The television counts among a handful of designs that most dramatically changed 20th-century society. As this illustrated poster by Reddit user CaptnChristiana visualizes, the design has evolved mightily since the boxy retro contraptions of yesteryear, like the Emyvisor and the Marconi. With flatscreens and high-definition displays that can seem crisper and more colorful than reality itself, 21st-century viewers are comparatively spoiled.
The modern television’s earliest ancestor was the Octagon, made by General Electric in 1928. It used a mechanical, rotating disc technology to display images on its three-inch screen. While it was never mass-produced, it played what is widely considered the world’s first television drama: "The Queen’s Messenger."
Soon, this primitive technology evolved into commercially available home TV sets, accessible, at first, only as fancy toys for the wealthy. Designers knew how revolutionary television would be, and advertisers milked the technology's novelty in ways that may now seem kitschy and dated: as the 1936 Cossor Television was advertised in a brochure: "Radio—its thrills, its interests, increased one hundred fold by Television. . . . Radio is blind no longer. The most exciting running commentary is made immeasurably more thrilling when you can SEE too!" The Cossor came in a walnut cabinet of sorts, its screen hidden by doors when not in use—a design feature that was largely retired in later designs, as were round screens, seen in 1949’s Raytheon TV, and the built-in legs seen on sets in the '50s and '60s.
The number of television sets in use in the United States rose from 6,000 in 1946 to more than 12 million by 1951. The infographic is missing some key moments in TV design—it jumps from 1973 to 1998, leaving out '80s console TVs and the rest of the sets from the decade of excess, but it offers a visualization of how over the decades, buttons replaced knobs and dials, profiles got slimmer, and sleek black replaced colorful frames. TVs, in the natural progression of things, became smart. In 2011, 96.7% of American households own television sets. From its roots as an experimental, octagon-shaped viewing device less than a century ago, the TV has become a piece of furniture as commonplace as the dinner table and far more worshipped, with American viewers averaging five hours of daily devotion to their screens.
[Image: 1950s television via Flickr / Clapagaré]