In the beginning the consumer television set was a large box with a small blurry screen. To successfully receive one of the few channels being broadcast one needed an aerial to pick up the broadcasts. They came in two sorts. One was a huge “H” or “X” shape that was located on the roof and aligned with the signal from the broadcaster. The other was a small device consisting of a base made of plastic and two metal prongs, known as “rabbit’s ears“.
Of the two types you will only see the rabbit’s ears aerial still being used today. Since television has moved from the VHF (Very High Frequency) band to the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) band, television aerials have shrunk in size and the technology has now improved so that television aerials have become the compact roof top Yagi style aerials that are common today.
Although it is obvious from the shape of the Yagi aerials that they receive a directed signal, I suspect that not many people know why they are the shape that they are. There is only one element that picks up the signal and that is one of the cross bars on the main shaft of the aerial. All others elements (including the mesh element at the back if there is one) serve to concentrate and direct the incoming signal towards the main element or dipole.
This means that the aerial can pick out weaker signals from general noise but it does mean that the aerial must be aligned fairly accurately with the transmitters signal.
There is a new type of aerial that has become common in recent years and that is the dish aerial. Dish aerials are generally used to pick up signals from stationary satellites and need to detect weak signals broadcast from space. The actual dipole is in the small plastic box in front of the dish. The dish is a passive reflector and just concentrates the small signal onto the dipole in the box, much like the Yagi aerial does for UHF frequencies. Satellite signals are of even higher frequency than the UHF ones.
In the early days of broadcasting and with the use of VHF frequencies, ghosting was a problem. Because early aerials (and “the rabbit’s ear” type of aerials) were not particularly directional they could receive signals which had bounced off various obstacles on their way from the transmitter to the receiver. The reflection from obstacles such as hills and large buildings meant that the receiver would collect signals which had travelled by different routes and hence had taken slightly different times to reach it.
The result of this was that the images on the screen either appeared to have shadows or duplicates. This phenomenon was called “ghosting” and in a bad case it might appear that in a broadcast soccer match that the match was being contested by two teams of twenty two players using two balls.
This phenomenon is not often seen these days as UHF signals and satellite signals are much more directional and hence do not receive signals bounced from obstacles in their line of view which has a much narrower angle.
In the early days of television technology the electronic equipment in the receivers was in its infancy. The circuits leaked signals between their parts, and components were not as stable as they are today. Valves and other components had to “warm up” to operating temperature and often the oscillators and other circuits tended to “drift” away from the nominal operating frequencies.
In real terms this meant that those watching the program would often find that the picture would appear to roll up or down the screen. Someone would have to leap up and twiddle the controls at the back of the television to try to stop the picture rolling. Very often the twiddler would adjust the control to stop the rolling, only to find that his or her very presence had affected the circuits and the screen would start to roll as soon as he or she moved away.
Other effects would cause other issues. Unstable circuits would cause the image to shake like a jelly, or tear completely in one or more places. It was a true art form to twiddle the available knobs (of which there were many) to produce a decent and more or less stable picture.
Screens were small. Early sets had dimensions of perhaps 9 inches (23 cms). Today screens of 50 inches or more are common. Each screen had (in the UK at least) 405 lines all of which were scanned in one or more cycles. The early television tubes were not very accurate and each line could be clearly seen, and so sometimes could the “flyback” as the circuitry returned the beam to the top of the screen for the next scan.
The end effect was a small picture blurred by circuitry instabilities, often with artifacts like the “flyback” lines polluting the picture, and plagued by instabilities, but which showed pictures of news around the world, or educational programs or discussion panels, plays or game shows. And they even broadcast cartoons for the kids. Everyone wanted one, of course!
Obviously things improved very quickly. Television electronics became much better, and the pictures much more stable especially when transistors were introduced. The screen increased in size, and colour television was introduced. Some would argue that the quality of the television content has dropped dramatically, but that doesn’t change the fact that most people have one or more televisions in their house and it has become the central focus of many lounges and living rooms. Many people have them in bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens these days.
It is ironic that broadcast television may well have peaked. More and more people use their television sets to show content that has not been broadcast, but which has been obtained over the Internet. It may be that this network distributed content may totally displace the broadcast television service and that people will no longer be tied to a broadcast schedule, picking up content that they want to watch from a myriad of Internet sources.