“Now, boys and girls, gather round and listen closely. Did you know once upon a time, this television set wasn’t so flat and so thin?” said the imaginary tech enthusiast to the uninterested group of PS4-engrossed kids hammering Call of Duty at 1080p HD at 60 frames per second.
“No, once this beautiful LCD panel you see mounted to the wall, which daddy or mummy worked very hard to pay for, was as deep as the ocean blue, required a tag-team of professional wrestlers to lift, and took up three quarters of the living space. We called them CRTs and they were awesome.”
There are few pieces of loyal technology we threw on the scrapheap faster than the cathode ray tube television. Before plasma, LCD and OLED displays dominated, the CRT had served viewers well for around three-quarters of a century.
As soon as those younger, slimmer, sexier, better-looking came along, ‘ole Bessie’ was out of the window… quite literally in some cases, as there was no way we were carrying those hulking beasts back down the stairs.
The birth of CRT
However, what we forget, as we look towards the Super HD or 4K era, is that without the invention of the dearly departed cathode ray tube way back in 1897, television as we know it wouldn’t have existed. Basically, that unit at the back of the set that gave it all of that girth is the televisual Flux Capacitor.
Although the first CRT televisions - and the first televisions per se - weren’t publically available until 1934, the genesis of the technology itself dates back to the late 19th century, when an English physicist J.J. Tomson successfully began deflecting cathode rays. The first known CRT unit followed later that year. In 1907, CRT units were used to showcase video signals of geometrics shapes on a display. Television! It’s been around a while, you know.
TV adoption didn’t really skyrocket until after World War II, aided by greater technological advances, with televisions at the forefront of the new consumer society.
Perhaps the most famous and popular range of CRTs was Sony’s Trinitron brand, which was conceived in 1966 and endured until 2008. The vacuum tube that gave CRT its name has one or more electrode guns. Sony’s combined three different types of technology to craft a trinity. Hence Trinitron.
The first model, the 13-inch KV-1310 (above), arrived in 1968, and was met with incredibly positive reviews. Sony’s CRT tech offered twice the colour brightness and better contrast compared with other TVs on the market. It put Sony in charge of the colour TV market and allowed it to charge a significant premium for its products.
Indeed, over the next four decades Sony’s Trinitron range simply got bigger and better. The 36-inch KW-3600HD (below) was the first HD-compatible model in 1990 and a year later came the Super Trinitron upgrade came in 1991.
The demise of the CRT TV
Sadly for the Japanese giant, the end of its cup run came in 1996, when the patent expired on the Trinitron tech, allowing other manufacturers to use the tube design – or a slight variation - for their own sets.
Oddly enough, today’s most pervading televisual tech, the LCD (liquid crystal display) tech pre-dates Sony’s Trinitron televisions. It was actually invented in 1964 by another Brit, George Gray, who developed the molecules that made it possible. However, it wasn’t until the middle of the noughties that flat-screen tech really took charge as larger HD models came to the fore at surprisingly reasonably prices.
Sony’s new Bravia range of flatscreen displays took precedence when the company stopped producing CRT Trinitron Sets in 2008, a full 40 years after they first went on sale.
That doesn’t mean to say CRTs have completely disappeared. Many people are still hanging on to them, and with good reason.
HD tellies hate playing VHS cassettes and they’re not too keen on older games consoles either. There’s only so much you can spread that tiny old 480i resolution across a 1080p screen before it starts to look really, really terrible! Beyond all that, some of the models from the 70s are just too damn cool looking to throw out!
The death of CRT has also hit the arcade video game industry – the Donkey Kongs of this world – which have historically been powered by CRT monitors. As the big manufacturers ceased production years ago, supplies have been diminishing. Soon there may be no CRT monitors left to step in when the existing ones die out.
And if you really need convincing why they haven’t quite died out yet, you don’t have to search too long to find a videophile who maintains that CRT HD televisions still provide the better image quality than an LCD. Did we wave the big beasts off into the sunset too soon?
Find out more about television technology in our feature: Breakthroughs in TV technology which have changed the way we watch