This broadcasting phenomenon was described in Australia as early as 1928 in the Melbourne journal Radiovision as “seeing by wireless”. In Europe, early TV broadcasting was described variously as telecine, telecina and elektrische telescop.

Early TV design was dependent on the wide variety of mechanical picture-generating devices initially developed in Germany by Paul Nipkow in 1884 and refined by the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird in 1923, the Hungarian engineer Dénes Mihály in 1929, and others.

Simply described, these early image broadcasters contained a revolving perforated disc (the Nipkow disc) that sequentially scanned horizontal sections of images with a light source that produced a photoelectric charge for a TV signal transmitter circuit.

The electrical charge was carried (or transmitted) to an identical revolving disc that reproduced the scanned image in reverse, with early image sizes approximately 90 x 90 mm.

The evolution of most functional objects such as the TV draws on the phenomenon of atavism. That is, a new product design features elements of a previous incarnation of an associated object.

The mechanical TV inventors drew their atavistic inspiration from the earlier devices developed for moving photographic images. Relying on the short-lived persistence of an image on the human retina, ‘living images’ were created by viewing sequential photographs of movement as early as the 1830s.

These photographic devices were known as kinetic viewers and include the Phantascope (1832), the French-developed Revolver photographique (1874) and the Kinetoscope (c 1889).

As their names suggest, most kinetic viewers relied on circular motion in the form of a wheel or disc and some of these ancestors of the 20th-century TV allowed the illusion of moving images to be seen though small translucent milk-glass lenses or framed viewers.

Despite a widely publicised exhibition of a mechanical TV broadcast at London’s Selfridges department store as early as 1925, the revolving Nipkow disc was doomed by its limited picture clarity. The Nipkow disc TV also defied attempts to design a friendly TV cabinet, and surviving mechanical TVs look like they would be more comfortable in a physics lab than a family home.

While inventors continued to tinker with mechanical TVs, other developers were pursuing the use of a cathode-ray tube to create TV images. Hand-blown glass cathode-ray tubes introduced a cathode (negative charge) at one end and an anode (positive charge) at the opposite end.

When a vacuum was created in the cylindrical glass tube, electrons would flow freely from the cathode toward the anode and a high-voltage electron flow could be directed onto a fluorescent surface at the end of the tube to create an image.

This fluorescent image could be quickly adjusted and focused and by 1925 German inventor Max Dieckmann had developed (but not commercialised) a plausible cathode-ray TV system.

The cathode-ray developments led to the electronic TV receiver and immediately began to destroy any further interest in mechanical TV systems. The technical development of the electronic TV migrated to the USA and, with generous financial support from the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a successful commercial TV system was developed.

Its RCA developer, the Russian émigré Vladimir Zworykin, described the electronic picture tube in his 1929 patent as a Kinescope.

The development of an electronic camera system for the cathode ray TV system lagged behind and the first images commercially broadcast for the electronic TV tube were transmitted by a kinetic (Nipkow disc-based) TV camera system.

The electronic TV studio camera remained in development through the 1930s with the definitive patent finally issued to Zworykin in 1942. This made the entire TV system fully electronic.

The industrial designers (known as stylists in the 1930s) were summoned to design and develop a suitable housing for this new electronic tube. The shape of the cathode-ray tube complicated their task.

The early tubes (each hand blown) were shaped like a narrow-necked flask with a flattened picture surface at one end. Restricted by the ancient craft skills of the glassblower, the early TV tube picture surfaces were limited to oval or round viewing areas.

The compositional expectation of a potential TV viewer, conditioned by years of viewing framed objects and theatre on the proscenium stage, was a rectangular viewing area. One of the designer’s challenges was to create this illusion by framing the images with the TV cabinet.

Unable to visualise a new form or material for the electronic TV, the designers drew on the cabinetry developed for the wireless radio industry around 1920. Once again, the phenomenon of atavism reappears in the design of a wholly new product.

The stylists designed an upright timber veneer cabinet containing the TV tube in the upper third of the cabinetry with a speaker screen installed below. All the control knobs (usually four), for volume, light and dark, contrast and fine tuning were on the face of the cabinet.

The circular (soon to be rectangular) TV tube was commonly masked with a light-coloured matt framing to soften the transition between the image and the cabinet.

In Britain where TV went to air with an hour of broadcasting in late 1936, the BBC was quick to commercialise TV with a license fee for home receivers administered by the postal department.

The public was enthusiastic and British manufacturers such as Marconi-EMI, HMV, EKCO, Pye and others had manufactured and sold over 20 000 TV receivers by 1939. Early TV manufacturers in the USA included RCA, Philco and Zenith. In Germany, Telefunken commanded the market. Generally, TVs were expensive, with a mid-range set selling for approximately US$500 in the late 1930s.

German TV developers were amongst the most progressive in this new medium and a short TV feature titled Wochenende (Weekend; 1929), the first film made exclusively for TV, broadcast in 1931.

Under the National Socialist government, German TV became an element of national pride and the 11th Olympic Games held in Berlin in 1936 were filmed on TV (using Zworykin-designed Iconoscope cameras) and transmitted through the German post office. The Berlin Olympics were viewed in twenty-five television parlours in the Olympic Village and selected theatres.

Although commercial broadcasting did not begin in Australia until 1956, there had been considerable interest in TV and mechanical TVs had been a topic for discussion in the local press from the 1920s. A demonstration of a mechanical TV took place in Brisbane as early as 1930, followed by a broadcast in 1934.

When commercial TV broadcasting began, British consortiums under the names Philco, EKCO, Pye, Astor and others were locally manufacturing electronic TVs. Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA) appears to be the only wholly Australian-owned TV-manufacturing firm operating in 1956 and a generous six-month warranty was available with each AWA set.

AWA also had one of Australia’s first styling studios specialising in domestic and industrial radios. In 1969, AWA industrial designer William (Bill) Moody won the Sebel Design Merit Award for his Telstar P4 portable TV available in burnt orange, Wedgwood blue, GT gold and alpine white.

From the beginning, the TV cabinet, speaker system and control buttons were driven by the technical requirements of the receiver. This approach continues to resonate with the design and manufacture of the more recent flat screen plasma/LCD TVs.

As the TV cabinet is part of decor, TV designers continue to adapt the unit to its surroundings, with cabinetry, finishes and colours that meld with contemporary trends in interior design. By the mid-20th century, the electronic hearth was the new focal point of the living room and the open fireplace was an endangered species. 

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