Technological developments have played a major part in shaping the production, broadcasting, and reception of television. Histories of television tend to highlight a sequence of technologies (e.g., the cathode ray tube, fiber optic cable, and remote control) and their inventors (e.g., Nipkow, Baird, and Zworykin). This approach allows us to trace the development of the devices that together constitute television technology, while also identifying the relevant social groups, including scientists, technicians, entrepreneurs, governments, and even home enthusiasts, involved in shaping this emergence and form.
Technological Determinism Versus The Social Shaping Of Technology
Scholarly investigations of television technology frequently revolve around the relative significance of the determining or constraining power of the technology, on the one hand, and the social and cultural circumstances from which the technology emerges and within which it is deployed, on the other. To the extent that these relative emphases can be counterpoised against one another, two broad positions can be identified – positions often characterized as forming a debate about technological versus social determinism. Raymond Williams (1921–1988) is the cultural theorist who first outlined the major issues in this debate, notably in his Television: Technology and cultural form (1974), but also in his essay ‘Culture and Technology’ (1983).
Technological determinism, Williams argued, is the immensely powerful and orthodox view of the relationship of technology to social change. Harder variants of technological determinism are sometimes criticized for focusing on the “lone inventor,” the engineer who applies scientific knowledge and invents or modifies technology in some sort of neutral, apolitical way. This is seen as ignoring the fact that invention is goal-oriented; that is to say, it is intended to achieve a particular end or purpose. It also ignores the key role of large corporations (e.g., RCA, EMI, and Sony Corporation) and state governments in backing the development of specific technologies. It is similarly criticized for focusing on technical development as “one-off” instances, whereas the history of television technology shows a recurrent cycle of development, innovation, adoption, take-up, use, and modification.
“Soft” versions of technological determinism see technology as an element in a process of change that is (about to be) occurring anyway – the technology is a symptom of change of some other kind. This is essentially Williams’s approach. In contrast with technological determinism, his account of the development of television restores intent to the process of research and development – television was developed with particular purposes in mind. He points out that a technology depends on other technologies in a system for its effectiveness; that is, specific artifacts are embedded in what sociologists of technology term “socio-technical systems.” For Williams, television technology is more than simply a series of isolated inventions. Its emergence depended on a set of developments in electricity, telegraphy, photography, film, and radio, most of them made with ends other than the transmission and reception of moving images in mind. The components of television were effectively drawn together to realize the transmission and reception of moving images with little prior thought given to prospective institutional structures, forms, or content. In other words, it was a technology looking for a use.
At the same time, Williams maintains that television (like radio before it) reflects or embodies particular societal features, including the unequal distribution of economic and political power. Television was developed to serve the twin processes of mobility and the more self-sufficient family home – which, together, he terms “mobile privatization.” This is the broader context for understanding the particular development of television technology. For Williams, television technology is the outcome, rather than the cause, of culture. The system of “centralized transmission” and “privatized reception” is not built in to the technology – it was neither inevitable nor immutable, but is what led to licensing and sponsorship or advertising systems. These core aspects of television, as it is understood today, underpin the very notion of broadcasting.
The Origins And Development Of Television Technology
Williams traces television technology back to Volta’s and Faraday’s work on electricity (in 1800–1831); the electrical telegraph (which was envisioned as a technical system in 1753 and demonstrated in various places in the early nineteenth century); photography (notably the work of Niepce in 1816, Daguerre in 1839, Fox Talbot in London, and George Eastman in the USA); and slide projection by “magic lantern” (which had been practiced since 1736). In other words, television is embedded in a complex system of scientific knowledge, technologies, expertise, organizations, and individuals, and depends on their existence, involvement and compatibility to operate effectively.
Seeing at a distance was imagined in the 1870s, for example by George Carey, who produced drawings for a “selenium camera” that would enable people to see at a distance “by electricity.” Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, had plans for a “photophone” which would enable one to see the person one was talking to on the telephone. The physical realization of this vision was linked closely with the development of radio, since television broadcasting involves sounds and words, as well as pictures.
The visions of the late nineteenth century were developed physically in the early decades of the twentieth century, with many of the key features of television invented by the time of World War I. At the technical core of television is the process of scanning an image. Generally, this has been done with a beam of light, traveling from top to bottom and left to right. When the light passes over the image an electrical impulse (of greater or lesser strength) is produced. This is amplified and transmitted by radio waves or along cables. The cathode ray tube (CRT) reproduces the image at the receiver. This contains an electron beam facing the screen, which has a uniform coating of a material that emits light when struck by the beam, which is of varying density – depending on the shade of gray dot being transmitted. The complete picture is received 25 times per second, so movement appears unstilted and realistic. In the 1920s and early 1930s television was “low definition”, with 30 lines to the screen. By 1936 the BBC had developed a system with 405 lines, while more recently most of Europe has standardized on 625 lines and the USA and Japan on 525 lines. Much of this has changed in recent years with the arrival of digital television technology.
In the 1920s and 1930s there were two paths of experimentation that were followed in developing television, namely mechanical and electronic scanning. Mechanical television was based on Paul Nipkow’s spinning metal disc patent that he submitted in Berlin in 1883 for an “electronic telescope” to scan and transmit images. This idea was taken up, in particular, by Charles Jenkins in the USA and John Logie Baird in Scotland. The electronic approach (which proved superior) was developed by Alan Campbell-Swainton in the UK and Boris Rosing in the USSR, and later by Vladimir Zworykin (Rosing’s student) and Philo Farnsworth in the USA. Around this time experimental television broadcasting was underway, with demonstrations held, equipment exhibited (e.g. at the at the 1939 New York World Fair), and small numbers of television sets sold – by 1935 there were 2,000 Baird television sets in service in the UK.
Individuals, corporations, and nations competed with one another, so there are numerous claims of “firsts” in television in this period – milestones include Logie Baird’s broadcast, initially of stick figures and silhouettes (in 1925) and then with 30 lines of resolution and a refresh rate of five frames a second (in 1926); Charles Jenkins’s licensed station (1928) and broadcast advertisement (1930); the BBC’s public television service (which began in 1932); the German television “service” (1935), which broadcast the Olympics in 1936; and the British Alexandra Palace 240- and 405-line service (1936). Interest from commercial organizations, state governments, and the public, however, remained lukewarm. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC: the regulatory body in the USA) hampered developments there, and there was no pressure group comparable to the amateur “ham” operators who had pressed for radio broadcasting. By the outbreak of war, only 20,000 sets had been sold in the UK. Nowhere had television broadcasting become a mass medium.
The key factor that transformed television from a toy to a mass medium, according to Brian Winston, was the spare capacity in the electronics industry immediately after the end of World War II. During the war there had been a massive expansion of the radio industry in the USA: between 1942 and 1944 expenditure on radio had expanded by about 1,300 percent. The industry employed 300,000 workers, and television production provided a cushion against unemployment and depression. This exemplifies how television was accommodated by existing bodies, with radio manufacturers and others shifting to television. By and large it was the same corporations and organizations that had been involved in radio that became involved in television. Television was absorbed by existing bodies, rather than creating new ones.
The 1950s was the decade of expansion and, as such, something of a golden age for television. In the UK, by March 1947, 14,560 households had licenses; by the end of 1951 about 1 million; and by June 1953 about 2 million. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, viewed by 20 million people, added enormous impetus. In the USA 0.02 percent had a television in 1946, 9 percent in 1950 and 65 percent in 1955.
Since the arrival of television as a mass medium in the developed world in the late 1950s, there has been a steady stream of technological developments. These have occurred in relation to production, distribution (or broadcasting), and consumption (receivers and the ancillary devices that are used with television in the home). As with the CRT television receiver, the origins of most distribution and consumption technologies can be traced back over several decades. An experimental microwave relay system was introduced by Western Union between New York and Philadelphia in 1945; by the 1970s this was the main form for carrying television signals, having lower costs than coaxial cables. Color television was demonstrated in 1946 (by Peter Goldmark at CBS), though this mechanical system (with a red–blue–green wheel spin in front of the CRT) was later replaced by an electronic system; this became available from the 1960s and by 1972 half of US households had color television.
Videotape was introduced to television production in 1956, the VCR for use in the home was introduced by Phillips in 1972, and in 1977 RCA introduced the first VHS format VCR in the USA. Today VCRs are hardly sold at all, having been displaced by DVD recorders and players. The TELSTAR satellite was launched in 1961, enabling the first transatlantic reception of a television signal by satellite in 1962. Fiber optic cable was introduced from the 1970s; it is used to transmit digital data, carries tens of thousands of times more data than conventional copper wire, and today forms the core of cable and telephone networks. Remote controls, which can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century and were used relatively widely in World War II, were developed for use with domestic television in the 1950s, notably by Robert Adler at Zenith Radio Corporation in 1957.
Accordingly, rather than being a single or fixed technology, television is a set of interlinked devices and components that are constantly being upgraded and modified, with “new” technologies arriving on the market after lengthy periods of thought, experiment, demonstration, and development. At the time of writing, the “new” technologies are mainly digital in nature.
Digital television was introduced in the late 1990s, and analog television is planned to be switched off in the USA by 2009 and in the EU by 2012. Digital television is much cheaper to transmit and allows considerably greater transmission capacity. It thus facilitates more television channels (which in turn is leading to the decline in viewing of public service broadcasting channels and in the power of public service broadcasters), interactivity, various screen formats, higher-quality sound and cinema-like surround sound systems. Flat-screen monitors with the video signal received by cable are replacing CRT televisions with receivers tuned to a station’s frequency to receive the images that are being transmitted. Many of these features are coming together and being further enhanced with the arrival of high definition television (HDTV), which provides much higher-resolution pictures, a larger picture, more colors, higher quality sound and a faster refresh rate – so motion will be smoother and clarity greater, especially from near the screen.
There is much debate about whether it will be the personal computer (PC) or television that will become the home entertainment hub of the home in the future. Convergence allows Internet access via many forms of television, and television can be received on many PCs (by broadband downloads or in-built television receivers). Still and moving images, as well as sound, all use the same digital systems of data representation and transmission. However, there remain fundamental differences between how television and PC technologies are designed, with the former relatively easily operated by a remote control, and the latter being more of a “leanforward” activity requiring frequent operation of a mouse, in an environment which does not easily accommodate more than one user at a time, and requiring far greater technical knowledge and intervention. In other words, despite technically similar capabilities, the convergence of the PC and television is far from realized.
Whatever the outcome of this contest, the contemporary era is one characterized by particularly rapid changes in television technology. It may be that, with the greater interactive possibilities afforded by digital technologies, the fundamental characteristic of television, that it is broadcast from one to many, may be changing, with users empowered to become producers too. The preconditions for television that Raymond Williams identified, however, remain as significant now as when he was writing – the unequal distribution of power and information; and the need for institutions to provide social cohesion in the context of mobile privatization. Changing notions of “public” and “private,” and with them of family and community, are among the factors that will shape, as they always have done, the development of television technology.
- Briggs, A., & Burke, P. (2005). A social history of the media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Cambridge: Polity.
- Mackenzie, D., & Wajcman, J. (eds.) (1999). The social shaping of technology, 2nd edn. Buckingham: Open University Press.
- Todorovi2, A. L. (2006). Television technology demystified: A non-technical guide. London: Focal Press.
- Williams, R. (1974). Television: Technology and cultural form. London: Fontana.
- Williams, R. (1983). Culture and technology. In Towards 2000. London: Chatto & Windus.
- Winston, B. (1986). Misunderstanding media. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Winston, B. (1998). Media technology and society: A history: From the Telegraph to the Internet. London: Routledge.