Where Old TVs Go to Live

05/15/2017 01:48 pm ET
Early TV Museum members repairing a 1954 RCA color TV
Early TV Museum members repairing a 1954 RCA color TV

How many gadgets in your home are nearly a century old? And, if by chance you actually have any nearly century-old gadgets in your home, how many still work?

These are obviously rhetorical questions. Like many tech geeks, I live in a Radio Shack with furniture (which doesn't make my marriage any easier) and am the Historian for the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), and I don't own any nearly century-old gadgets, operational or not.

Located in a non-descript warehouse in Hilliard, OH, a mere 20 minutes from downtown Columbus, however, is the Early TV Museum, where you'll find plenty of nearly century-old gadgets. Arrayed across a dozen carpeted, wood-paneled rooms appropriately reminiscent of your grandfather's den, are some 200 antique televisions dating from 1928 to 1962, as well as some assorted antique TV cameras.

Pre-1960 TVs were solidly built fashionably fine furniture, bulky wooden cabinets enclosing comparatively tiny screens, sometimes with integrated radios and/or record players, with myriad knobs for brightness, contrast, vertical hold and, after 1954, color. Save one, the portable transistorized Philco Safari (1959), all the sets in the museum run on vacuum tubes.

What's startling beyond the mere scope of this collection of ancient TVs are the five black and white pre-war and four color sets that visitors can actually turn on and view by pushing a wall-mounted button. What you'll see is programming original to when the sets were available, such as clips from Milton Berle on the "Texaco Star Theater", or early (and still funny) "The Red Skelton Show".

For those of us old enough to remember the tube-based TV past, the nostalgia inside the museum is palpable, the flickering images acting as a time machine transporting us back to our youth. For those too young, there's the wonder for how we ever survived images so small and fuzzy on such aesthetically obtrusive boxes.

But everyone can marvel at the longevity and hardiness of these old sets. Marvel, since most, including the working models, still include their original decades-old picture tubes.

Even more startling is the loving attention these sets get from the museum's membership who continually repair and restore old sets to full operation, which is what differentiates the Early TV Museum from other relic-collecting entities. This is not just a collection of dead devices, but a home where old TVs and old TV repairmen go to live long and meaningful lives.

While I was visiting, during the museum's annual Early TV Convention, several members spent hours tweaking an RCA CT-100, the first mass produced color TV starting in March 1954. Using a DVD of The Wizard of Oz as its source material, the group studied schematics and hooked up modern lab test equipment to determine why the TV wasn't producing perfect pigments.

After several hours of tinkering and analyzing, it was discovered there was a bad tube. Amazingly, one of the technicians simply wandered into the adjacent enormous garage piled high with gear in varying stages of repair and/or restoration and found a replacement tube. Amazingly, someone is still making vacuum tubes for 60-year-old TVs.

Museum Origins

Opened in 2001, the Early TV Museum and its Early TV Foundation was founded and is run by Steve McVoy, who co-owned cable TV systems in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky for 30 years.

"I have always been fascinated with TV," McVoy explained. "There is a picture of me at the age of about 10 pulling a red wagon with signs on both sides saying 'TV Repair.' When I was in middle school I worked after school at a TV repair shop helping the technicians taking sets out of cabinets, etc. I occasionally worked on sets from the 1940s."

When McVoy sold his interest in his cable companies in 1999, he cast about for something to do. "At that time, I was so ignorant about television history that I didn't realize that TV went back before World War II."

McVoy started meeting with collectors, who kept their precious CRT artifacts in attics, garages and basements, out of the public eye. "Though the Smithsonian and Henry Ford museums have a small number of TV sets on display, there was no museum in the U.S. dedicated to the hardware of early television," McVoy explained. "So I decided to start a small museum."

McVoy bought a warehouse in Hilliard and started with around 50 sets, procured "mainly from collectors who had duplicates or who were downsizing, or from the estate of collectors who died. In the last five years we have relied exclusively on donations."

McVoy started with 2,500 square feet of display area, growing to the current 6,000 square feet over the next eight years. Open only on weekends, Saturdays 10am-6pm, Sundays noon to 5pm, the museum averages 200 visitors a month.

Museum Highlights

Samples include early Nipkow Wheel-based mechanical models of the late 1920s and early 1930s from early pioneers such as Scottish innovator John Logie Baird and American TV pioneer Charles Francis Jenkins, early commercial models from all-electronic TV inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and models unveiled at the 1939 World's Fair by David Sarnoff and RCA, and early color models from the early 1950s including samples of both CBS's mechanical system and early NTSC-standard prototypes and consumer models, including the aforementioned RCA CT-100.

Like any new technology, a host of manufacturers jumped on the new technology bandwagon in the late 1940s, and the museum includes immediate post-war samples from more than three dozen brands, American and European. Some of my favorites include:

Baird Televisor (1929)
Baird Televisor (1929)

Baird Televisor (1929): The first TV set made and sold in quantity, this early mechanical Nipkow-wheel-based model included a postage-stamp-sized 3/4 inch by 1 1/3-inch screen. It could be bought assembled or as a kit for £26, around $2,100 today.

RCA TRK-12 (1939)
RCA TRK-12 (1939)

RCA TRK-12 (1939): This hulking 12-inch model, priced at $600 ($10,515 in 2017 dollars), had a tube more than two feet long, mounted vertically with the screen facing up to keep the cabinet relatively slim. Consumers viewed the picture via a mirror mounted in the lid – and so can visitors. This is one of the sets still working.

Crosley Swing-a-View (1947)
Crosley Swing-a-View (1947)

Crosley Swing-a-View (1947): Not there was much to watch just after WWII, but if your viewing angle was off, you could pull out and rotate the position of the 10-inch screen inside this Crosley radio/TV combo to suit where you were sitting.

DuMont Royal Sovereign (1951)
DuMont Royal Sovereign (1951)

Dumont RA-119 Royal Sovereign (1951): This aptly named set featured the largest black-and-white tube of its time, 30-inches diagonal. As you can see, it's also one of the museum's working models.

RCA CT-100 (1954);  its front faceplate is sitting on top of it
RCA CT-100 (1954); its front faceplate is sitting on top of it

RCA CT-100 (1954): The first color TV to be mass manufactured, this 15-inch set first went on sale in April 1954 for $1,000 ($9,056 today), which sounds about right. And now that the museum membership figured out the problem, it's also operating in full color.

Kuba Komet (1962)
Kuba Komet (1962)

Kuba Komet (1962): Like something out of "The Jetsons," this German-made wedge-shaped entertainment center incorporated a 23-inch black-and-white TV along with a slide-out record player and radio behind the base's drop-down door.

These are just a handful of the vintage TV wonders on display at the Early TV Museum. If you can't get to Hilliard, OH, you can peruse and view photos of the the museum's extensive collection here, and can support its efforts or become a member here.

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