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When we still made stuff – Geek Edition

1954- Ed in COLOR ! – James Vaughn flickr creative commons

A lot has been written about how the post-WWII boom in housing, military and automobile manufacturing brought us the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, but I thought I would go into some of what was also going on in the technology field of the times as well.

After WWII consumer electronics began to really take off. Or more specifically, home entertainment.  Television, or TV, was of course the biggie, with a very large number of companies making television sets, a list of those doing so beginning in 1949 is here. But most were still very expensive, averaging around $200.00 or more depending on the screen size. Nearly 2 grand ($2000.00) today. So it’s no surprise that in 1951 only 23% of the homes had a TV, but by 1956 70% did, and by 1962 90% did.  This rise in 10 years can be attributed to people like Earl “Madman” Muntz, a self-taught engineer and shrewd businessman who figured out how to get the parts’ count down in the sets to the bare minimum and thereby being able to sell his sets for often under 100 bucks, putting them in the financial reach of the average city worker.

The big manufacturers quickly followed suit, offering less expensive tabletop and “portable” sets, eliminating the big power transformers and using fewer tubes. While all this was going on, the war of color TV between CBS and RCA was raging full speed. Nearly as soon as monochrome television became practical, the ability to send and receive in color was being developed. The CBS system used a line sequential method, and RCA a dot sequential method. The CBS method, though, used more bandwidth but would give a better picture and was not completely compatible with the B&W TV of the time. The RCA systems promised to be, even though RCA had yet to produce a marketable product.

The RCA method eventually won out and was adopted by the FCC and the NTSC (National Television System Committee) – on both of which RCA had considerable influence.  The first sets produced by RCA cost around $1000.00 (nearly 9 grand today). The cost of color TVs did eventually fall to around $500.00 by 1959, (4 grand in today’s money). Still a hefty sum. But one could buy them on time from nearly every dealer, like a used car since that is nearly what they cost. But people were buying them more and more. The pictures were getting brighter and sharper, and you could actually watch them in a lit room.  But they were not without their problems.

They were failure-prone and not necessarily by design. It was simply that the technology available was still fairly crude.  Heat and humidity would quickly take its toll on the parts inside. Carbon resistors would change value and the paper capacitors would break down and get “leaky” or short. And the printed circuit boards that RCA and most others used – except Motorola and Zenith – would begin to warp and absorb the humidity and oils and become coated with dust and whatnot, causing small arcs and carbon paths between the copper traces. I even saw where the traces themselves began to come off the boards and the set was only 3 years old or so.  Though wholly inappropriate for vacuum tube use, PCBs were embraced because they cut manufacturing costs considerably.

While TV was taking the nation by storm, another area was beginning to take off as well.  Home audio, first as monaural and then stereo. With the advent of the 33 1/3 RPM LP introduced by Columbia Records in 1948 and the 45 by RCA in 1949, and when audio-electronics teacher Edgar Villchur and his student, Henry Kloss, formed Acoustic Research in 1954 provided that excellent sound reproduction did not require speakers the size of a refrigerator or its price.  Companies like Marantz, Harmon Kardon, Fisher, H.H. Scott, Dynaco, Pilot, McIntosh Laboratories, Klipsch, JBL, and Bozak all got their real start after WWII.  Record players became record changers and then turntables.  Open reel tape recording – invented in Germany – began to become popular as well.

All this did not go unnoticed by RCA, GE, Westinghouse and others as they to began to offer HI FI and Stereo consoles and even some component systems.  Neither did it get past the Japanese, who had been looking to market more and more to American customers.  Not being satisfied selling transistor portable radios to American teens, Sony had their engineers make many visits here, and the president as well would come to attend any electronics show.

By the mid 1960s Sony was already marketing their tape recorders here under the Superscope brand. They were all transistor units and Sony wanted to begin making color televisions as well. But Akio Morita – Sony’s co-founder – wanted something better than the shadow mask color system used by all the American companies.  While attending an IEEE trade show he was impressed by the Chromatron demonstration, a system that used thin wires rather than a shadow mask and produced much brighter and sharper images than the shadow mask tubes.

Morita arranged a deal with Paramount Pictures, who was paying for Chromatic Labs’ development of the Chromatron, taking over the entire project. In early 1963 Senri Miyaoka was sent to Manhattan to arrange the transfer of the technology to Sony, which would lead to the closing of Chromatic Labs. He was unimpressed with the labs, describing the windowless basement as “squalor”.[8] The American team was only too happy to point out the serious flaws in the Chromatron system, telling Miyaoka that the design was hopeless. By September 1964, a 17 inch prototype had been built in Japan, but mass-production test runs were demonstrating serious problems. Sony engineers were unable to make a version of Chromatron that could be reliably mass produced.[8]

When sets were finally made available in late 1964, they were put on the market at a competitive 198,000 yen ($550), but cost the company over 400,000 yen to produce. Ibuka had bet the company on Chromatron and had already set up a new factory to produce them with the hopes that the production problems would be ironed out and the line would become profitable. After several thousand sets had shipped the situation was no better, while Panasonic and Toshiba were in the process of introducing sets based on RCA licenses. By 1966 the Chromatron was breaking the company financially.[9]

Then in 1966 they began to look for a replacement for the Chromatron. Ibuka was looking at the in-line gun arrangement used in the GE Portacolor set – as apposed to the triangular or delta design used in other sets.

At one point Yoshida asked Senri Miyaoka if the in-line gun arrangement used by GE could be replaced by a single gun with three cathodes; this would be more difficult to build, but be lower cost in the long run. Miyaoka built a prototype and was astonished how well it worked.

By 1967 they were introducing their all-transistor Trinitron color set here and it left the American television manufacturers in the dust. It was sharper, brighter, easier to set up and required less voltage on the picture tube anode than the American shadow mask set. Not only that, it was transistorized – where all American sets still used vacuum tubes, and would up until the late 1970s, by such time most of the American companies had been bought out or just went under.

A few sides notes to this story. As more and better sets were made, people would trade in the old ones and used sets became available to those who could not afford new ones. As a technician for many years, I can tell you that the majority of faults were not the vacuum tubes themselves or even the picture tube, but the associated components due to premature aging and failure brought on by the heat generated and the humid environments. Capacitor, resistor, flyback transformer, deflection yokes were what I remember having to replace most often. In fact I only remember having to replace 3 or 4 CRTs – picture tubes – during my time as a repair technician.

There is a whole group of young people – those in their 20s and 30s who collect and restore old American color and B&W TVs, even figuring out how to repair CRTs that have the protective lens coming loose from the front of the CRT, where it looks like the set has cataracts.   What amazes me is how knowledgeable these young people are on the technology of vacuum tubes and vacuum tube analog color TV.

Not just TVs, but old radios and audio equipment as well. (There are very active websites dedicated to this.) Some are even modifying the sets to cure safety issues and improve overall performance.  Preferring them to today’s new Digital sets.

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