Television Has Come A Long, Long Way

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Most people living today have no idea how blessed lucky we are to be able to buy a television set, take it home, plug it in, hook it up to cable or dish, turn it on, and watch — what is it now? — 40 million channels?

All in color. All perfectly tuned. All looking as though they were painted on the screen. Not a pixel out of place. Not a hint of interference.

Man, how different it was back when television first came on the market. We worked for days to get the dumb things working. And you would not believe what we got for our trouble.

The first television set I remember was a used one my brother Charlie brought home from work. That was 1948 or 1949, I’m not sure which. I just remember that Charlie, who had a job in a shop that installed and repaired television sets, came home from work one day, grabbed me off the living room sofa, and made me help him haul a big, ugly, wooden-cased thing all the way from the street to our living room up on the second floor.

That thing weighed a ton. By the time we got it into the living room, put it down, made a place for it in one corner, and slid it into place, I was pooped. It was a hot July day and I sat on the living room couch puffing and panting.

“Turn it on,” I told Charlie between puffs.

“Waste of time,” he told me. “Won’t work. Needs an antenna up on the roof. We’ll put one up tomorrow.”

The next day, by the time I got up, ate breakfast, and went outside Charlie was already up on the roof messing with something out of a science fiction movie. As I watched, he clamped a huge aluminum monstrosity to a metal pole, and dragged it over to our chimney. I zipped back in the house and headed for the attic, intending to go out on the roof through the skylight and help.

“Where you going?” Mom asked me suspiciously.

“To help Charlie.”

“Oh, no you’re not. You stay off that roof!”

Our house was two stories high, three if you were up in the attic. Its foundation stood another story and a half above the street. So if you were up on the 60-degree slanted roof you were over four stories above the street.

“How come I can’t help?” I asked Mom.

Dumb question, right? But you know how kids are.

Mom gave me one of those looks mothers reserve for moments when they have the perfect answer and they know you’re not going to like it. “You don’t have the right kind of shoes.”

My shoes, like everybody else’s shoes in those days, were leather, with leather soles and leather heels, and very slippery. Mom had me, of course, but unwilling to admit defeat without at least giving it a shot, I asked another dumb question,

“What if I take off my shoes and go barefoot?”

Mom frowned at me, no doubt wishing that one night 16 years earlier she had said no to Daddy. “Watch from the skylight,” she told me. “Hand Charlie things if he needs them.”

“But Charlie’s up on ...”

“Charlie has special shoes for working on roofs.”

Check and mate.

So I sat grumbling on the edge of the skylight while Charlie finished clamping the mast to our chimney. Done with that, he hooked a long length of twin-lead wire to the antenna, crawled around the steep slope screwing in standoffs, ran the wire through them, and tossed the end of it over the front of the roof.

“Done for now,” he told me. “I’ll come back up here later.”

We went inside, through the house, and out onto the flat roof over the front porch. I got to hold the ladder while Charlie screwed standoffs into the clapboards, as he had on the roof. The insulating standoffs were needed because the thin, flat wire would lose its signal if it touched anything.

Did I say signal? Ho! Ho! Ho!

By mid-afternoon we had the wire run down the front of the house, and a hole drilled through the wall to bring it inside. Mom called me in and sent me to the corner grocery while Charlie worked on running the wire through the wall and over to the set.

When I got back 30 minutes later I expected to see a picture on the big, old, wooden monster in the corner. It was on, but no picture. And Charlie was nowhere to be seen. Figuring he was up on the roof, I went up and stuck my head out the skylight.

“Go down in the living room, open the window, watch the screen, and tell me what happens,” he told me.

Two minutes later I stuck my head out the window. “Ready.”

“How’s the picture?” Charlie yelled down.

I looked at the screen. Squinting as hard as I could, I thought I could make out two faces in a snowstorm.

“Lousy.”

“OK, wait a minute.”

I waited. “How’s it look now?” Charlie called down.

The two faces were now lying on their sides. “Worse.”

Well to make a long story short, Johnny, we spent another two hours at it as Charlie turned the antenna this way and that.

Then. At last. Success!

A grainy black and white picture. On a 13-inch screen. Some guy talking to a puppet dressed up like a cowboy.

Looked like an animated version of the blizzard of ’89.

Wow. Television. At last.

Later on I learned that was a good day for reception.

Oops! Almost forgot. For the first few months we had one channel — six hours a day. Then we went to three, on from 7 in the morning until 11 at night. Stayed that way a long time.

Gee! Television! What would we have done without it?

I admit it, though. Today’s picture quality is nothing short of magnificent. Now if they could something about the content ...

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