Retrotechtacular: 1950s Televisions Were Beasts

Television has been around for a long time, but what we point to and call a TV these days is a completely different object from what consumers first fell in love with. This video of RCA factory tours from the 1950s drives home how foreign the old designs are to modern eyes.

Right from the start the apparent chaos of the circuitry is mindboggling, with some components on circuit boards but many being wired point-to-point. The narrator even makes comments on the “new technique for making electrical connections” that uses a wire wrapping gun. The claim is that this is cleaner, faster, and neater than soldering. ([Bil Herd] might agree.) Not all of the methods are lost in today’s manufacturing though. The hand-stuffing and wave soldering of PCBs is still used on lower-cost goods, and frequently with power supplies (at least the ones where space isn’t at a premium).

It’s no surprise when talking about 60+ year-old-designs that these were tube televisions. But this goes beyond the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) that generates the picture. They are using vacuum tubes, and a good portion of the video delves into the manufacture and testing of them. You’ll get a glimpse of this at 3:20, but what you really want to see is the automated testing machine at 4:30. Each tube travels along a specialized conveyor where the testing goes so far as to give a  few automated whacks from corks on the ends of actuators. As the tube gauntlet progresses, we see the “aging” process (around 6:00) when each tube is run at 3-4 times the rated filament voltages. Wild!

There’s a segment detailing the manufacture of the CRT tubes as well, although these color tubes don’t seem to be for the model of TV being followed during the rest of the films. At about 7:07 they call them “Color Kinescopes”, an early name for RCA’s CRT technology.

During the factory tours we get the overwhelming feeling that this manufacturing is more related to automotive than modern electronic. These were the days when televisions (and radios) were more like pieces of furniture, and seeing the hulking chassis transported by hanging conveyors is just one part of it. The enclosure plant is churning out legions of identical wooden consoles. This begins at 11:55 and the automation shown is very similar to what we’d expect to see today. It seems woodworking efficiency was already a solved problem in the ’50s.

34 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: 1950s Televisions Were Beasts

  1. I was born into a world at the tail end of the console TV era. We had a giant furniture-TV in our den that was where we watched afternoon cartoons after school and eventually played games on our Odyssey 2.

          1. Back during the 60’s and early 70’s, the government had guidelines on how close you could sit near a televsion. The repairman said it was because some picture tubes didn’t have much lead shielding from radiation produced by the tube

          2. The regulation of HV in a color CRT was done by shunting the 20KV to ground thru the most expensive tube on the chassis, a beam shunt regulator tube. Some of those tubes were made with the elements misaligned and emitted hard X-rays down thru the bottom of TVs. Then there are soft X-rays from CRTs in varying amounts. Office workers were concerned in the 80’s 90’s era using early monitors in cubicles.

    1. Same here. We had a succession of secondhand TVs that were the old vacuum tube type, into the 1980’s. Big wooden console types, made of real, solid wood and furniture grade veneer plywood, not particleboard. The last two had horizontal sliding tambour doors.

      I remember several times making trips with dad to a hardware store, with a bag full of vacuum tubes. He’d plug them into their huge tester device with sockets covering its front panel. Then he’d pick out replacements for the ones the tester said were bad and we’d go back home. Then I’d watch him plug all the tubes back in and usually the TV would work again. (How about a retro tech article on those tube testers?)

      The end of that era came when the power company told us they were going to upgrade the transformer for our house and a couple of neighbors. Dad asked them to not do it until they were home so we could make sure the TV and everything was turned off. So what happened? The power company sent a crew out as fast as they could, cut the power without checking to see if anyone the transformer served was home. They had the transformer swapped in what must have been record time, turned the power back on and… blew up our TV and a couple of other things. My sister and I were home, watching TV. Had no idea what happened.

      Dad was a bit pissed off to say the least, and the power company refused to pay for replacing or repairing anything they’d destroyed.

      So that was the year we got out first brand new television. A 19″ KMC from K-Mart. It sat atop the dead console for quite some time, eventually joined by our first VCR, a Magnavox one with the 13 little tuners under a panel on top.

      And yup, I also had an Odyssey^2 game console. Mom won it in a second chance drawing on some mail in contest. For some reason they sent her two so we sold one and used the money to buy more game cartridges.

      1. I must have deleted from my history and am not finding the download of the file I thought I downloaded… though I recently found a website that had scanned .pdf’s from the 1930’s to maybe 60’s regarding radio, TV and related equipment books in mostly English with some in Russian. I’ll look for and see if I can find.

      2. It is not the huge floor standing unit that was found in drug stores, but I have a tube tester (as I’m that many older HaD readers own one) that was portable for TV repairmen to carry (along with their box of tubes) on house calls.

        1. We had a B&K tube tester at school that was portable (I went to a vo-tech high school for electronics in the late 70’s). Most of the TV’s people brought in to repair were tube type.

  2. This video makes an interesting counterpoint to the Sonoff factory tour. It kind of brings home that fact that the technological jobs loss doesn’t come so much from automation, but the better manufacturing techniques (injection molded plastic case instead of wood), and higher quality manufactured components (no need to test each ESP8266 like they did with each vacuum tube).

    1. Tv sets, Up indtil the 80′ usually had a beefy pouch with diagrams, measurement values and components lists Tucked away inside. So even if they were higher maintanace, they were opensource in All their analog splendor. Any shop Was a qualified repair business.

      1. My dad had some TV adjustment devices when I was growing up. Probably convergence and whatnot. They might have been from Heathkit, but I don’t know if they were kits or if the were pre-assembled.

        He wasn’t a TV repairman or anything, he was an elevator mechanic.

        1. We all had a “TV adjustment device” back then, it was a hand.
          Slapping the TV on the top or side would cause a tube to seat better in its socket.

          There was an Army radar repair manual that instructed the technician which panel to kick if nothing else seemed to work.

          1. I remember smacking the TV mainly to fix the vertical hold, at least temporarily. The vertical hold was more irritating than having to get up to change channels.

          2. Andy Kaufman famously included a few seconds of vertical roll in a comedy special they let him make. He wanted all of America to rise as one and smack their TVs.

  3. AS i recall RCA was one of the first to dive into printed circuit boards with both feet, got into all kinds of trouble and got out.
    Radio shack was a store with bins of parts sorted as to value, a few diodes that no one could afford and no transistors.
    Everybody made tvs and I think Mad man Muntz who made a pretty good tv said “ide give them away but my wife won’t let me” I worked at what was Halicrafters and there were cabinets of tv parts left over from the 50s and you had to find an old guy to identify what it was in many cases. Most companies bought every-bodies tvs, took them apart and a Chinese copy with some product improvement in design and assembly techniques.
    I once found a portable battery operated EKG machine about the size of a small shoe box in an old cabinet.

    1. The early commercial PCB’s had issues with the copper developing hairline cracks, especially when the got warm and warped. That was one of the early applications for using “freeze spray”, as if you could find it, it could be repaired. But intermittent faults are among the hardest to find, as they never fail when you are around.

  4. Why the first tubes showed are perfectly round (7:15), but then they get rectangular (14:43)? Obviously they aren’t the same, but why do they show the first ones? What were they really used for?

    1. Both round and rectangular crts were used in televisions. In one shot you can see that the round CRTs have a typical rectangular beam pattern.

      The round CRT footage might be older footage from the same company, or the footage might have been filmed during a period when there was some overlap in production of TVs with the two formats.

      I suppose it’s also possible that the round CRTs were special-purpose displays, but I’d think any such displays would be monochrome in order to get the highest possible resolution and to avoid beam alignment problems. If they were monochrome there’d be no need for the circular shadow mask shown in one scene.

      1. Early TV CRTs were round. As manufacturing techniques progressed, they could be made more rectangular. Then, the first color CRTs went back to round, probably because making a color, rectangular tube was too difficult. Once rectangular color CRTs started to be made, the race was on to see who could make one with the squarest corners.

    2. Widespread color broadcasting in North America didn’t start until circa 1963~1964. ABC, CBS, and NBC started changing some shows over to color in 1964. For 1965 NBC went 100% color for all their new and in-production shows. By 1966 the other two were also all color, except perhaps for a few shows that were ending.

      Those round tubes are 21″ color ones. They were the earliest large color TV tubes. They were also quickly relegated to being the low end once the rectangular tubes were introduced. Another knock against the 21″ round tubes is that they didn’t have integrated safety glass. TV’s with them used a mask piece to crop the top and bottom edges and mounted a piece of flat glass on the case in front of the tube. An equivalent size rectangular tube TV could also be more compact, especially in height, while delivering more picture area.

      Product safety regulations and lack of sales, along with falling prices on the rectangular tubes, soon put an end to the bargain basement 21″ round CRT.

  5. I started working at a TV shop when I was 15, in the mid-’70s. Those consoles were pretty big, and a PITA to get up on a cart for service. Often I had to do it by myself. I was a lot stronger when I graduated HS than when I started the job! One of the most interesting jobs was to repair a TV with a CTC-1 (RCAs first color TV) chassis. The cabinet was beautiful and a major part of this lady’s living room. It had died, and no one would work on it. A few shops said that they could put a modern chassis in it, but she had enough taste that this idea wouldn’t cut it for her. Someone told her that our shop, me particularly, would work on almost anything if paid by the hour. I got it working beautifully. It was a lot of work! The thing I remember most was rewinding the linearity coil on a new form when the original crumbled at the touch. Lots of stuff like that in that repair. I also did old radio repair, when most shops wouldn’t touch the job, or wanted to put a cheap modern (at that time) radio in the case. Aarrgghh!

  6. I think it’s awesome how the older men and women (I haven’t read of women personally though) used to build their own TV’s.

    That is really neat and detailed.

    Awesome how old the technology is and small compared to some radios at the time. Different technologies even though wired and later wireless since most probably didn’t realize the wired used of the CRT. However is interesting the history. Wasn’t the first CRT made in the late 1800’s?

  7. My big take away was the “cork thumping” of vacuum tubes. Most small signal tubes are microphonic to some degree, amplifying sound waves that hit the glass envelope; an undesirable feature of the technology. They must have had a lab standard for cork thumping and a corresponding tolerance for the maximum permissible signal resulting from the thump! It’s pretty clever stuff.

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