Groping for the Platonic TV Set

It's often interesting to examine design from the point when a type of product makes its first commercial appearance until things settle down to a "best" general solution that persists with relatively minor variations until the class of product becomes obsolete or a major technological advance requires a renewed design evolution.

Designers are literally making things up as they're going on, uncertain what the ultimate general solution will be. There are trials, errors and successes (measured by market acceptance) along the way.

Today's post deals with television set design evolution in a sketchy way from the late 1930s till nearly 1960. Call it 20 years -- 15 if the "time out" for World War 2 is factored in. By "sketchy" I mean that entire classes of TV sets such as tabletop or semi-portable examples are omitted from this review. Perhaps I'll get around to dealing with them another time.

Marconi - 1937
RCA sets displayed at 1939 New York World's Fair
For some reason many of the very earliest television sets that people could actually buy had a top with a mirror underneath that could be propped open when one was about to turn it on (the controls were under that top along with the cathode ray tube - CRT). The CRT was set up so that it projected a reversed image that the mirror then righted so that the image was normal -- that is, so any text images could be read normally. Actually, the reason is pretty obvious: the console containing the television set was simply another sort of cabinet when not in use, just another piece of furniture. (See below for later examples of this design strategy.) The problem with the mirror feature was that viewers had to be positioned almost exactly opposite the set and have their eyes at the correct height to be able to view the image properly. Direct-viewing TVs were less restricted. Even so, CRTs were small in the early days, so viewers still had to huddle and stay closer to the screen than later on. Mirror-top televisions were still being sold in the late 1940s, but then disappeared from the marketplace.

Advertisement showing Dumont console - ca. 1950
For many years television sets resided in living rooms, where families tended to gather before the "family room" gained popularity in America starting, say, in the mid-1950s. Therefore the expensive TV set (and they often cost more than today's largest flat-screen TVs, adjusting for inflation) was a major item of furniture that many wives wanted to fit well with the rest of the décor. Note that the console has doors than can be closed to hide the screen when not in use.

Crosley TV with radio/record player - 1950
This Crosley is a pretty typical less-than-a-console TV with respect to price and style. (Actually, the ensemble shown is contained in a console -- but the set itself in the upper-right corner could just have well be freestanding, and probably was in most cases.) It just sits there on one side of the living room and its big "eye" stares back at you all the time. Of course, this is how most television sets were over the last 60 years, console models having gradually faded from the scene.

Zenith with round screen - 1950
For some reason Zenith built a line of sets with round screens for a few years. They seemed odd at the time, but at least a few people bought them. Why a round screen? Well, cathode ray tubes were round in those days and perhaps designers felt that a round "frame" for the image was "functional," the holy grail of purist industrial design and architecture. But source images were essentially rectangular, so the round format clipped off parts that might be of interest to the viewer.

Philco Predicta - ca.1959
This TV set was built 10 years before the moon-landing image being shown on the screen. But hey, this design was really super-dooper space-age! Actually the modular screen/innards box concept wasn't a bad one; most desktop computers until recently followed the same practice. Philco's problem was that this line of TV sets was unreliable, thus helping to kill sales. Another negative might have been that the design would clash with traditional-style living room décor; TVs tended to reside in living rooms in those days, as noted above.