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RCA Manufactures The 1st Ever Color TV Set at 12.5 Inches, $1,000

Entertainment | March 25, 2020

Color television made its debut after the Federal Communications Commission accepted the RCA-developed "Compatible Color" System permitting colorcasting of programs without blanking the screens of black-and-white TV sets. Source: Bettmann / Contributor, v

The RCA CT-100 color TV was the first color television produced for the masses. The company began manufacturing it in 1954, when there were few color broadcasts, and its $1,000 price tag would make it a luxury item. This hulking beast, its innards packed with vacuum tubes, showed a picture that measured just 12 inches wide. About 4,000 were produced, and only 300 or so are known to exist today. While the CT-100 was, for consumers, the first color TV on the market, it wasn't the first color TV ever made.

The start of a new colorful era (soundandvision)

The color television stands as one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. Today, it’s how many of us get our news, entertain ourselves, even improve ourselves with the litany of educational programs. However, the historic invention of the color television reads like the space race between Russia and the United States.

Only this race was between Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and Colombia Broadcasting System (CBS). There was also an army of engineers fighting over who would invent the best system and most crucially, who got credit for the invention. 

Early Days

The competition to create the first color TV was stiff (wikipedia)

The earliest inventions of color television began in the early 1900s with men you’ve never heard of, like Vladimir K. Zworykin and versions of color TV that never quite got off the ground. Things really heated up in the ‘20s with John Logie Baird’s design, which is credited as the first color television. However, without getting into the technical mumbo jumbo, his invention was mechanical in nature, while the basis for our television today is electronic. 

A Race To Lawsuits

We've certainly come a long way (soundandvision)

Peter Goldmark of CBS perfected Baird’s design and introduced a rather shoddy color television to a market that didn’t have any color channels available in October 1950. At the same time Goldmark and CBS got their color television off the ground, so too, did RCA but they first had to deal with a lawsuit from a freelance engineer named Philo Farnsworth. 

It’s Electric!

The battle for color television supremacy (soundandvision)

His invention of the electronic version of the color television ultimately became the basis for our TVs today. Unfortunately, for Farnsworth, he had to fight for years to earn the credit and money for his creation. That’s because RCA’s color TV violated Farnsworth’s patents and naturally, RCA didn’t want to shell out any money to him, going to court for years.

Farnsworth's high school teacher presented evidence in court proving Farnsworth's 1934 invention predated RCA's. Finally, Philo Farnsworth won the patent lawsuit and won $1 miilion. Of course, this lawsuit was small potatoes in comparison to the one brewing between CBS and RCA. 

A Supreme Court Showdown

Naturally, the battle was settled in court (Reddit)

In 1951, the FCC ruled that only CBS’s invention was qualified to broadcast in color as the picture quality of the others was deemed inadequate. Naturally, CBS’s competitors disagreed with the ruling and filed an injunction. That injunction essentially neutralized color television until the suit could be settled.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in CBS' favor, decreeing that the lower courts followed the processes properly. Justice Frankfurter wrote, “courts should not overrule an administrative decision merely because they disagree with its wisdom.”

Oddly enough, color TV would be postponed for another two years as manufacturers were required to supply the U.S military for the Korean War that was then raging. There was also the issue that most of the networks weren’t broadcasting in color anyway.

It would be another decade before most networks switched to color broadcasts, and a few years further until Americans began buying color TVs en masse. So despite the earliest inventions of the color television coming at the turn of the 20th century, it took nearly 70 years for lawsuits and the American infrastructure to support our now holy grail of color TV

Tags: CBS | Color TV | Technology | U.S. Supreme Court | RCA

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!