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Photograph of a selection of television sets displayed at the John Lewis Store in 1949
Television sets 1949 - click to enlarge

Television is a way of bringing pictures and sounds from faraway places into our homes. Today we take it for granted, but until the late 1950s/early 1960s, television sets were still a luxury item for many people.

The television was invented by John Logie Baird in the mid-1920s. It sent, or transmitted, sounds and pictures by using radio waves.

The television aerial on your roof detected waves sent from a transmitter. These waves were turned into signals by the television’s tuner. The signals were made more powerful by electronic circuits. Then they were turned into streams of invisible particles called electrons, which were fired by electron guns on to the back of the screen. Where the electrons hit the screen they made it glow, forming a picture.

Couple watching TV at Expo 1967
Couple watching TV at Expo 1967 -
click for larger image

The world’s first television service began in 1936 when the BBC opened its station at Alexandra Palace in North London. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the number of television sets – TVs – was still only 20,000 and radio was still the prime form of radio entertainment.

This remained the case even after the BBC reopened its television service in June 1946. BBC Radio audiences peaked at 30 million on 6 June 1950 for a boxing match between the American Lee Savold and British hero Bruce Woodcock – that’s far more people than the 13 million who watch a typical episode of Pop Idol or Coronation Street.

Photograph of television and cassette players at the John Lewis Store in 1983
Television & cassette players 1983 -
click for larger image

The event that first gave television a big push was the televised Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. But at £50 for the cheapest TV sets, it was still too expensive for many working class families.

As late as the 1960s, John Lewis stores were still giving people technical advice about how to watch TV. This comes from a 1962 brochure:

"There is no need to view television in the dark. It is more comfortable and better for the eyes if you have a shaded light beside or slightly behind the set. This will relieve eyestrain and allow people to move freely about the room."

1996 television set advert - click to view full image
Colour Television 1996 - click for full image

Colour television was developed in America in the 1950s, but colour TV sets were not sold in large numbers until 1964, when they became cheaper thanks to improved designs and manufacturing. The use of plastic instead of wood meant TVs were no longer the size and style of sideboards, either.

Europe's first colour broadcasts began in the UK in 1967. The first colour programme shown in Britain was a BBC2 live broadcast from Wimbledon. Tennis aside, the first week's highlights included a cowboy show called The Virginian. By the end of the year, 80% of BBC2's broadcasts were in colour.

These days almost every home has a colour TV - some of them the size of cinema screens with amazing all around sound systems. And it's not just radio waves that bring us the pictures, it's cables and satellites, too.

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