How TVs have changed through the decades (2023)

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Written by Matthew Wilson


How TVs have changed through the decades (1)

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  • Scottish engineer John Logie Baird invented the first working TV in 1924 and, five years later, the Baird Televisor went on sale.
  • Initially TVs were a luxury item for the wealthy, but thanks to price drops, sales were booming by the end of the 1940s, and by 1989, 60% of Americans had cable.
  • Throughout the last century, TV designs have changed from bulky to sleek, large to small — but not every new set has been a hit.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

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From "Who Shot JR?" to The Red Wedding, "I Love Lucy" to "Friends," TV has offered defining moments of pop culture and modern society. Together, viewers have witnessed tragedies like 9/11 and collective joys like the Moon Landing.

Television sets themselves have changed a lot in the past hundred years. What began as a large box with three channels and grainy images has evolved to high-definition flat screens with multitudes of content. Streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime continue to change the way people absorb media, often placing the power in the palm of a hand.

Lynn Spigel, a professor at Northwestern University and author of "Make Room for TV" and "TV by Design," believes there's a correlation between how we consume technology and the technology itself.

"Technology doesn't determine how we consume, but it does offer possible ways of consuming TV," she told Insider. "Often people who design TV technologies take cues from how people already use TV."

Keep scrolling to read more about TV's long, storied history — and to see how the sets themselves have changed through the years.

In the 1860s, decades before the creation of television, the pantelegraph became the first machine to transmit images electronically.

How TVs have changed through the decades (2)

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Invented by Italian physics professor Giovanni Caselli, the pantelegraph could transport drawings and notes across distances. Through the power of electrochemistry, images were reproduced from one area to another.

Scottish engineer John Logie Baird invented the first working TV in 1924, using any material he could find, such as cardboard, a bicycle lamp, and wax.

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Baird's first invention could transmit the outline of an image a few feet away.

In 1925, he demonstrated his invention to the public by successfully transmitting an image of a ventriloquist's dummy. After the experiment, he said, "The image of the dummy's head formed itself on the screen with what appeared to me an almost unbelievable clarity. I had got it! I could scarcely believe my eyes and felt myself shaking with excitement."

Baird showcased his invention in department stores.

The Baird Televisor became the first television sold commercially in 1929.

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One thousand devices were made. Using reflected light to create a low-resolution image, the TV had a screen about the size of a postage stamp.

The invention of the electric television by Philo Farnsworth soon made Baird and his mechanical television obsolete. The electric TV offered a better resolution and was easier to mass produce.

In the 1930s, the Marconi 702 was a luxury item only the rich could afford.

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The TV set sold for £100 ($130), which was half of an average annual salary in the 1930s.

A still-functioning Marconi 702 went up for auction in 2011 for thousands. In a twist of fate, the original owner was only able to watch it a few hours before a nearby transmitter in London burned down. Picture wasn't restore until a decade later in 1946, according to Time.

TV affordability remains an issue even today, although the model has changed. Spigel said the invention of services like cable and Netflix have altered the way people pay for their media consumption.

"There is also a class dimension to all this since broadband is expensive, as are subscription and cable services," Spigel said. "One big difference really is that TV used to be 'free' as long as you did the work of watching commercials."

His Master's Voice or HMV combined both radio and television together in the 1930s.

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Television was still an emerging technology.

There were only around 20,000 television sets in Britain during this time, according to Science & Society. Using a cathode ray tube, HMV went on sale in 1938 for 35 guineas.

The popularity of televisions like this Motorola Golden View boomed in the 1940s.

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Camerique Archive / Getty Images

Due to price drops, Americans were buying 100,000 TVs a week in 1949. The mania swept from the cities into rural areas where farmers got their first glimpse.

"We take it for granted today," one of the farmers, Harry Hankel, told Living History Farm. "Then, why, we didn't because it was something that never had happened before. We grow up with it here now. There we didn't. It come in you know and – it was just a different way of life, really."

In the late 1940s, broadcast stations started producing shows based on their radio serials for TVs such as the General Electric 807.

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The popular children's show of the decade was "The Howdy Doody Show." Another show that did well was "Texaco Star Theater," starring Milton Berle.

Four television networks – NBC, ABC, CBS, and DuMont – broadcast seven days a week, creating a prime-time schedule.

With more shows and technological improvements, TVs — like this Raytheon M 1601 — were more popular than ever in the 1950s.

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"I Love Lucy" was broadcast in almost every living room in America, reaching 67.3 million viewers. The first color television system began broadcast in 1953.

Companies continued to invent new technology such as the electronic remote control switch for the RCA Victor TV in 1960.

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The first TV remote was introduced to consumers in 1950.

One invention that failed to catch consumers' attention though, Spigel said, is the TV stove in the 1950s. The hybrid invention allowed housewives to watch television in the TV "window" and watch her chicken roast in the other oven window.

"This was marketed in 1953, at a time when networks and advertisers still thought women might not be able to juggle housework with TV watching," Spigel said.

Daytime television was introduced on receivers like the Philco Tandem Predicta in the 1950s and '60s.

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Catering to housewives, Spigel said the networks decided to conform to their routine and planned their broadcasting as a result.

"Segmented shows like 'The Today Show,' or segmented soaps let women dip in and out of watching TV while still doing housework," she said.

The 1960s brought creative and bizarre TV designs, including the home entertainment center.

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Made in West Germany, the Kuba Komet (seen above) was meant to fulfill all a consumer's entertainment needs. Reminscent of a sailboat in design, the Kuba Komet included both a phonograph and television tuner.

Though color television proved popular, price drops on black-and-white TVs like the Marconiphone monochrome receiver meant households could afford more than one set in the 1970s.

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The 1970s was also a revolutionary time for the power of television in the public's consciousness.

From the coverage of the Vietnam War to the Watergate scandal, TV held a magnifying glass up to what was happening in the world.Cable networks became popular in the mid-'70s as the number of channels at a person's disposal expanded from a few to many.

This expansion seen in the '70s and even today creates new opportunities, Spigel said. "The good part of it is that there's so much more room for diversity and different forms of expression now."

Created by Arthur Bracegirdle, the Keracolor Sphere embodies the spirit of the '60s and '70s.

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The Keracolor was a TV meant for the future. Its spherical Space Age design calls to mind films like Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Though the company closed in 1977, there were plans to release an updated model back in 2007.

The Sinclair Microvision was released in 1976, offering portable television for the first time.

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Spigel said, "For older generations, TV meant a box in the living room and a broadcast schedule with shows on at predictable times. Today TV is much less defined as a material thing and a schedule."

If Clive Sinclair had his way, this would have came a couple decades sooner. The Sinclair Microvision offered television on the go.

Similar in spirit to Sinclair's pocket television, the Seiko TV Watch claimed to be the smallest TV in the world.

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The Seiko Watch holds the 1983 Guinness Book of World Records title. It even took the spy world by storm, featuring in the 1985 James Bond film, "Octopussy."

No longer a new commodity, TVs such as the Philips 21St became a staple in most homes by the 1980s and '90s.

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Around 60% of households in America had cable by 1989, according to research by The Drum.

The invention of video games and VHS tapes in the '70s became even more popular over the next two decades. Americans celebrated pop culture together through the creation of channels like MTV and witnessed national tragedies like the Challenger explosion.

The first flat-screen TVs were an expense most people couldn't afford, but during the 2000s, they quickly began to replace the box television sets of old.

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High definition replaced standard definition. Smart TVs offered a combination of both traditional television and the plethora of growing streaming services.

Companies like Sony tested a new dimension in the living room with the creation of its 3D TVs in the 2010s.

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Another rising technology, Spigel said, streaming services and mobile platforms in the 2010s have changed the way people interact with screens.A person no longer needs a TV now to watch "television."

"TV is now often consumed outside the home, on small mobile screens, on jumbotrons at sports areas or other public spaces," Spigel said.

It has also led to increased interaction between the consumer and the media they consume.

"The ability to talk back to TV through apps and devices is also making interactivity more possibility—but also, interactive apps and devices don't necessarily create this—they tap into pre-exiting fan cultures around TV, and the participatory nature of communications more broadly," she said.

A few short years later, 4K flat screens are obsolete with the introduction of 8K resolution.

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Many people believe traditional television is on its death bed, but Spigel doesn't think so. She believes broadcast and cable television will survive by evolving with the medium.

"Since the broadcast networks have all gone streaming," she said, "they will likely survive in the changed 'media eco-system.'"

Matthew Wilson

Matthew is a freelance writer for Insider. Formerly, he was acontributing writer and Partnerships Fellow. Matthew is an Alabama native who completed his graduate studies at New York University. He previously worked at Esquire Magazine, Psychology Today, and USA TODAY.

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