Friday, February 24, 2017

Of course, watching video on tiny screens has made a comeback...

One of the topics I want to take a serious run at one of these days is how the way we think about scientific and technological progress was shaped by two huge spikes, the larger occurring in the late 19th and early 20th century and the other hitting during the postwar era. A big part of that story is the break represented by the Great Depression and the second World War. Though you could argue that the war was actually a period of heightened progress, from a man-in-the-street standpoint, the 30s and the first half of the 40s generally seemed somewhat stagnant.

Television is a useful example. Almost as soon as people were able to transmit voices via wires or over the airwaves, the developers started thinking about ways to add video. This goes all the way back to Alexander Graham Bell. In the early part of the last century, the progress toward television appeared rapid and inevitable.

It is true that the system shown below looks awfully crude, but it represented a stunning advance at the time. Within the space of something like three years the technology went from first public demonstration to actual broadcast received by commercially available sets. In another five years the resolution would top 300 lines, not much by our standards but enough for a reasonable viewing experience.

It is also true that the mechanical approach to prove something of a dead end, but electronic television systems were not far behind. As early as 1929, Philo Farnsworth was publicly demonstrating television systems with no moving parts.

I suspect that most of the people who saw the various demonstrations or who eagerly leafed through each month's edition of magazines like Popular Science back in the late 20s assumed that most modern, upper-class houses of the late 30s would come equipped with a television.

Recommended by the good people at Gizmodo:

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