Few, if any, appliances have shaped American life like television. Television magnified life, as it brought distant but significant events into millions of homes; it changed how we told stories, and ultimately, how we understood the world. Now television is better equipped than ever to transport its viewers, and does so with a richer picture and sleeker execution than seems plausible (I CAN SEE A LADYBUG ON THAT BLADE OF GRASS ON THE FOOTBALL FIELD! HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?) It turns out its history is as interesting as the future. While a lot has happened, some moments stand out as THE most crucial. Read on to get the scoop on the boob tube.
1861: Billy Crookes invents the fundamental components of the television, discovers a brand new element (Thallium)
In 1861 William Crookes, an Oxford-educated scientist, was staring at some residue left over after he whipped up some sulphuric acid (we don't know why he was doing that, but it's important to remember that TV hadn't been invented yet). Some of it was glowing green, and it turns out this green light was super important (just like when you read The Great Gatsby!) Crookes successfully isolated the stuff, which turned out to be a new element called Thallium. To weigh it, Crookes suspended it in a vacuum of his design (called Crookes tube); it gets way too complicated after this, but basically he discovered that when you deprive certain physical bodies of air (via a vacuum), they move away from things hotter than themselves. The phenomenon is very complex, but you just need to know is that cathode rays articulate electric signals, and facilitate the conversion of that electricity to an image to a screen. In essence, the Crookes tube led directly to the boob tube.
1892: The idea of televised sports is predicted 50 years before it happens
An 1892 novel called Golf in the Year 2000 describes the idea of sports on a screen before a still-image TV had even been introduced to the public. It also predicts driverless golf carts, which don’t exist yet, and would/will ultimately destroy the only fun part about golfing.
1900: The Russians actually beat America to television
Boris Rosing debuted the first cathode tube designed to display an image in 1900 at the World's Fair in Paris. While his device was limited to projecting a simple shape onto a screen, popular postcards from the event predicted that moving-picture gizmos were close on the horizon. WE STILL GOT THE MOON ON LOCK THOUGH.
1925: Felix the Cat becomes the first televised cartoon
An inventor named John Logie Baird conjured a still image of Felix the Cat onto a screen. That same year, motels are invented in California (seriously, the Motel Inn of San Luis Obispo). In 1960, Hitchcock would rely on both these advancements (to varying extents) in order to create the first horror movie, Psycho.
1927: The first electronic TV is invented by a boss 21-year-old
Forget about your cool friend from college with a t-shirt startup, this kid Philo Taylor Farnsworth demonstrated a working television in San Francisco in 1927. While there were other inventions close to TV, his was the first to scan images with electron beams, which was how all TVs would work for decades. When asked by an investor “When are we going to see some dollars in this thing, Farnsworth?” he replied by recording a dollar bill and displaying it on his new device. Who was the original boss? He was.
1939: America gets its first “Image Dissector”
Yeah, it sounds like a nickname for a fashion-critical girl in high school. And while there was this other guy named Zworykin who was working with the same kind of technology around the same time, it was Farnsworth who successfully patented (and named) the design RCA would buy for a million bucks in 1939 (he called it the "image dissector"). It’s probably also worth mentioning Farnsworth didn’t have electricity in his home until he was 16.
1946: The first mass-produced TV hits the market
In 1946, RCA introduced the 630-TS; it cost $352. This model had a 10-inch screen, and was flanked on both sides by the wide bulk of wooden cabinets. In the coming decades, this device would fundamentally change the shape and pace of the American conversation. In 1946, there were 141 million people stateside, and in the coming years hundreds of thousands of them would own this model of TV, often called the Model T of television. By 1969, images of war, the moon landing, sports, politics, and reflections on American life would flicker in 54 million living rooms.
1954: Color TV comes through like a tornado in Kansas
You know that test pattern with the bars of color and high-tone pitch? It has a name: SMPTE, invented by Al Goldberg of CBS Laboratories in the '70s. It’s the equivalent of a roadie saying "check, check" into a mic; in order from left to right, the colors are white, yellow, cyan, green, magenta, red, and blue.
1956: The “Zenith Space Commander” is invented
No, it’s not a wormhole-maneuvering, outer space vessel. It’s the first cordless remote. Americans nationwide begin to suspect their spouse has intentionally hid the remote, but just shut up and swallow their beets.
1962: Television actually gets out of this world
AT&T’s Telstar was strapped to the Thor-Delta rocket, the first satellite to send television signals. In a few years, PBS would switch to satellite & HBO is invented (and distributed from an interplanetary orbit).
1976: VHS tapes available on American shelves
First available in Japan, VHS tapes were introduced in 1976 (the same year Steve Jobs finished the first Apple computer). Their sales peaked around the year 2000, when $339,121,952 worth were sold in the States worldwide. By 2006, sales were down -93.42% thanks to the introduction of DVDs.
1986: Stereo sound makes sound better for both ears
Just like how your eyes have separate points of view that coalesce into a single image in your mind, your ears are like separate microphones recording distinct tracks; your brain processes sound received from both ears and translates what it’s hearing into a solitary sensory experience. Pre-stereo sound was the equivalent of listening with one just ear (as the audio played on a single channel), which impacts the sound much in the same way looking at an object with one eye worsens your depth perception -- put simply, the first stereos were designed to give the listener a dimensional understanding of their sound.
2009: More than half of all TVs are HDTV
The concept of “high-definition television” is sort of flaccid, and its origins can be traced to British efforts back in the 1930s. But since true “high-def” (1080p) was available to consumers in the 1980s, it took fewer years for the US to switch to high-def than it did to color television; while color TV was available in 1954, it took until 1973 before the majority of American televisions were in color.
2012: Plasma TVs start winning like Sheen
Americans spend $2.5 billion on plasma TVs. The same figure was Kyrgyzstan's entire GDP in 2006.
2015: LCD dominates the TV format
It sounds like Spiderman telling The Daily Bugle that he’s ousted his latest adversary (Egad! The Plasma!), but it’s true. Plasma TVs and LED/LCDs have had something of a face-off in the past decade, and LCDs, or “liquid crystal display,” won out. LCDs work by filtering a backlight through a prism of colored crystals. Plasma used something totally different, electrically charged ionized gases. That Liquid Crystals winning over Plasmatic Gas sounds like the results of a Ziggy Stardust cover band competition notwithstanding.
2025: OLED changes EVERYTHING
Americans have responded more enthusiastically to improvements in television technology in the past few decades than ever before -- we appreciate how much the device has changed, and what new advancements mean (WAY cooler TVs). OLED screens, or “organic light-emitting diode” screens, were introduced in 2009, and are poised to totally reshape television. Literally. Because OLEDs rely on organic compounds that actually glow a particular color, they don’t need a backlight. That means, when the technology gets there, theoretically, you could print a moving image onto something as thin as a sheet of paper (like literally a sheet of paper). Already, OLED has produced the best picture quality we’ve ever seen, but as a breakthrough, this is just the tip of the crystalline-looking iceberg.