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Ohio Museum Shows History of Television Technology

A collection of televisions appear at the Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio on June 4, 2023. (Steve Wartenberg via AP)
A collection of televisions appear at the Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio on June 4, 2023. (Steve Wartenberg via AP)
Ohio Museum Shows History of Television Technology
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The history of television began long before millions of Americans gathered in front of their black-and-white sets and watched shows like Lucy, Uncle Miltie, and Howdy Doodie.

“Everybody thinks TV started in the ‘50s or the late ’40s,” said Steve McVoy. “Almost nobody knows it existed before World War II and even goes back to the ‘20s.”

McVoy is the founder and president of the Early Television Museum in Hilliard, near Columbus in the state of Ohio. The museum holds a large collection of televisions from the 1920s and 1930s. It has many of the post-World War II, black-and-white sets that changed the entertainment industry. There are also several early color sets developed in the 1950s.

“The original idea for the museum was to deal with the earliest television technology,” McVoy said. “The sets got pretty boring after 1960, just these big things in plastic cabinets.”

Doron Galili is a researcher of media studies at Stockholm University, Sweden, and writer of Seeing by Electricity: The Emergence of Television, 1878 – 1939.

He visited the museum in 2016. He said the museum not only gives the technological history of television but also, “… its place within popular culture, and modern design and material culture.”

A British RGD 382-RG, manufactured in 1938, appears among the collection of televisions at the Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio on June 4, 2023. (Steve Wartenberg via AP)
A British RGD 382-RG, manufactured in 1938, appears among the collection of televisions at the Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio on June 4, 2023. (Steve Wartenberg via AP)

The backstory

As a child, McVoy would walk around his neighborhood in Gainesville, Florida with a sign that advertised free television repairs. “Nobody accepted my offer,” he said, adding it was unlikely he could have repaired a set if anyone had asked.

A few years later, McVoy worked in a television repair shop and learned those skills. He opened his own shop, Freedom TV, in the mid-1960s. He then formed businesses related to the television industry. Finally, in 1999, he sold his holdings, and looking for something to do, decided to start collecting old television sets.

The first set he bought was an RCA TRK 12 which was introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair. “I think I paid about a thousand… for it,” McVoy said, adding that it was in disrepair and missing several parts. “A complete one would have cost five or six thousand; the pre-war sets are very valuable.”

McVoy opened the Early Television Museum in 2002. It is housed in a large, former storage building. Each room has an audio guide, voiced by McVoy. Visitors can also watch a few old shows on some of the sets. Until a few years ago, McVoy helped repair many of the museum’s televisions himself. “My eyesight and the stability of my hands makes it difficult now,” he said.

How TV began

Early televisions were first developed in the mid-1920s by John Logie Baird in England and Charles Jenkins in the United States.

Information from the museum says that by 1930 “television was being broadcast from over a dozen stations in the U.S., not only in the major cities such as New York and Boston, but also from Iowa and Kansas. The television screens at the time were small." The picture quality was extremely poor, with limited programming.

Television, McVoy said, made its big entrance to the public on April 30, 1939. That was the time U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the World’s Fair in New York with a live broadcast.

Information from the museum says that about 7,000 sets were made in the United States in 1939 and 1940, and only about 350 still exist.

World War II halted the production of TV sets in the United States. But technology from the war was used to make better TV when a large increase in sales and programming began.

McVoy’s research found there were about 200,000 sets in the U.S. in 1947 and 18 million by the end of 1953. Then came the popular I Love Lucy program in 1951 and The Honeymooners in 1955.

Color television came in 1954. Sales began slowly because of the high cost. It was not until the early 1970s that color sets outsold black-and-white ones.

The Early Television Museum collection is one of the world’s largest. About 180 television sets are shown in order by age, with another 50 in storage.

“We have (an example of) virtually every set that is available,” McVoy said. But he is still searching for one made by Philo Farnsworth in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

“Only three still survive as far as we know and they’re all already in other museums,” McVoy said. “If a fourth ever shows up, we’d go to our donors and would be able to get it.”

I’m Jill Robbins. And I'm Gregory Stachel.

Steve Wartenberg reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

museum n. a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as paintings and sculptures or scientific or historical objects) are collected and shown to the public

original adv. when something first happened or began

boring adj. dull and uninteresting

stable adj. not easily moved

dozen n. a group of 12 people or things

virtually adv. very nearly


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