Retrotechtacular: Designing and Building RCA Televisions

waveformWhile it’s almost cliché to say they don’t make things like they used to, this week’s Retrotechtacular offers fairly conclusive proof that, at the very least, they used to put more time and effort into manufacturing consumer electronics. Gather your homemade wisecrackin’ robots and settle in front of this 1959 film entitled “The Reasons Why”, a rah-rah film created for new employees of the RCA Victor television division.

It may open with a jingle, but things quickly turn serious. Quality is no laughing matter for the men and women devoted to bringing you the best television set for your money. This type of unmatched excellence begins with tireless R&D into improving sound and picture quality. Every transformer is tested at five times the rated voltage, and every capacitor at two times the rating. Every switch undergoes a series of mechanical tests, including a pressured steam bath to ensure they will hold up even if you drag your set out to the porch some unbearably hot deep South August night.

hot august nights

Cabinet design is just as important—what’s the use in housing a chassis and kinescope that’ll last for 60 years in some cheap box? Woods from all over the world are carefully considered for their beauty and durability. A television set is, after all, the centerpiece of the American family room furniture group. These carefully selected woods are baked in a series of ovens to prove they’ll stand up to hours of continuous use.

sound testingThis rigorous, Consumer Reports-type testing is performed on every component of every television set. Each vacuum tube is beaten with corks, and every shadow mask is inspected microscopically. One by one, each set’s volume is tested in a special room with a moving microphone. Once a set is finally completed, they spin it on a turntable in a shed to test the likelihood of interference with other sets. These are just a few of the reasons why, if nothing else, American manufacturing was undoubtedly expensive.

[Thank you to Hernandi for sending this in]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

33 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Designing and Building RCA Televisions

  1. Short time ago i dumpster-dived an analog multimeter made in the fifties. That smell when taking it apart… *sniff* aaah… wonderful!
    I really love the retrotechtacular posts. Without being too nostalgic, but in the older days more stuff was built for ages and to withstand a third world war.
    Now i prefer using the analog multimeter over the cheap digital one, it still works perfectly and without batteries.

      1. Back then most stuff were hand assembled and often they lasted. Today they are built by machine and without the human touch, mistakes will slip in and degrade the quality.

        1. I have alot of the older tube-type radios. To this day they still function beautifully. Even scored an old 70s era Weston 1240 DMM on eBay (Beauty with a Nixie readout!). The amount of workmanship that went into these old boys is a testament to how American ingenuity used to be. Now we’re in a world of Chinese throw-away junk.

        2. I don’t know if that’s it. Mostly, I think, it’s that stuff has way more parts which are much smaller, solid state, and not repairable. Things also cost less in terms of percentage of disposable income, so there’s a different design goal in electronics manufacturing. If my TV gives out after 10 years and I have to buy a new one, that’s OK. I’d have probably wanted a new one anyway.

      2. Rubbish
        I was born in 1960 and remember watching my father taking a bag of tubes to Sears to use the tester, Tvs worked until the tubes went bad. I had my TV made overseers I bought in 1995 for until I replaced it with an Used LCD in 2012.

      3. This is the survivorship fallacy. The same thing happens with old houses: the ones that were built to last, lasted; the ones that weren’t *fell the fuck down.* A century later, only the well-made ones are left, so if you naively took them for representative of the era you’d think all houses back then were well made, when this is very much not the case.

        Now, I’d agree that some products no longer have product lines that are as spectacularly overbuilt like they used to be, but in the case of consumer electronics this is because the technology changes fast enough that for the most part the buyers don’t want or need them to last for decades. In many other cases it’s because modern computer design and testing techniques let the manufacturers *realize* they were overbuilding things.

    1. The Beckmann digital multimeter I bought in 1982 retired a couple of years back because the big selector switch finally starting to wear. Divide the cost/30 service years, it works out a lot cheaper than cheap stuff you get at a hardware store.

      I bought a MIT (Made in Taiwan) multimeter for about $250. Its built quality was so-so, but it packs a lot of features. – RMS measurement, capacitance, Frequency counter, 5 digits mode, limited range square wave generator. I barely uses it and kept it in a box as I use a low ended Fluke for most work now.

  2. Hey RCA, whatever happened to that partners in quality mantra? I wonder, is there a corollary video for today that is filled with a bunch of non-American races and the mention of women too?
    Sign of the times I guess :)

    1. ” non-American races”
      Funny but in your rant to point out racism you are being racist. What is a non-American race? Do you mean Hispanic? I know people of Hispanic decent that have been in the US since before that part of the US was the US. Do you mean people of African descent? Maybe people of Asian descent? Again some have been in the US for a century or more… There no such thing as an American race unless you mean native americans but even they are from someplace else of you go back far enough. So with no American race there can be no non-American races.

      Yes that video was a sign of the times. Of course people got paid enough in manufacturing back then that only one parent “the father” had to work to make a good living.

      1. @lwatcdr your novice histories of the sociocultural composition of The Americas gives the Internet cancer. stick to the topic and stop demonstrating your misguided would-be sensitivity heroics.

      2. I was just trying to keep from saying a bunch of countries and or races (EX. Asians, Indians, Hispanics, Africans, Amharans, China, India, Mexico, Africa, Ethiopia). Perhaps I watch too much american dad.. although, I would really consider anyone living in America naturalized etc. to be of the American Race. Either that, or perhaps the problem is you casting your racism onto my intentions? Would an amicable compromise be “American People”, “Dwellers of North America”, or “Living things currently working and or residing in the landmass formerly known as the New World”?

        1. No, the problem is your misunderstanding of the word “race” causing you to produce weirdly ambiguous posts. Race, ethnicity, and nationality are not interchangeable. If you’re going to use any of those terms in non-standard ways you need to either carefully and *explicitly* define them, or resign yourself to being misunderstood.

          1. Thank you BFB. Race is a species classification. We are all of the human race (my apologies to those of you from off-world…we won’t talk about that)… we are all of the same species and subspecies, thus, linguistically we are all of the *same* race. We are of multiple ethnicities, depending on our genetic composition. We are each from a country of birth (or of our parent’s/grandparent’s birth, depending on local laws/customs) which is our nationality.

            Falling prey to the fallacy of there being multiple races within humanity (a black race, an asian race, a white race, etc…) is a throwback to the dark days of prejudice/racism/eugenics… and goes to the heart of the fear of “the other”. We’ve moved beyond that as humans (most of us), and I shudder whenever we use the terms that were formerly used to enslave/elevate us.

    2. RCA is gone – long gone. If you watch the whole video there are actually a few non male WASPs shown assembling the units. More racially diverse than how TVs are tested, or assembled today.

    3. A quiz to US people, guess the largest country in the world?
      You guessed right, the world.

      The US is a miserable splint of the 60th’s
      Today Europe and Asia rules the world.

      You know what, I run a GM car.
      And guess, it sucks, poor manufacturing and cheap work.
      You lost your pride.

      In the rest of the world we take pride in our work and are good at what we do.
      Damn good too.

      1. Very few of us here in the USA have much use for modern GM vehicles… I swore them off forever 5 years ago and haven’t looked back, and I’ve talked with more people I can count that have come to the same opinion. I expect this phenomena is not limited to my own circles, based on the numbers of various brands of vehicles I see on some of the busiest roads in the nation. So your point there is a bit weakened.

        That said, yes, in our major industries we have lost our institutional pride. We still have personal pride in our work (some/most of us, I think), but in our haste to keep up with/outpace the Joneses, we stopped paying attention to how our major systems (banking, commerce, industry) ran, and those systems became corrupt at the hands of the greediest among us while we stood idly by, hoping we could get a few financial crumbs falling from the table of the greedy. We are now reaping the rewards of such actions, and we will continue to do so for quite some time. Some gov’t intervention will be helpful, some only marginally so, and all opposed by those still blindly scrambling for crumbs while not realizing that they are the pawns in the game.

        In the meantime, some individuals are catching on and striking off on their own, in hopes of finally producing good products at fair prices while paying fair wages to our fellow humans. These small movements are subject to severe impediments from the status quo system that doesn’t like such disruption, but yet some of them still move forward. Of course, it’s challenging to discern who’s actually doing that and who’s masquerading as doing that while actually being corporate themselves (I’m looking at you, Shinola… cough, cough), but it’s up to us here in the States to take on such responsibility and vote with our wallets.

        In the meantime, other countries have made progress in their own industrial pursuits and are turning out products that everyone else can learn from. It is up to the people who are producing those products to ensure that their own production and systems don’t get taken hostage by greed like so many of the US companies/industries have done. If anything, our mistakes should be an example to developing countries of what not to do. History holds some fairly long odds that such learning will actually happen, but if we don’t reach toward that goal, we’ll all fall backwards.

        -thus endeth the opining

  3. I agree that products made in those days were easier to repair than they are today. But I doubt they had a better MTTF (mean time to failure) than today’s products. Tubes were unreliable, and if you look at that video in how they soldered those components together (e.g. at 6:00 and 20:40 in the video), it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence. They wouldn’t have the repeatability that they get today where it’s put together by pick and place machines. The MTTF has certainly improved if you look at the MTTF “per element/component”, simply because there are now generally magnitudes more components in electronic products than in the past (i.e., transistors, etc.)

    1. a shift between MTBF/MTTF and average hours in use for such products… the farther back you go, the less average time was being devoted to mindless phosphor gazing…

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