Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What About Early Boob Tubes?

QUESTION: While helping a friend clean out his attic, I discovered he had an old television set. Though it was covered in dust, it looked like it may have been from the 1950s. When I asked him if I could have it, he said “Sure, I don’t want that piece of junk.” But now that I have it, I’m not sure what to do with it. The screen seems to be suspended in a U-shaped ring which sits atop a box with control knobs. It bears the name Philco Predicta.

ANSWER: You have one of the prime post-war television sets, dating from 1959. This famous set had a rather bad reputation. Although collectors love them for their sleek modern look, they couldn't overcome their performance problems. In fact, they often caught on fire. So you probably shouldn’t think about restoring it to working order.

But to truly understand the evolution of television sets, you need to understand a bit about their early history. In 1908 Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton, fellow of the Royal Society (UK), published a letter in the scientific journal Nature in which he described how "distant electric vision" could be achieved by using a cathode ray tube as both a transmitting and receiving device.

Originally, televisions were mechanical and simpler, consisting of a motor turning a spinning disk and a neon lamp. Scotsman John Logie Baird and American Charles Jenkins perfected the mechanical system in the mid-1920s. The projected image was only business-card size, but a magnifier enlarged the image.

Though Philo Farnsworth was working on an electronic television system in San Francisco during the late 1920s, it was engineer Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian immigrant working for RCA, who claimed the invention. However, the U.S. Patent Office gave the nod to Farnsworth in 1934 and RCA agreed to pay Farnsworth $1 million over the next 10 years to use his patents.

It's generally accepted that the 1938 DuMont Model 180 with a14-inch picture tube was the first commercially available electronic TV set in the United States. The 12-inch 1939 RCA Victor TRK-12 followed soon after, launching it at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In the set’s brochure, RCA claimed   the receiver would allow an average family to see a program simultaneously at a cost for electricity of about one cent per hour. Viewers actually watched the image on a mirror because the long picture tube was mounted vertically in the cabinet.

RCA dominated the pre-war U.S. television set production, as well as the postwar technology, until about 1948.

Color T.V. sets appeared in the mid-1950s. RCA began to manufacture the first "mass-produced" color TV in 1954, the CT-100, called "The Merrill,"and also licensed its technology to 70 competing manufacturers. However, Westinghouse beat it to market with its H840CK15, a 15-inch set priced at $1,250. The company produced only 500 and only a few of those sold.

The CT-100 debuted at $1,000, about $7,400 in today's dollars, a bit pricey for the average American household. Within months, RCA reduced its price to $495, then the company recalled most of them and swapped them out for a 21-inch model. Fewer than 5,000 CT-100s made it to retail stores and fewer sold. Only about 75 exist today, perhaps 25 in working condition. If you can find a CT-100, you'll pay about $5,000 for it.

Even so, by the end of 1957, only 150,000 color sets had sold. That’s because there wasn’t much to watch in color at the time. The first national color broadcast was of the 1954 Tournament of Roses Parade from Pasadena, California. But only a handful of TV studios were capable of color broadcasting, with the transition to color by local TV stations done slowly on a market-by-market basis. By 1960, only RCA remained producing color sets.

Things changed dramatically with the premiere of NBC's Sunday night Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in September 1961. Other major shows followed in the 1960s and color sales began to surge and competition roared again. CBS began regular colorcasts in the fall of 1965, and NBC became the first 100 percent color network in 1966. In 1967, sales of color TVs surpassed sales of black-and-white sets.

After a lengthy duel to the death over which color technology would rule in the United States, CBS's partially mechanical color system or RCA's all electronic one—RCA emerged victorious. The broadcasting industry adopted the National Television System Committee's electronic color TV system, which was compatible with existing black-and-white T.V. broadcasting in the early 1950s and is still used today.

Though T.V. sets in the 1960s used vacuum tube electronics, that all changed by the early 1970s when solid-state electronics appeared on the market. This allowed for significantly more reliable televisions with better picture quality.

Most collectors want TVs from the 1930s and 1940s just the way they are. However, non-collectors want sets from the 1950s and 1960s that have been color converted to go with their 1950s or 1960s retro decor and in working condition.

There are millions and millions of discarded sets out there, so not all will be worth collecting. But there are key sets throughout each decade that collectors want to own, including newer ones from the 1970s and 1980s. You can pick up an early postwar set on eBay for $100 to $300. With newly made replacement parts and a good supply of new old-stock vacuum tubes available, you might take a stab at restoring one yourself.

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