didn’t have enough contrast to get past the shadow look.)
After much trial and error, Stooky Bill’s face appeared clearly on the screen in 1925. And by the following year, Baird used human faces to demonstrate his television at the first official TV screening.
Types of Old TVs: Mechanical Analog Television
The O.G. of TVs, analog televisions used analog signals to transmit video and audio. It’s hard to imagine those small screens with grainy images would morph into the dynamic digital TVs of today’s streaming world.
At about the same time as Stooky Bill’s appearance (the late 1920s), inventors in the United States (including Farnsworth) and Japan also filed for patents for their transmission systems. Then World War II came. And it halted some technologies while accelerating others.
Types of Old TVs: Electronic Television
While some inventors focused on analog television developments, others followed a different format. In 1897, English physicist J. J. Thomson deflected cathode rays for the first time. Then, German physicist Karl Ferdinand Braun invented the first version of the cathode ray tube (CRT).
Braun had already won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to wireless telegraphy development. And the “Braun tube” earned the physicist his nickname, “father of television.”
Types of Old TVs: Black and Whites
By the 1950s, black and white TVs were in many homes throughout the U.S. and worldwide. These tiny screens inside enormous cabinets survived a kick or two when the image got too grainy.
The screen for black and white TVs has a white phosphor coating on which the electron beam displays an image one line at a time. Electronic circuits use magnetic coils to move the beam across and down the screen in a raster scan pattern.
These old-fashioned TVs used rabbit ear antennas to receive high-frequency radio waves. So, the screen showed a lot of static if the antennas weren’t tuned just right. And that’s why TV-watching for kids in the 1960s and 70s was an aerobic exercise!
Static came from random radio waves getting picked up and interpreted as images, so wiggling those rabbit ears helped refocus to the correct broadcasting station. (Have you really lived a full life if you haven’t adjusted rabbit ears?)
Later, after the introduction of color TV screens, frequency ranges could transmit either color or black-and-white images. So, color transmissions sacrificed clarity for shade in the image. But, sometimes, monochrome shows played over the color bandwidth so as to have more contrast and finer details.
Types of Old TVs: Color Television
The advent of color television happened through another process of invention. Scientists have discussed using three monochrome images to produce a color image since 1880. Many iterations of hypothesis, trial, and error occurred before German inventor, Hovannes Adamian, filed for a German color display patent in 1907.
However, it wasn’t until 1953 that commercial broadcasting in color started taking off. Politics and lawsuits between RCA, Farnsworth, and CBS slowed the process.
Then, in 1961, visionary Walt Disney jumped onto the future bandwagon with his Wonderful World of Color. And that’s when American consumers started switching from black and white to color television sets.
By the 1980s, the types of “old TVs” morphed from black and white to color. But they were still big beasts that demanded a lot of floor space.
Types of Old TVs: Rear-Projection Televisions
As consumers wanted larger screens, technology tried switching to rear-projection televisions (RPTVs). CRT screens maxed out at about 40”. But RPTVs went to around 65” with $3,000 to $6,000 price tags.
You could buy a lot of movie theater tickets for that price and still claim a large chunk of living room floor space. Furthermore, you could still buy a decent used TV for much less cash.
Today, consumers are curious about which is better: curved vs. flat monitors. Now, that’s a discussion RPTV owners wouldn’t dream of having.
Types of Old TVs: Plasma Television
As we headed into the early 2000s, digital TVs replaced electronic CRTs and rear-projection ones. Plasma televisions were the first digital flatscreens. But these things were still huge and heavy.
Plasma screens have small pockets of gas that turn into a plasma state when you apply voltage. The electric current excites the plasma’s mercury to emit ultraviolet (UV) rays. The UV rays then produce an image as they pass through phosphor cells.
Finally, red, green, and blue phosphor cells combine to produce pixel colors. Each pixel emits its own light, so no backlighting is necessary.
Types of Old TVs: LCDs
Liquid crystal displays have a structure somewhere between liquids and solids. Molecules can flow past each other, as in liquids. Or they can arrange themselves into ordered patterns like solids.
These TVs were still heavy but also very expensive. Large “state-of-the-art” TVs still cost $2,000 to $4,000 until nearly 2010. And some were even more expensive. In the early days of digital TVs, plasma had a higher picture quality than LCDs, so people raved about them.
What About TVs Today?
Today’s TVs are affordable! You can get an excellent television for under $400. Plus, TVs nowadays have technologies that inventors could only begin to imagine during the birth years of the different types of old TVs. Plasma and LCD TVs gave way to high-definition light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
Some are a mere 1-2” thick and hang from your wall like the pieces of art early inventors only dreamed about. You can even set them to display an ever-changing painting collection, so today’s TV is art.
Most TVs manufactured today are smart TVs that serve as your Internet of Things (IoT) headquarters. So, you can speak aloud to them to add milk to a grocery list. Or, ask them to find and play your current Netflix or Amazon Prime binge-series.
To summarize today’s TV, it seems appropriate to quote an old TV cigarette commercial, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Fer Gregory/Shutterstock.com.