The Screens We Watch

Old TVAmericans spend a lot of time in front of screens of some sort – televisions, computers, smartphones. Various studies estimate that the average adult spends between 6 and 8 hours per day in front of screens. So today I thought I would take a short tour through the history and the future of screens.

Early discoveries. Our screens got their start with the early work on cathode ray tubes that began in the late 1800s. In 1907, Henry Joseph Round discovered electroluminescence; later that same year, Russian scientist Boris Rosing was able to transmit crude images onto a screen. Television got its real start in the late twenties when John Logie Baird was able to transmit faces, objects, and colors onto a screen.

Television. The first commercial television screens were produced by Telefunken in Germany in 1934. But TV exploded onto the market after World War II. By 1954 56% of the homes in the US had a television and by 1962 90% had them. These were all cathode ray tubes that transmitted images using an electron gun onto a fluorescent screen. Kids today have a hard time believing that a TV in the 50s was as heavy and hard to move as a washing machine is today.

Color Television. Color televisions were produced starting in the early 50s and became widely available after 1960. These also used a cathode ray tube and three separate electron beams, one for each primary color (red, green, and blue).

Computer Monitors. Early computer monitors were also cathode ray tubes, but generally of one color only. I’m old enough to remember the first computers with the orange letters on black background followed by the green on black screens. We had the first Macs at our office in 1984 and they had a 9-inch, monochrome 512×342 pixel display. Today the newest Macs have a 5,120 x 2,880 pixel display that supports millions of colors. I also had an Osborne 1, the first ‘portable’ computer with a tiny, 5-inch orange screen.

Newer TV Technologies. By the early 2000s there were three new technologies that quickly replaced cathode ray tube TVs: plasma TVs, rear-projection TVs, and LCD TVs. A plasma TV works using small cells of electrically charged ionized gases to produce the picture. Rear-projection TVs were just that—a projector using the same basic technology as front projectors used in classrooms and businesses. But LCDs (liquid crystal display) won in the marketplace and by 2007 almost all TVs were LCD. LCDs work by having a tiny transmitter, immersed in liquid, for each pixel. These transmitters are induced to produce specific colors.

LED TVs. The newest technology are LED TVs (OLEDs, FEDs, and SEDs) that use tiny light-emitting diodes to produce the color. These TVs are just hitting the market but have not yet gotten much market penetration. OLEDs look to be the most promising technology and it uses tiny LEDS emitting light onto an organic electroluminescent film.

Touchscreens. The first touchscreen was developed by E.A. Johnson in 1965. These were first used for air traffic control and were made available for consumers with the IBM Simon. Apple used a touchscreen on the first iPhone and these are now standard in billions of smartphones and tablet screens.

Retina Display. Apple introduced retina display screens with all of its products in 2014. This basically means that the resolution is so great that the human eye is unable to detect any pixilation.

Future Screens. There are a number of new screen technologies now hitting the market. For cell phones and other uses there are bendable screens that are thin, flexible and even transparent. We are on the verge of being able to buy TVs that come in a tube that you can unroll and hang anywhere.

And we are now seeing what comes after screens. It’s hard to call the experience inside of a virtual reality headset a “screen”. It is instead an immersive 3D display that puts a viewer into the middle of a scene. And there are even now early versions of whole-room holograms that are the precursor to the Star Trek holodecks. I’m imagining that the day may come soon when kids will have no idea what a TV set or monitor are.

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