The Vast Awesome Land: A Quick History of Television From Cathode to Your Mobile Tech

If you’re reading this, you’re probably older than 10, and so the phrase “I watched the show on my phone” still might sound a little weird to you. I know it does to me. It’s incredible to think that a decade ago saying this would have seemed preposterous. But now, the idea of watching television on your phone, tablet, or another mobile device is common enough to go unremarked. That’s sort of the way it has been with television. Regardless of how it comes to us, TV finds a way to be instantly ingrained in of our lives as if it had always been there.

TV is a relatively new invention (though older than you might think), but it seems like it has always been around. There have been some strange stops along the way, as broadcasts have evolved, altering our perception of popular culture and both unifying and dividing us. TV shows and the history of the medium have been the subject of countless books. Ironically, the written word got a huge boost from TV. So today we want to look at some of the weird and unremarked upon events that help us understand how TVs went from being a huge box in your living room to something you carried in your pocket.

Television!

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Happy Birthday, Wikipedia: A History of Public Knowledge from Analog to Mobile Tech

Knowledge is a weird thing. It has no tangible properties, and so it is firmly ensconced among the most ephemeral of things, along with love, nostalgia, and ennui. And yet knowledge does have a physical quality to it, or is treated as such. Knowledge is something to be obtained, something you have to acquire, and, perhaps most interestingly, something that can be denied you, like food or water from a capricious tyrant.

It has always been that way. Think about the Prometheus myth–yes, the poor guy stole fire from the gods, but they weren’t mad about the fire as fire. They were mad that a non-god dared to take something that was theirs. Hubris is now taken to mean an excess of pride, but then it was understood that hubris was the belief that you could step out of the role the gods had made for you, to shake up the natural order. Fire wasn’t just hot: fire was knowledge. It was power.

 

Wikipedia logo
Wikipedia, which once represented the wild and untamed anarchy of the internet, has grown into a grand, respected, and vital arena of public knowledge.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

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Across the Ocean: A Brief History of Global Communications

As anyone who has spent any time on the internet can tell you, the ocean is a terrifying place full of horrible monsters that would make HR Geiger have trouble sleeping. Even if you aren’t into viral lists, the oceans are (with the exception of volcanos, perhaps) the most literally inhuman places on our planet. This is unfortunate, since they take up 75% of it. Leaving aside the grim fanged and weird creatures of the deep, the oceans seem to exist to mock us. They were here before our species and they will be here after, disappearing our largest ships and patiently eroding the continents we fight wars to rule.

For most of human history, these oceans were the great inhibitor to communications. After all, if you lived in London and wanted to send a letter to your cousin in Pittsburgh, you had to wait for the next transatlantic ship and hope it didn’t sink, or that the letter wasn’t intercepted by redcoats thinking it contained a code for the revolutionaries (here we’re assuming your cousin was William Pitt). The point is, communication was tough, and the ocean made it a gamble. That’s why it’s amazing that defeating the ocean was the first step toward the global communications we enjoy now.

Transatlantic
The path of the first transatlantic cable.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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