History of the Television: From Tubes to Today

Television is such a huge part of our lives that it is hard to imagine that it is less than 100 years old. Yet as we inch ever closer to that century mark, we need to start thinking about how we got here. After all, by studying the patterns and progress of the past we can see where television is going. It’s an interesting story. There are plenty of huge leaps in technology, changing viewing patterns, along with infrastructure and cultural shifts.

If you just consider it now, there are more than 120 million households with televisions in the United States alone. Perhaps only the smartphone or computer has as much influence in daily life, and there is still a debate to be had there. Yet so few people know the past of this extremely important device. We hope we can change that with you reading this.

While we can’t go into every detail (we’d need several books for that), here’s a basic history of television and television programming to get you started.

Moving Pictures and The Idea of Television

While television wasn’t thought of by the public when it was being invented, by the 1920s and beyond going to the movies was a popular idea and concept, if not fully formed yet. People were eager for new forms of entertainment, and even silent movies were novel and a great way to spend a Sunday. People knew that it was possible to watch video programming of some form, but it was out of reach to many.

Furthermore, we had a lot of the base technology and ideas ready after all in the form of radio. Radios were common in homes at the time. In fact, they were often one of the main forms of entertainment and provided information to the masses. It wasn’t much different from television today. Radio dramas and comedies were common and popular. By 1930 they were a solid part of many Americans’ lives (they would continue to be a common thread while television was gaining popularity). The seeds of television were planted, much of the infrastructure was ready, and all we needed was for someone to water them and develop the idea of pictures being transmitted over the airwaves.

The First Televisions

This setup leads us to wonder: when was the first device we can call a television created? It might be tough to tell exactly depending on what you might describe as a television, but there are a few key points:

  • There was such a thing as a mechanical television. It used a series of rotating disks on both the side of the transmitter and receiver in order to get an image across a radio receiver. In addition, special equipment and lenses were required, and the image quality wasn’t the best, to say the least. While they existed in the 1800s, they can hardly be called televisions as we know them today. Nonetheless, images were transmitted, and it’s a fascinating point in the history of television.
  • There were advancements in this form of television, and models persisted until the mid-1930s. However, none of them were as good as what followed, and eventually, they were phased out entirely as obsolete.
  • In 1927 we got the birth of the first electronic television. It sought to convert images into code and then transmit that information via radio waves. This version of the television was invented by Philo Taylor Farnsworth. While it took time to develop (the first images transmitted were simple lines and dollar signs), it soon got to the point where whole programs or newscasts could be shown. These televisions were also the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) sets you might have heard about before. How they work is fascinating, and we encourage you to read this article on the subject.
  • While there were developments in both technologies for some time, it was not until 1938 that television sets were readily available to the public in a commercial format. There were improvements to be made for sure, but there was also some initial excitement over what was to come.
  • Alternatively, some might say that the first commercial television was available to the public from RCA in 1939, after a broadcast from the World’s Fair.

As with all cutting-edge technologies, it wasn’t a universal hit at the start in terms of sales. It was profoundly expensive at the time, the available programming was minimal at best, and the screen was small by any standard. On top of this, The Great Depression was still ongoing at this time: many homes were more worried about surviving than television. It was truly nothing like what we had today, but it was more a proof of concept and a good start to an industry.

Parallel to all of this, there is no television without television stations and programs. The first television stations came about in the late 1920s, with some operating for mechanical sets and others for electronic ones. There were only a couple of programs at best, and there were not many viewers. In fact, for the earliest shows, there was less than 100 viewers total. It was more of a test of the technology than actual entertainment, with more TVs in labs than anywhere else. Nonetheless, they were all important and we’re certain some lab workers were quite entertained.

While there were certainly options coming at the tail end of the 1930s along with slight improvements, it might not be until after WWII that we started to see some major developments. Sets were available on a large scale as factories made consumer goods again, but more on that later.

However, we would like to note here that there were developments outside of the United States as well. Thousands of sets were sold in England due to broadcasts of major events (King George VI’s coronation being one of them). It was a small number in comparison to the population, but far more than what we’ve seen before. The BBC, the first public and high-quality station, started broadcasting regularly on November 2, 1936, after some special broadcasts and experiments beforehand. In fact, some would say that television took off in the UK much faster than in the US up until 1950.

Basic Programming, Basic Options

A television set is just a fancy (and expensive) box without anything to watch on it. The stories you might have heard from your grandparents or great-grandparents about there not being much to watch on TV early on are true. There might have been only a couple of programs on a night over a couple of channels, depending on what year you were looking at. There were many hours of empty air, with only static to be found.

Eventually, the airwaves got a bit more crowded. Both with some local programming options and more mainstream programming that reached across the country. This also led to action such as the Fairness Doctrine to keep the debate on issues fair and other regulations on programming (the FCC grew in power during this time). It also led to the Communications Act of 1934, which ultimately shaped a lot of how we think about television today.

An interesting note parallel to these developments was that there were no commercials to speak of up until July 1st, 1941. The FCC approved commercial broadcasting, and there was a ten-second watch commercial that changed television forever. The FCC also started to require television stations to broadcast public service programming and announcements as needed. This led to some of the uses of television for important announcements we see today. If stations didn’t comply, they wouldn’t get a license to broadcast.

And while many would think there would be broadcasts all over the country and television would have a userbase throughout, this was unfortunately not the case. Most sets up until 1948 or so were sold in and around the New York region. Simply put, that’s where most of the networks and broadcast towers were located. Without the infrastructure and programming, there was no reason to get a television. The rest of the country would have to wait.

Hitting the Mainstream

After some time, the idea of the television as a purely luxury product and something of an experiment changed. People often felt they needed TVs, whether for the entertainment value, to simply have something to do, or to keep up with their neighbors and to have something to talk about. There was little else like it, and it was one of the best ways to have something novel in the home and have people over.

After some time, TV became something a little less niche, which led to both a greater variety of programming (there were nearly 100 total channels across the country in total by 1949) and more variety in sets. After the end of WWII, there was much greater demand, and people could see that television was going to be a part of everyday life for the foreseeable future. While we won’t go too much into the exact expansion of programming (that deserves an entirely different article entirely), people now had options, and options mean more people are interested in what television had to offer. It led to a cycle of expansion we’ll get into later.

A World in Color

Color television in some form or another has been around for a while, and in concept, it has been around for a very long time. After all, if you can transmit images, it isn’t a far leap to think that those images could be in color. There was a patent for a color television far before any television at all existed, though it was mostly for the idea.

CBS actually created the first color television, but there was one problem: it was a mechanical television, not really compatible with any of the frameworks set down over the previous decades. This wasn’t at all popular, though CBS did try to muscle the option onto the airwaves and into homes. It was ultimately unsuccessful. In contrast, RCA made a color television that fit the previous standards, and in 1953 this standard was adopted as the norm by the FCC and soon the American public.

And as you can imagine, there was a period of time when turnover was necessary. Since color TV wasn’t hugely popular at first, many shows, producers, and networks didn’t need to make the investment in the tech needed to make color content and transmit it yet. After the first few sets came out, not much changed.

Yet just like the transition to HD and 4K resolutions that happened in recent decades, color TV eventually became the standard. All shows turned to color eventually (The Twilight Zone or Mister Rogers Neighborhood were perhaps the last notable holdouts of the transition). By 1965, though, when color programming was the absolute norm, color television sets sold at a rapid pace.

The Remote Control

At this point, it would be wise to talk about an important development: the remote control. For the first few decades of its existence, people had to go up to the set to change the channel. It perhaps wasn’t as big a deal as you might think it would be for today, given that there weren’t so many channels, but it was an inconvenience for people with sets. There was a device called the Tele Zoom made in 1948, but it couldn’t change channels or even turn the TV on. All it could do was zoom in on the picture on the screen. It was a stepping stone, but not much of a remote.

The first proper wireless remote control was made in 1955, and it was a hit. Of course, it would not hit the complete mainstream until sometime later, though now many people are barely able to use their television sets without a remote. Some sets made today hardly have buttons anymore. There’s a power button and maybe a couple on the side, and that’s it.

Yet, of course, those first remote controls have nothing on what we have available today, with full smart remotes able to not only control the TV but our entire entertainment center and much of the house on top of it.

Immense Growth

And then came cable, and cable changed everything, even if it didn’t look like it at the start. Cable itself was around for some time, but that is a profoundly interesting story for another article. Suffice it to say, it was local networks bound together with their own sets of community antennas. Shortly after, communities would put antennas in the best spots in order to capture faraway signals, increasing programming options for people connected to the system.

Yet moving back to the more modern growth of cable, the expansion turned television into something with more niche interests and tastes and allowed networks and channels to show a greater variety of content. Movies could regularly be shown as well as special and pay-per-view events. And while we will not go too deep into content as opposed to the technology, what we can say is that there was much more of a reason to invest in a good set.

Television became a much greater industry than before (and it was already pretty big). Advertisers got even more into the industry and channels were able to charge cable companies more for the packages. Pay per view and premium channels such as HBO became available in certain regions and for paying customers. That further allowed for the showing of content that would otherwise be regulated or censored. This was perhaps a good thing. By the tail end of the 70s, quite a few customers were starting to get bored with television in general. They wanted something new and better than what they were used to.

Yet across all of the years, there was another trend that is worth sharing: television, which was more heavily local in the past, was becoming a national enterprise. Sure there are regional differences that go on today, but ultimately what is shown in one part of the country is shown everywhere else, especially on major networks (local news being the exception). The programming for kids on Nickelodeon or the news on CNN wasn’t going to change much whether you were in Washington or Maine.

The 90s and Further Growth

In terms of television technology, the 90s might seem relatively boring, but it was an important time of growth for cable, solidified the idea that everyone had a TV (about 98 percent of homes had a set of some sort), and brought more homes into using pay-per-view as a vehicle for special events.

The biggest development of the 80s and 90s was the birth of digital television. Analog signals could only do so much. These developments would give consumers more options to be able to support more than one program at once on a signal. Additionally, it could support a higher resolution (something that would be important soon). By 1990, it was proven that a digital standard was possible, safe, and stable. It would still be some time until the transfer became complete. Much of the infrastructure and equipment had to change over. The progress on this is still ongoing in some countries. However, in the United States, we can safely say that digital television, and the benefits it provides, are the norm.

Around the turn of the century, people started to get even more usage out of their TVs. DVDs started getting released regularly in 2000 and quickly became popular. The higher quality movies and shows available made better TVs a better thing to have. Video game consoles, more advanced entertainment centers, and more also became the norm, bringing more people into the living room more often. Prestige television started to become popular, with many miniseries and series reaching the same quality as feature films. People had more control over their sets and more options open to them, making the television an even more essential part of the home, with multiple sets becoming more common and necessary with larger families.

And partially because of all these developments, television sets were built to accommodate these new devices and features, with more ports, higher resolutions, and more. While earlier televisions might have only had sound-related ports, what was needed for cable, and maybe one more port, new TVs were built with the full entertainment system in mind. That hasn’t changed to this day.

Smart TVs and Online Developments

While there are some huge changes when flat screens became commonplace (if not standard), the real major change of the last generation was the creation of the smart TV, combining the methods of the past with the luxuries and utility of the future. The first ones didn’t seem terribly impressive and didn’t have much they could work with. After all, the Internet of Things wasn’t in full swing, streaming services were still figuring out their models and creating apps, and people weren’t fully aware of what was possible.

The first Smart TV is a matter of contention, based on how you define the term. There were “smart” TV receivers in the early 1980s, taking advantage of new computer technology. These devices could not only receive the programming but some additional information provided over the lines. By the mid-1990s, though, we started to see more of the features that Smart TVs are known for today, with the ability to automatically update themselves, use apps (though in a limited capacity), and make the most of digital television. These early smart TVs were mostly niche devices.

Yet the smart TV grew in popularity, and nearly every set made has some smart or online capabilities. And as more apps were developed and it made more sense for companies to buy into the capabilities of Smart TVs, the more useful they became.

This leads us to where we are now. Smart TVs are the norm, they are used as much for other apps or connections as for television, and people are still experimenting with what is possible on them. There is still so much that is possible and fine-tuning to be done, and we can only wonder if the technology used in phones and tablets will be used more in TV sets, to the point where the only distinguishing feature between all these devices is the screen size.

Television in the Future

Now that we’ve looked at the past and the present, what can we possibly expect from the future? There will be a future, of course, but to some, it feels like television can’t go much further, and cannot break many more barriers. And while there might be some truth to this, there is a lot to be said about content delivery and the changes to the entertainment industry with the advent of the internet. And as always, technology is ever-improving. Here are a few things to consider or look forward to, even if they are basic trends:

  • In many ways, we can expect more of the same. Higher resolutions will become more commonplace. We will see regular slight improvements in color, lighting, and other things. In cases where there might not be an all-around improvement, we will see more options.
  • As always, today’s technology will get cheaper over time, the cutting edge will become affordable, and progress continues ever onward. Much like you’ve already seen, better TVs will get cheaper. This will raise the bar overall and force more competitive pricing features over time.
  • There is no avoiding the influence of streaming services, on-demand content, and online features when it comes to television. Consumers rightfully expect it at this point, and practically every television set sold is a smart TV of some variety. Television manufacturers will need to start thinking more about how they can cater to this type of content and how they can stay relevant when other screens and forms of entertainment are becoming more popular. Televisions aren’t going away, for certain, but they might not be as important.
  • Traditional cable might give way to more customizable packages, to compete with the number of people just cutting the cord and using a bevy of streaming services instead. While there is some customization for premium channels at the moment, we can expect this to go to the next step as time goes on.
  • While there were attempts to bring 3D TV and even VR programming to the mainstream, they weren’t as successful as some would hope. For the moment traditional programming will be the focus, but we could see a change of that type if it can go mainstream, be accessible, and truly enhance the entertainment experience. Only time will tell if we get something.
  • The area that might be getting the most speculation is advertisements on television. To the consumer, they are a clear negative, and most online content is or can be ad-free. Why spend 6-8 minutes watching ads for a 20-minute program when you can get it on demand whenever you want or just skip the ads using DVR? Networks and cable providers are going to have to answer this question sooner rather than later.


We understand that this is a lot and we couldn’t get to every detail, but there’s a lot of TV and TV history to cover. In truth, we barely covered huge shows, game-changing channels, and could only talk about the major technologies that make television what it is today. There is so much more information out there, and we encourage you to investigate anything that interests you! We hope that the above information served as a good primer. We also hope that you have a better understanding and relationship with your television.

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