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The Way Back Page - CRT

July 26, 2010 By Richard Ames

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Sony's First Trinitron

The Tube

Philo Farnsworth. Ask most people to name an inventor who's had a profound effect on modern society, and they may say Bell, Edison or if they're really hip, Tesla. Rarely, though, does the name Farnsworth appear, except perhaps from fans of Sports Night.

While countless people helped bring about what we call TV, Farnsworth was the first to demonstrate a complete electronic system. From the image dissector that received the image to the cathode ray tube that showed it, a media revolution was born.

Sony's First Trinitron

The history of the CRT TV is engrained in the hearts and minds of every American: iconic images of the storied ’50s living room and the massive console TV with a laughably small screen. It wouldn't be long before color entered the scene. The shadow mask proved that by blocking light, one could get color (with the help of phosphors, of course).

Even though technology was advancing rapidly, screen size generally wasn't—until the ’80s gave rise to CRT projection, both front and rear. While picture quality was generally excellent, the image wasn't very bright, and setup and maintenance were exceedingly labor intensive. Some, in that never-ending drive for the best picture quality, would even "double stack" CRT projectors to increase light output.

The tremendous bulk of CRTs would be the biggest contributor to their downfall. As flat panel TVs dropped in price (and, almost incidentally, their picture quality improved) the sheer mass of CRTs became passé. And front projector owners couldn't switch to DLP/LCOS/LCD projectors fast enough. The swan song of cathode ray tube televisions was in the early 2000s, with their low noise, black level and accurate color—all things that current TVs are still trying to match.

Today, even finding a CRT in a retail store can be difficult, if not impossible (except for the sales kiosk displays, ironically). The major manufacturers have all but eliminated them from their lineups. When was the last time you saw a CRT hooked to a computer or as the main display in a home? Worldwide sales of CRTs were surpassed by LCDs just a few years ago, which means that people are buying them (they're still cheaper than small LCDs), but in smaller and smaller numbers.

Just as clunk-clunk-clunk channel selectors and the 15,734 Hz whine have become amusing nostalgia, so too will the thick glass and oppressive size of the illustrious CRT as it fades into the past. Thanks for the memories.

PRICE: <$100 to $90,000+
LEGACY: Ummm, all modern culture? From the Kardashians to Nixon's resignation, the moon landings to the fall of the Berlin wall, good and bad it is woven into, and a tremendous part of, the fabric of our society. Thanks Philo.

 And as a bonus, one of the greatest monologues in TV history (it starts at 6:25, but watch the build-up if you've never seen the show).


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