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article imageDéjà Vu: 50 Years of Colour Television

By David Silverberg     Sep 9, 2004 in Technology
TORONTO (djc Features) — Critics sneer about “sucking at the glass teat.” Devotees bask obliviously in its prime-time glow. But for decades, television has impacted TV lovers and haters alike with information, entertainment and bad infomercials.
Whatever one’s view, this year marks a milestone worth commemorating — the 50th anniversary of what separates the vibrant from the dull, the grey suit from the rainbow dreamcoat: colour television.
Preliminary designs began in 1946, when CBS employee Peter Goldman created colour pictures by spinning a red-blue-green wheel in front of a cathode ray tube. This mechanical method was first used three years later to broadcast medical surgeries in Pennsylvania and Atlantic City hospitals. Several viewers fainted when they saw these surgeries in colour, contradicting our current obsession with gruesome reality programming. Goldman’s design never caught interest, though, and soon the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) began producing colour TV sets based on its own Dot Sequential Colour System.
Developing the tricolour tube and receiver has been heralded as an inventing triumph rarely equalled. Three electron guns shot beams of blue, red and green phosphor dots at an aperture placed behind the TV faceplate. RCA’s first 12-inch CT-100 hit the market in early 1954, consumed 475 watts and sold for $1,000 (US), an astronomical price in those days. The technology was constantly tweaked to improve colour balance and power consumption. Advances in external circuitry and transistors, plus replacing phosphors with sulfides, helped elevate colour TV to what we recognize today.
High price and unreliable picture quality kept early sales modest, but in 1967 colour outsold black-and-white for the first time in the U.S. — more than 5.3 million units — and by 1973, more than half of all households had colour TV sets. In Canada, soon after colour TV was introduced, more than 50 hours of colour programming reached 15 million Canadians weekly.
The $90-million project to create colour television rippled from coast to coast. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade was the first national broadcast to go colour on New Year’s Day, 1954. The Miss America Pageant in June the same year saw the first network transmission of 35mm colour film. In 1961, the premiere of Walt Disney’s World of Colour jolted colour TV sales incredibly, even though countless shows, sports events and presidential addresses had been broadcast previously in the new format.
Consider the progress colour TV has paved. What once dropped jaws — “A colour baseball game? Well, I’ll be darned” — has now been jazzed up by space-age innovations such as high-definition TV and plasma. But go even more micro and look at how colour TV has spoiled us. When a black-and-white film crosses our channel surfing, the images look old-fashioned, dusty, early Twilight Zone. Would a monochrome Super Bowl even attract a million viewers today? Would cartoons like The Simpsons or Family Guy even exist without the invention of a boob tube palette?
While we toast colour TV with Cheers (the comedy, of course), the face of this device is changing. Now it’s called “home theatre.” Its shows can be Tivo’d, for especially rabid fans. The screens stretch wider across living room walls, as if asking us to pay more attention to their phosphorous aura. We watch an average of 70 days worth of TV per year. So it looks like we’ll keep on sucking on that glass teat until we can’t stomach any more.

This article is part of Digital Journal's national edition. Pick up your copy of Digital Journal in bookstores across Canada. Or subscribe to Digital Journal now, and receive 8 issues for $19.95 + GST ($39.95 USD).
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