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7 Terrific Facts About TV

A piece of technology that needs little introduction, television has fundamentally changed our lives. International news now feels visceral, we have seemingly endless entertainment options, and the world is quite literally at our fingertips. These seven facts explore the surprising history, technology, and culture around one of the most important gadgets of the past century.

The Origins of Television Are in the 19th Century

While many people associate television with the U.S.’s post-World War II economic boom, the technology actually dates back muchearlier. Although some underlying discoveries that would eventually find their way into early televisions first appeared in the 1870s, and many different inventors were working on the technology in a variety of countries), one notable breakthrough came via German inventor Paul Nipkow in 1884. Nipkow developed a disc with a spiral of holes that could scan images for television broadcasting. Although Nipkow never created a working television set, the technology underpinned some early TV systems. The technology got a big boost when German inventor Karl Braun created the cathode ray tube in 1897, which later became a television display device. In 1906, American inventor Lee de Forest created the amplifying triode valve, which could amplify weak video signals. All of these disparate technologies finally coalesced into the first working mechanical televisions in the 1920s.

In Its Early Days, Television Went By Many Names

In the early days of this world-changing technology, inventors, marketers, and viewers didn’t quite know what to make of the strange new product. According to the BBC, some of the early names (before the 1920s) for what we now call television included Radiovision, Seeing by Wireless, Distant Electric Vision, Phototelegraphy, The Electric Telescope, Visual Listening, Telectroscopy, Hear-Seeing, Telephonoscope, Audiovision, Radio Movies, The Radio Kinema, Radioscope, Lustreer, Farscope, Optiphone, and Mirascope.

One of the first words describing images transmitted over telephone or telegraph wires was “telephote” in the 1880s, although the idea was merely hypothetical at the time. “Televista” was tried slightly later. However, the term “television” — a portmanteau of the Greek tele,meaning “far,” and the Latin visio, meaning “vision” — was coined at the 1900 Paris Exposition in Paris. Once imported into English, the word faced stiff competition as the moniker of choice, but eventually it stuck.

A Botanist Accidentally Discovered the Underlying Tech for LCDs While Studying Carrots

In 1888, Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer was busy studying cholesterol (cholesteryl benzoate) extracted from carrots when he noticed something unexpected. He saw that the substance had two melting points (strange) and that it could reflect polarized light as well as rotate the polarization direction of light (stranger). German physicist Otto Lehmann, who studied the fluid under a microscope, noticed that it had crystallites inside. This was the first liquid crystal ever discovered. (That’s the “LC” in the “LCD” panels in your modern television.) Of course, being a botanist, Reinitzer didn’t exactly have technology on the brain, and the science world even refused to believe in the existence of liquid crystals for decades. It wasn’t until 1962 that U.S. technology company RCA began experimenting with LCDs and their light polarization attributes, which historians point to as the beginning of modern LCD technology.

The Launch of Telstar 1 in 1962 Revolutionized Television

While NASA jockeyed with the Soviet Union in the rush to reach the moon, a different major moment took place. On July 10, 1962, NASA launched a satellite named Telstar 1. The tiny satellite’s primary mission was to provide the first transatlantic television feed between the U.S. and Europe. (Before that, television news reels had to be sent by airplane, and were often several days out of date.) With its successful transmission, the era of satellite TV had dawned. Although Telstar 1 lasted only a few months before it was damaged and had to be decommissioned, it spawned nearly two dozen sequel satellites bearing its name, and the little satellite that changed the world is still orbiting Earth to this day.

Mr. Rogers Saved the U.S. Public Broadcast System in 1969

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, set the path for the creation of educational broadcasting — most famously in the form of the Public Broadcast System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). While the Johnson administration supported the need for funding educational content as a public good, President Richard Nixon, who was elected in 1968 and was famously hostile to the media, wasn’t nearly as keen, and proposed cutting funding to the nascent experiment.

On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers — better known by his television persona Mister Rogers — testified before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications to ask for $20 million in funding to solidify PBS’s future. The show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had only been on air for a little more than a year, and during the hearing, Rogers defended PBS by saying, “I’m very much concerned … about what’s being delivered to our children in this country … and I give an expression of care every day to each child.” After Rogers’ speech, chairman of the subcommittee and Rhode Island Senator John Pastore replied, “I think it’s wonderful … looks like you just earned your $20 million.”

The Average Cost of a 30-Second Super Bowl Commercial Is $7 Million

In 1941, during a broadcast of a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, the watch company Bulova aired the world’s first true television commercial. The 10-second ad was simple: a black and white map of the U.S., a Bulova watch face resting at its center, and a voiceover saying, “America runs on Bulova time.” After paying for air charges and station charges, the ad cost the company about $9, or around $200 today.

Modern television has come a long way … and so have the prices. Today, the fees for commercials are in part dictated by what program they run alongside. In 2023, for example, a 30-second commercial during ABC’s The Bachelor cost $153,429; the same commercial running during Sunday Night Football would set you back $828,501. Of course, the Super Bowl has always been the biggest time of the year for TV commercials, and in 2023, advertisers paid an average of $7 million for just a 30-second spot.

The World’s Largest Commercial TV Is as Big as a Double-Decker Bus

When it comes to television technology, a lothas happened over the course of a century. In 1928, British television pioneer John Logie Baird introduced his Televisor, the first commercial television; the image on the screen was roughly 6 inches by 2 inches.

Fast forward 93 years to 2021, and the South Korean electronics company LG announced the world’s largest commercial television, the Extreme Home Cinema. At its biggest size, this monstrosity can stretch up to a 325-inch diagonal — about as big as a London double decker bus. It’ll reportedly cost you around $1.7 million.

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