Retrotechtacular: How Communism Made Televisions

For those of us who lived through the Cold War, there’s still an air of mystery as to what it was like on the Communist side. As Uncle Sam’s F-111s cruised slowly in to land above our heads in our sleepy Oxfordshire village it was at the same time very real and immediate, yet also distant. Other than being told how fortunate we were to be capitalists while those on the communist side lived lives of mindless drudgery under their authoritarian boot heel, we knew nothing of the people on the other side of the Wall, and God knows what they were told about us. It’s thus interesting on more than one level to find a promotional film from the mid 1970s showcasing VEB Fernsehgerätewerk Stassfurt (German, Anglophones will need to enable subtitle translation), the factory which produced televisions for East Germans. It provides a pretty comprehensive look at how a 1970s TV set was made, gives us a gateway into the East German consumer electronics business as a whole, and a chance to see how the East Germany preferred to see itself.

Black and white photograph of a display of televisions displaying a DDR Deutsche Frensehfunk logo, with an attendant adjusting one of the sets.
The RFT range of televisions in the Städtisches Kaufhaus exhibition center for the 1968 Leipzig Spring Fair. Bundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The sets in question are not too dissimilar to those you would have found from comparable west European manufacturers in the same period, though maybe a few things such as the use of a tube output stage and the lack of integrated circuits hints at their being a few years behind the latest from the likes of Philips or ITT by 1975. The circuit boards are assembled onto a metal chassis which would have probably been “live” as the set would have derived its power supply by rectifying the mains directly, and we follow the production chain as they are thoroughly checked, aligned, and tested. This plant produces both colour and back-and-white receivers, and since most of what we see appears to be from the black-and-white production we’re guessing that here’s the main difference between East and West’s TV consumers in the mid ’70s.

The film is at pains to talk about the factory as a part of the idealised community of a socialist state, and we’re given a tour of the workers’ facilities to a backdrop of some choice pieces of music. References to the collective and some of the Communist apparatus abound, and finally we’re shown the factory’s Order of Karl Marx. As far as it goes then we Westerners finally get to see the lives of each genosse, but only through an authorised lens.

The TVs made at Stassfurt were sold under the RFT East German technology combine brand, and the factory continued in operation through the period of German re-unification. Given that many former East German businesses collapsed with the fall of the Wall, and that the European consumer electronics industry all but imploded in the period following the 1990s then, it’s something of a surprise to find that it survives today, albeit in a much reduced form. The plant is now owned by the German company TechniSat, and manufactures the latest-spec digital TVs. Meanwhile for those interested in history there’s a museum exhibition in the town (German language, Google Translate link), which looks very much worth a visit should you be motoring across Germany.

As degenerate capitalists we weren’t offered the privilege of buying a TV from the Worker’s Paradise, so we never had the opportunity to see how their quality stacked up to that of the Western models. It’s worth remembering that however rose-tinted our view of the 1970s may be, British-made sets of the period weren’t particularly reliable themselves.

As a juxtaposition of how a communist TV factory saw itself, have a watch of a capitalist one doing a bit of self-promotion.

27 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: How Communism Made Televisions

  1. As with most east German products these TVs were quite good, when they were developed.

    The only problem was that they were in production way too long.

    Sometimes so long that the western equivalent was already on display in a museum when the eastern still was in production.

    1. Indeed, certain black/white models were of fine quality.
      And their power suppliers weren’t such a Russian murks, either (see Junost TV internals *juck*).
      Whoever wanted to get a large, but pure b/w TV back in late 20th century simply had to give them a try.

      By the time, West Germany had stopped production of big b/w CCIR TVs and had focused on PAL color TVs.
      So even West Germans had to think about importing a b/w TV from GDR.

      Also interesting: The GDR was about the last county still operating pure b/w transmitters.
      That’s because SECAM had reduced b/w quality, even if the source material didn’t have color. So pure b/w programme were being aired in plain CCIR norm, not SECAM.

    2. What’s also notable, East German products were also being used by us West Germans.
      They were sold via Quelle catalog, albeit with their origin being hidden.

      Which is kind of sad, because we had no problems using GDR appliances.
      Their RG28 mixer wasn’t worse than our Krupp model.

      In general, GDR products weren’t made with planned obsolescence in mind yet, because the GDR didn’t even thought about such business practices (too naive, I suppose).

      So yes, a lot of West Germans grew up with East German products, either knowingly or unknowingly.

      The tip of the ice berg was that many gifts from West German relatives were from Quelle catalog. So East Germans literally got their own products back, depending on how we see it. :)

      1. The “lack” of planned obsolescence was not out of naiveté, but born out of necessity. The scarce resources and low production volumes meant long-lasting products came naturally. Also, in the “Planwirtschaft” system theory, if there would be no further (or rater, reduced) need of a certain product, the state-owned factorys just would reduce output of that good and produce something else instead. There was also an extensive recycling system for glass and metal containers, much like we have today.

        1. Yes, but GDR had produced twofold, as far as I know.
          a) for own use, to satisfy the needs of the people
          b) for export, to make good money (D-Mark)

          Usually, it was the way that the norm that the ‘good’ products were sold for export and the stuff with small defects (scratches etc) was sold in GDR to the own people.

          Same goes for sweets and chewing gum. The export version was being sold in a shiny package, while the version for the people was sold in a dull package.

          Officially, the explanation was that this was a trick, to fight capitalism with its own weapons. Unofficially, it was clear that the own people were less being worth to the regime.

          1. GDR was a Potemkin village of the soviet system in the first place, so the quality of products was higher for the show of it.

            Otherwise the soviet system was searching for the lowest “socially necessary” cost. The reason why soviet products were built so robust was because of a quirk of the accounting system: not money but kilometer-tonnes. People had production quotas, which could be filled more easily if you put unnecessary amounts of material in the design. Whether the product actually works – who cares?

      1. That makes sense. To my understanding, the power stability wasn’t good.
        The Soviets didn’t have enough stabilizer tubes, so the power supply was made using an unstable cascade circuit.

        Btw, in the past, say 1950s, there were separation transformers neing used in conjunction with the TVs.

        That was in a time, in which fluctuations on the AC mains could kill the TV electronics (that was before TVs had power suppliers; back then, the chassis could still be “hot”; TVs with an optional 12v input all generate voltages from a single voltage, internally. They’re much safer thus).

        The external separation transformer kept the power supply stable and clean (no noise).

        1. There ain’t no such thing as a “stabilizer tube.” Like everybody else, the Soviets used tubes (later diodes) to rectify the AC line voltage to DC. This DC was used directly by the tube circuits. There was also a transformer to provide the low voltage (12VAC) for the tube heaters. “Hot chassis” came down to connecting the chassis of the TV to the AC neutral. Depending on which way around you plug the TV in, the chassis is either hot or neutral.

          Isolation transformers were used in repair shops so that the hot chassis couldn’t kill the technician working on the TV. The isolation transformers didn’t do anything for the stability of the power – they didn’t clean it, either.

    1. I would dare to say yes.
      But it wasn’t about skills per se.
      Russian/Soviet people weren’t lacking knowledge, rather contrary.
      Education was free of charge and many intellectuals lived there.

      The general problem with USSR technology rather was the power supply.
      Or more precisely, a shortage of condensers.

      If we look inside the popular Junost, the ‘cheap’ TV for youth, we’re seeing a mess of wires, a horrible power supply made of discreet rectifiers, huge transformers and a lack of capacitors.Integrated Circuits are basically absent.

      By contrast, VEB and Robotron TVs were more modern. They used printed circuit boards, switching PSUs and ICs.
      Some used modular designs, even.

      That’s the most important thing, maybe.
      Using modules. The Japanese did this, which made fixing a TV a joy.

      Anyway, if the Junost was made without a power supply, it wouldn’t be such a fire hazard.
      Gratefully, it had 12v DC input, at least. For two reasons.
      a) the use of a 12V DC source meanr that the tube was not being directly attached to the AC mains (a life saver!)
      b) the 12v DC input was merely requiring a little internal “PSU” to generate high voltage (say, cascade circuit). This power supply didn’t have to be powerful, however.

      1. >Education was free of charge and many intellectuals lived there.

        Until they didn’t. The soviet education system was rather narrowly focused because of the legacy of Stalin and his paranoia against people who were “too good for their own good”. Point being, if you’re a specialist with greater skills than regular people, you were also dangerous because other people come to depend on your unique skills. If you’re doing things by the book like everyone else, you can be replaced, and therefore you don’t pose any problem.

      2. “Education was free of charge” – true, but only in so far as money is concerned.
        For higher education (as with most things) you had to score high in “salute the party.”
        Not friendly to enough party officials? No college degree for you.

    1. Yes, technically true. But in practice, GDR was the factory of the UdSSR, remote-controlled by Moskow. The country was being run badly.

      It essentially was a third-world country, people were starving in one way or another. They did the best to compensate, that’s why they were allowed to watch TV programme from West Germany. So that the own people wouldn’t start a revolt.

      All in all, there were a lot of parallels to Nazi Germany, still, because UdSSR just renamed things instead of changing them from ground up. The Americans (+France/UK) did handle things in a completely different way when they helped rebuilding West Germany.

      That’s why there are still differences between West/East Germans. The differences in philosophy couldn’t ne greater. East Germans still have trouble “to trust”, due to their sufferings.

      To give an example, the Young Pioneers were essentially a renamed Hitler Youth etc. Lots of militarism was going on, which kids were being indoctrinated from the start.

      The GST, a society for sports/technology, was a para military organization, teaching kids to fight and kill in a playful way for sake of maintaining peace. Of course there were also peaceful articles/activities, like ham radio or sports. But it always being overshadowed by pro-UdSSR propaganda. Always pictures of Soviet soldiers, tanks and the blood red symbols of socialism/communism.

      By comparison, West German kids at roughly same time were reading Mickey Mouse magazines or Fix&Foxy, playing on their C64 and watching Captain Future on TV.. Yeah, those evil capitalistic Wessies. 😁

      But seriously, I don’t claim to know everything. This is simply what I know. As a West German, the GDR is/was just weird. It’s like from another reality or something. What I wrote is thus taken with a grain of salt. So please everyone, please double check. I don’t mean unknowingly to spread any form of propaganda here.

      1. Quote: “It essentially was a third-world country, people were starving in one way or another. They did the best to compensate, that’s why they were allowed to watch TV programme from West Germany. So that the own people wouldn’t start a revolt.”

        Eh. No. Not from all I’ve seen on German TV and talking to a previous coworker and my neighbors (all from the DDR.)
        People weren’t starving, but they were spied on. They were not “allowed” to watch
        TV from the West – they did so because they could (those who lived close enough to the border.) If they were caught (or ratted out by their neighbors) they were sent to jail.

  2. Notice how the lower cost models don’t have a decorative bezel around the CRT. The tube is just set into a hole in the front plywood (or is it veneered hardboard?) with a rubber or plastic U channel on the edge of the hole. The cheapest “western” TV was never that janky.

    1. That’s an interesting difference between European and American TVs, a lot of ours didn’t have a bezel. It’s not a cheapness thing but a style thing, expensive sets did it too. I can’t remember which of my Hackaday colleagues told me this, but his dad worked for the manufacturer of tubes, and they supplied ones with polished edges for the European market and non-polished for the US market.

    1. I wonder if it was a good life for a factory worker there compared to West Germany? Anyone who has read history knows of the failure of East Germany but the race to the bottom of capitalism nowadays doesn’t seem like a good solution either (unless your a factory owner). I doubt we will know anytime soon.

  3. Well, I lived most of my young years in communist Czechoslovakia and the situation was nowhere as tragic as is in those mentioned US cities under their communist reign.
    In the 70s our commies were more of a pragmatic kind; mostly nobody believed the marx-leninism theories anymore, but they tried to keep the state running in the Soviet way in order not be invaded (again).
    There were no junkies nor hoboes on the streets and the society worked quite well. Of course, you have to be aware of police confidents amongst your neighbours and keep somewhat low profile.
    Nevertheless, young married couples in their 20s were able to built quite a reasonable house themselves thanks to interest-less mortgages and even no-payback loans. They could even buy a car in their 30s as the debts were already paid by then. Of course, the consumer goods were somewhat sparse, but not unavailable if you really wanted them.
    In fact, I would rather enjoy living in the communist Czechoslovakia or DDR instead of todays Berlin, Paris, SF or NY. What a paradox!

  4. I remember 45 years ago hearing that a lot of vacuum tubes, and CRTs were made in Eastern Europe, and Russia. It does make sense. A lot of the CRTs were prealligned. So when you replaced one, all you had to do was unplug the old one, and plug in the new one. You might have to do a little fiddling with the convergence, but for the most part the new CRT would produce a fairly good picture with little convergence adjustments.

  5. I had great pleasure in touring the Stasi Headquarters museum in (East) Berlin a few years ago. I can highly recommend it.

    Inside on one of the top floors, is the preserved office of Wolfgang Schwanitz, the last head of the Stasi.

    There was a colour TV set in the corner nestling between the expensive quality wood paneling. What I found most amusing was that the set wasn’t a DDR one, but instead was a swanky Phillips TV, imported from the West.

    Obviously, in a Communist state, everyone is equal, but, as the saying goes, some people are more equal than others.

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