Gallery 6:
Rise of Television

Here, in what used to be the living room of Harmel House, you will see examples from the first two decades of television development. In the late 1920s a number of inventors promoted “scanning disc television,” in which the picture was created by light shining through a rapidly spinning metal disc with a spiral set of holes punched into it. An actual 1931 scanning disc television kit made by See-All is displayed next to a demonstration model of the scanning disc television system of Scottish inventor John Logie Baird. Local (Washington, DC) inventor C. Francis Jenkins invented an alternative scanning system utilizing horizontal scanning lines. The See-All receiver and nearly all subsequent television receivers, from to the earliest black and white sets to modern flat panel digital sets utilize horizontal scanning.

Next to the See-All is a large wooden receiver made by RCA in 1940. One like it was displayed at the New York World’s Fair. Why is the picture tube mounted vertically? Because early video tubes were very long and if the tube opened to the front of the receiver, it would be even further from the wall. The picture was electronically reversed so it would appear normal when viewed in the mirror. As with most early console television sets, this one included a radio as well. Only the wealthy could afford a receiver like this, made a year before the inception of regular television broadcasting.

Another wall displays typical black-and-white television sets of the late 1940s and early 1950s. One small table-top RCA set dates from 1947 and was the most popular post-war set. Its ten-inch screen was typical for the time and the receiver cost about $150 when new (ten times that in today’s dollars). The console receivers that make up the rest of this wall were made in the early 1950s, one of them sold by famed retailer “Mad Man” Muntz who bragged of his low prices.

Featured in front of the room’s fireplace is a famous example of television design, the Philco “Predicta” receiver of 1959. Not only did it look different, with the tube separate and mounted on the top, but it featured one of television’s first remote controls (you can see the cable, intended to pass under a room carpet, coiled up behind the receiver). Being able to change channels without actually getting up and going over to the receiver dials was a marvel in its time.

Next to the fireplace are two large (and heavy!) receivers that demonstrate a landmark in television—the coming of color.  These are two of the earliest consumer color sets and would have sold for about $1000 in 1954–55 (perhaps six times that in today’s values). Color receivers were not only expensive but they were notoriously difficult to tune. They nearly always required professional installation and a roof-top antenna. You will see several set-top antennas in this room, some of them classic “rabbit ear” antennas to aid in reception of nearby stations.

When the receivers in this room were sold and used, cable television was almost unheard of. Most communities had only two or three channels from which to choose—only New York and Los Angeles had seven or eight. Until the mid-1960s, most programming and advertising was televised only in black-and-white. Displayed on the walls are games based on popular television programs of the time.