The Development of TV: Winner Takes All

As the TV has cemented its position in the public consciousness and the average living room, we’ve begun to take the technology for granted. But it’s worth looking back on how the TV was created and how it came to dominate our lives.

Most people don’t know that there were actually two people developing the television independently but at the same time. The first was Philo T. Farnsworth, an Idaho-born farm boy, and the second was Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian-born researcher. The two systems they developed both used similar principles, and both filed for patents. But Philo T. Farnsworth patented his technology first and the U.S. Patent Office ruled that Zworykin’s system violated the patent even though it was developed separately. Philo Farnsworth became the acknowledged father of television.

RCA, the radio company that had tried to fund Zworykin in order to beat Farnsworth, was forced to buy a license to make and sell televisions. Regular television broadcasts began in 1928 near Washington, D.C., but the first images were very poor by today’s standards. The broadcasts only displayed silhouettes.

Technology continued to improve and soon the images and programming were much higher in quality. In 1931, a CBS station in New York City began the first broadcasting schedule to air programs on every day of the week. Popularity of TV grew steadily and opened the door for the next innovation in TV: color.

The first color transmission was made around the same time that television broadcasting started, but it used rudimentary techniques and was merely a proof of concept. The idea of regular color programming didn’t become feasible until almost 30 years later.

Much like the creation of the television itself, the development of color television was a race between several different companies. RCA, CBS and NBC were all developing color television technology independently and trying to convince the Federal Communications Commission that their system was the best. CBS started limited color broadcasts on their proprietary televisions in 1950, but NBC made the first nation-wide color broadcast in 1954 of the Tournament of Roses Parade.

The FCC eventually approved a completely different system developed by the National Television System Committee in 1953. Color televisions cost in the thousands of dollars then, making them luxury items that most people couldn’t afford. But as prices dropped and programming improved, the television became a common item in the American household. Only one half of one percent of Americans owned a television at the end of World War II, but 90 percent owned one by the early 1960s.

Of course the number has continued to grow and a majority of people actually own more than one television. The future is already here too as cathode-ray tube TVs are being replaced by plasma, LCD and other TV technologies and programming migrates to digital signals instead of analog. A lot has happened in the history of TV, but one thing is for sure: it’s only the beginning.

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