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The evolution of television technology explained

Television's impact on global entertainment is profound and evolving with key milestones and advancements that shape its pivotal role in daily life.

Televisions are a staple of modern homes around the world, and television content is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 21st century. However, televisions have come a long way over the past century.

Statista forecasts that 2024 will see the number of global television viewers grow to more than 5.5 billion, while American viewers watched nearly three hours of television a day in 2023. Many viewers get their news from television broadcasts, but TV is also one of the preferred mediums for prestige content. Even with the growth of other screen formats, such as smartphones and tablets, television remains a default choice of activity for people worldwide. Today, the ubiquity of smart TVs means there's little to no difference between a television screen and a computer screen.

It wasn't always this way. TV technology has evolved from the first moving images of the 1920s to the smart TVs of the 21st century. Black and white transmissions gave way to color TV, just as once-grainy images improved to today's higher resolution standards. Even the way we watch TV has changed, from groups clustered around a single TV set to watch momentous occasions such as the moon landing, to families settling in for nightly broadcasts of their favorite TV shows. Now, individual viewers instantly stream their preferred content on demand.

In 2024, innovations continue in television technology. At the 2024 Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung announced its latest product: a transparent MicroLED TV. The screen looks like a sheet of glass when not in use but displays incredibly high-definition images thanks to its high pixel density. LG also demoed its new OLED T product at CES 2024, which claims to be the first wireless transparent OLED TV and comes with 4k resolution. While Samsung's MicroLED TV costs $150,000 for the 110" model -- keeping it from the mass market for now -- it's a clear sign of the next phase in TV technology.

Evolution of television technology

It can be easy to forget television wasn't always so technically advanced and popular. The earliest iterations were small yet bulky, a world away from today's ultra-thin screens. Yet they were the first step in a continuing journey of development. First, engineers and scientists had to discover how to produce moving images at all; the first photograph wasn't invented until 1822. As with most technological discoveries, several unconnected people were working on this problem at once, yet they all ultimately converged on the technology that we know today as television.

Once the mechanics of electronic television were determined, finessing the technology followed: greater clarity, color displays, more portable formats and additional smart functionality. While developments in the latter part of the 20th century focused more on the viewing experience and the technology's aesthetic, the beginning of the 21st century has seen the convergence of the internet and television. To fully understand these advancements in television, it's important to track its history from the beginning.

1880s-1890s: Laying the groundwork

There were two key technologies developed in the 20th century that paved the way for television: the cathode-ray tube (CRT) and the mechanical scanner system.

Karl Ferdinand Braun invented CRT in 1897, which is why the earliest version was sometimes known as the Braun tube. The cathode-ray tube combined electricity and cameras, generating visible light when a beam of electrons hits its fluorescent screen. This later became what we know as the TV picture tube.

Paul Nipkow created the mechanical scanner system a decade earlier in the 1880s. It involved a perforated metal disc that rotated, allowing light to pass through a series of holes as it moved. These pinpoints of light created pictures that could be transmitted as electronic lines; these pictures were the first television frames.

While both forms of technology required several iterations before they resembled the television we know today, they were important discoveries used as the basis for future experimentation by other engineers and scientists.

1900s-1920s: Mechanical TV vs. electronic TV

There was a brief period of competition between two types of television: mechanical and electronic. John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer, pioneered mechanical TV. He used Nipkow's mechanical scanner system as the foundation for his invention. This television used rotating metal disks to convert moving images to electrical impulses, which were then sent via cable to a screen. The result was a low-resolution pattern of light and dark, which nevertheless traveled a considerable distance; in 1928, Baird transmitted a signal between London and New York. He also publicly showcased the technology in the department store Selfridges in London in 1926. Following this success, the British Broadcasting Corporation decided to use his system in 1929. Baird turned his mechanical television into a commercial product by 1932.

Around the same time, an electronic television set was also being developed. American teenager Philo Farnsworth utilized CRT technology to scan an image with an electric beam, allowing for near-instantaneous reproduction on another screen in 1927. The electronic TV produced an image with a higher resolution than the mechanical TV. Also, the technology was cheaper to produce, which gave it a competitive edge.

Another key figure in the development of electronic television was Kenjiro Takayanagi, a high school student in Japan who demonstrated a working television system with a CRT display in 1926. He didn't patent his invention, so he didn't benefit financially from the invention. Farnsworth, too, reaped little financial benefit; the United States government suspended the sale of television sets during World War II, and his patent expired shortly thereafter.

1928-1940s: Broadcasting begins

Though both mechanical and electronic television were just recently launched, television broadcasts quickly followed. The Federal Radio Commission, soon replaced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934, approved the first broadcast from the experimental station W3XK in Maryland in 1928, run by inventor Charles Jenkins. In the next few years, a few stations broadcast images, such as silhouettes from motion picture films. However, it wasn't until 1939 that the National Broadcast Company (NBC) became the first network to deliver regular programming. Early broadcasts were limited to the New York area and only reached a few hundred TV sets due to low levels of TV ownership.

Although television was an exciting invention, it was still very expensive prior to World War II. Most people could not afford to buy their first television set in the 1930s, even though there were several different models on sale at major department stores like Macy's and Bloomingdale's. These featured much smaller displays, sometimes as small as five inches, and the threat of war meant many people were spending conservatively and viewed TV as a luxury, not a necessity.

Other broadcasting companies, like Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), emerged, which prompted the FCC to create a single technical standard for television sets. This ensured that every set received the transmissions of various networks. At this time, the FCC required all broadcasts to use analog television signals. This remained in place until 2009, when broadcasts switched to digital signals. However, World War II diverted attention from commercial television to military electronic equipment. In response, many networks chose to reduce their broadcast frequency or shut down altogether.

1950s: Color television arrives

The technology for color TV was discussed as early as 1904, but it was Baird's 1928 mechanical TV design that clearly proposed a system with three primary colors of light: red, green and blue. In 1940, CBS researchers advanced this idea to create a system that displayed those colors on a screen. Post-World War II, the rest of the television industry followed these developments in mechanical TV. In the early 1950s, the National Television System Committee developed a color system for electronic television compatible with black-and-white sets. This led to the first color broadcast by NBC in 1954.

Adoption by the general public was much slower. Color television wasn't widespread for another decade, and many families still owned a black-and-white set into the 1970s and beyond. Due to the high prices of early television sets, every family simply couldn't replace their old set in lockstep with each technology development. As long as the in-color broadcasts also played in black and white, there was no big incentive to upgrade until it became the cultural norm.

1960s: The dawn of cable

Following World War II, manufacturing advancements used for military efforts were adopted by commercial companies. It became much cheaper to produce televisions, which made them more accessible to the general public. By 1950, there were approximately 6 million television sets in the United States. With a much larger audience available, television broadcasts became more creative, and content expanded beyond just the news. The growth of magazine formats soon saw the introduction of the Today show and The Tonight Show, while adaptations of theater pieces also gained popularity.

However, initial broadcasts, which required sufficient signal reception, only reached major metropolitan areas. More rural or remote areas accessed the three main channels -- if at all -- thanks to cable antennas erected in high locations, which then dispersed signals to connected homes. Eventually, the popularity of much of the metro areas' additional television content made it clear there was a valuable opportunity to extend the cable network.

Due to cable's perceived threat to local broadcasting stations, the FCC stepped in and placed restrictions on cable networks, creating a brief period of stagnation for cable TV into the early 1970s. Eventually, cable networks went through deregulation, and the first paid TV model emerged, allowing subscribers to choose to pay for access to premium content via cable networks. The first model of this kind was Home Box Office, which launched in 1972 and used satellite signals for even greater reach across America.

1990s-2000s: Digital television

For decades, television broadcasts were required to use analog signals, which means signals that could be distributed via cable, airwaves or satellite. These images were often poor quality and vulnerable to distortion and static, which became increasingly evident as television sets grew larger. Meanwhile, advances in other kinds of transmitted images, notably the digital technology being created in Japan, stirred the US broadcast industry. It lobbied the FCC to reverse its ruling on analog-only signals. The 1990s was a rich period of development for digital television, but it took years to replace analog.

The benefits of digital television included a sharper-quality image and reduced frequency requirements. After an investigative period of 20 years, the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Services decided to switch the nationally required broadcast format from analog to digital in 2009. Once the transition period ended, older analog TV sets were unable to access broadcast signals without a special converter. The analog broadcast systems were sold to wireless networks.

2000s: High-definition TV

The switch to digital signals wasn't the television industry's sole pursuit of better-quality pictures. In the 1990s, Japanese inventors first introduced high-definition television (HDTV), which initially went on sale in 1998 for thousands of dollars per television set. This higher-quality image uses far more pixels per square inch of display, creating a more realistic image for the viewer. Over the next few years, this technology became more affordable to produce and cheaper for the general public. By 2010, many consumers had an HDTV.

These TVs helped create a focal point for the living room, providing a richer experience than the smaller, grainy models of the past. Not just that, but modern TVs have quickly become more than just a surface to watch films on: These TVs are also great displays to use for video games, which are immersive by design and therefore benefit from a high-resolution picture.

Films and television content also moved from VHS tapes to higher-quality DVDs. To fully enjoy these improvements, many viewers purchased the newest televisions that supported this higher-quality image.

2010s: Smart TVs

The internet and the television set converged in the last decade, as personal computers became more advanced and online videos became more popular. Suddenly, people were creating and uploading video content to the internet. However, at the time, they couldn't watch the content on their television unless they connected the two manually via cables. This was also around the time Netflix switched from being a DVD rental company to streaming its video library digitally, eventually producing its own original content. Still, viewers could only watch this content on their computers, since it wasn't possible to access it on a standard television.

To address this, the newest iteration of televisions received smart capabilities, which allow them to connect to the internet and access video material via streaming. These TVs can host many different apps, which in turn host thousands of different pieces of content. This includes nonvisual mediums, such as connecting to music players, gaming and other interactive activities. In this way, the gap between computers and modern televisions continues to shrink.

Madeleine Streets is a senior content manager for Custom Content at TechTarget. She has also been published in 'TIME,' 'WWD,' 'Self' and 'Observer.'

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