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.

Television History

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.


1884- The Nipkow Disc

Let’s take a moment to savor the word “television”. It’s ubiquity, and often inanity has robbed the word of its wonder, but at the time it was conceived, it seemed near miraculous. “Tele,” like telescopes, promised that something far could be seen from anywhere. It is an astonishing feat that we take for granted. Taking things for granted is fine, of course – we don’t always have to be in slack-jawed wonder. But take a second a look at that date. 1884. Planes and cars yet to be invented. The Ottoman Empire was still feeling pretty cocky. It was a long time ago. It was distinctly not the modern world.

But it was getting there. In 1884, Paul Gottlieb Nipkow created a spinning disk that used a series of holes to capture and project images. It did this by capturing their light intensities. This was the first step toward a mechanical television.

1900- Paris World Fair

Nipkow’s innovation didn’t mean that TV was ready to go, and people were kicking back and watching reality shows about Archdukes (though those would be awesome). It was all still theoretical. In 1900, at the Paris World Fair, a Russian scientist named Konstantin Perskiy coined the term “television” predicted that there would be color TV and news on the radio.

There wasn’t a broadcast until 1909 which was a series of still images of the alphabet that would change every few seconds. The first instantaneous transmission in world television history was an astonishing feat of science. As the years went on, there was more and more progress in transmitting still images. Still, television as we know it hadn’t happened yet.

1920s- TV comes to life

In 1923, a scientist for Westinghouse named Vladimir Zworykin patented the iconoscope, a device for transmitting television images, and the next year he patented the kinescope, which could receive them. These inventions helped to give television a sense of purpose and showed how the signals could be broadcasted and then viewed over vast areas and at individual receptors.

In 1925, John Logie Baird, a Scottish inventor, figured out he could broadcast a moving image of a ventriloquist doll and did so on Jan 26th, 1926. He used a doll because human faces were too dark to appear clearly using the available technology. It was the first real demonstration of how television could be used for practical applications unless you think a talking brightly-painted nightmare dummy boded more ill than good.

Around the same time, other people were broadcasting with silhouettes, as shadows (though not faces) showed up nicely. By the early 1930s, CBS and NBC had started experimental broadcasts, and by the time the decade ended there were the beginnings of regular programming. Television, which had lurched through the imaginations of scientists for decades, was now a real thing, and on the verge of exploding over the world.

You can say that its promise was wasted by commercial programming, or make the case that it is a valid form of entertainment, and both ideas have some merit. But there has always been incredible stuff on television, from The Twilight Zone to Mad Men and Milton Berle to Archer. Now, when you watch something on your smartphone or tablet, think about how impressive it was that people thought about taking an image, shooting it across a sky and capturing it in all its glory – and that they made it happen.

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