TVs through the years: 1939 NY World's Fair to digital screens
Both of the New York World's Fairs in the 20th Century were watershed moments in the history of television technology. Millions of visitors flocking to Flushing-Meadows Park in Queens were introduced to television and its potential during the 1939-1940 fair, while in 1964-1965 many got to walk through the wondrous television studio set up by RCA and see a color broadcast for the first time. More than any events, the two fairs succeeded in getting the masses excited about the magic box that has helped create today's couch surfers and binge-watchers. Here are the key moments in the history of television technology, from 1939 and beyond.
Americans watched the birth of the TV era at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair
On April 30, 1939, the day that New York’s World Fair opened, the American public was introduced to the first U.S. television broadcast as President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech to welcome thousands of attendees. Television sets at the fairgrounds at Flushing Meadows Park carried the live broadcast via the NBC network. Each day after brought new wonders from the magic box that became one of the main attractions of the “World of Tomorrow,” which the fair purported to showcase. No surprise that RCA began selling TV sets shortly after that first broadcast.
(Credit: Courtesy New York Public Library)
This beauty was among the first mass-produced TVs
The RCA 630-TS is considered the first mass-produced television. When it hit the market in 1946, the black-and-white set had a 10-inch screen and went for less than $400 at the time — or about $4,475 in 2013. Sales were reportedly around 10,000 units by the end of the year.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Fletcher6)
By the early 1950s, more than 50 percent of Americans had TVs
And many of the TV sets tended to look a lot like furniture, so they would look nice in the living room. Some models came in mahogany or walnut cabinets; others were combined with AM/FM radios and record players. RCA, Zenith and dozens of other companies were selling millions of sets.
Color TVs were being sold in the US by 1954
In 2007, Wired magazine called the RCA CT-100 “the greatest gadget of all time.” Brought to market in 1954, the set was one of the first mass-produced color televisions and cost about $1,000 at the time. But color wouldn’t become widely available in broadcasts for years to come and the sets were pricey and cumbersome to operate. Black-and-white would dominate for years to come.
(Credit: Early Television Museum)
By the late 1950s, TVs were getting groovier
Companies were slowly getting away from the TV-in-a-cabinet look by the late 1950s. Longtime set maker Philco introduced its line of Predicta models toward the end of the decade as “the most advanced” television of its time. Screens were “sculpted in glass, gleaming brass and polished wood.” The Tandem model, pictured here, separated the set with its speaker and controls from the screen. “For the first time in television history, you can put the picture wherever you want it,” an ad for the set proclaimed.
And easier to use from afar
Other innovations included the first wireless remote. The Zenith Flash-Matic looked like a laser gun — and might has well have been an early prototype for one. Using a beam of light, the user could zap on and off their TV receiver, select stations and turn the sound on or off. “All you have to do is sit back in your favorite chair and let a weightless and invisible extension of your arm perform the tuning functions, quick as a flash,” the manual read. But the Flash-Matic proved unreliable. Zenith would later introduce its Space Commander remote, which used sound waves instead.
(Credit: Zenith manual)
As well as smaller
Philco, which had innovated in television design with its Predicta series, also introduced the first truly portable television called the Safari. “Take it anywhere — enjoy it anywhere!” an ad for the 15 lb set read.
Color TV really blew up at the 1964-65 World's Fair
Industry decided to make 1964 the year of color television, and bring it to the masses via the massive commercial platform of the New York World’s Fair. RCA again spearheaded the effort, creating a splash at its pavilion with its color TV studio where attendees were taped “live.”
By the 1970s color TVs were outselling black-and-white boxes
It could be argued that after its coming out party at the World’s Fair, there was no turning back from color. By the early 1970s, color sets were outstripped black-and-white ones. This Zenith System was popular at the time and featured “ultra-contemporary styling,” a brushed aluminum base and metal finished frame. The company declared it “the best Zenith ever.”
The next big change in TV tech came in 1998: digital
The biggest change in television since the arrival of color became the transition to digital from analog beginning in 1998. Initially, digital sets were priced astronomically from approximately $4,000 to $10,000. Eventually prices came down. Digital led to better picture quality and thinner television sets as well as a proliferation of acronyms that few people except sales people would come to understand intimately like LCD and OLED. Don’t even get us started on plasma …
The future of TV could be 3D — or maybe not
The third dimension has eluded set makers for decades, even though the technology to produce 3-D goes back to the 1800s when stereoscope was first invented. The need for goggles or glasses, along with poor picture quality and a scarcity of broadcast content, has basically kept the 3-D TV market in a state of could-have-been. “It doesn't look as natural as people were expecting,” said Steve McVoy, the founder of the Early Television Museum in Ohio. But he said he thinks the third dimension might be achieved through other means. “Holographic TV is going to come at some point,” he added.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons/LG)