Today in History – March 25, 1954 – Production of RCA’s first color television sets. RCA based their color television on the 1947 patent application of Alfred Schroeder, for a shadow mask CRT. Their system passed FCC approval in late 1953 and sales of RCA color televisions began on March 25, 1954.
Yet, as is often the case for new technologies, this standard arose following intense competition. CBS had developed the field sequential color system, which had been approved as the national standard by the FCC in 1950. However, the broadcast technology was not compatible with earlier black and white television sets. RCA contested the CBS standard, effectively delaying its implementation. By the time CBS prevailed in 1951 and began broadcasting in color, over 10.5 million black and white television sets had been sold (approximately half of those were RCA sets), none of which could receive the CBS color signal. To add to the challenge, the Korean War led to a ban on the production of color televisions in 1951. The CBS standard became a commercial failure. In 1953, the FCC approval of the CBS color system was withdrawn and replaced by the dot sequential color system designed by RCA. Interestingly, CBS had proposed similar field sequential systems in 1941 and 1946. At that time, there were fewer black and white televisions in consumer households. Had the system been approved earlier, there may have been less concern about compatibility with black and white sets and, therefore, a greater chance that the CBS standard would have been successful.
On March 25, 1954, RCA began mass production of the model CT-100 color television. The cost of the set was $1,000 – not much less than a new car! Unsurprisingly, it took some time for color television to catch on. Not until 1966 did a network (NBC) broadcast all of its programming in color, and color television sales did not exceed black and white sales until 1972.
Initial quality of color television receivers was low: the picture was small (the CT-100 had a 12-inch screen) and the images were not very bright. Advances in technology such as the transistor and integrated circuits led to improvements in size, power consumption, and image quality. In recent years, the very standard underlying color television has been subject to intense debate, as high-definition digital television comes to the fore.
IEEE presented a Milestone award to David Sarnoff, a former RCA chairman, to honor his accomplishments with color television. In fact, ninety-five percent of the standard for broadcasting and receiving color television signals originated with RCA under his leadership. The IEEE Sarnoff Symposium has now become an annual event, bringing together telecommunication experts from industry, universities and government.
Check out the Engineering Pathway’s educational resources on the color television. For more educational resources, see our electrical engineering education and computer engineering education community pages. The Engineering Pathway also hosts Engineering Education communities in all ABET-accredited disciplines.