Monday, November 19, 2007

Time & Technology Marches On

Human beings are clever little apes. We have walked on the earth's nearest neighbor in space and mapped our own genome. We have harnessed the power of the atom and sent our surrogate eyes and ears into the interstellar void. We have conquered many dread diseases and yet our ultimate individual demise remains a certainty.

Even our more simple technology, while remaining somewhat the same externally, continues incremental evolution over time. The cars of today look and operate much the same as those built 70 years ago. But the automobiles of today are much better than those of the past. Tires rarely go flat, engines are much more fuel efficient and put out less pollutants, and safety features like air bags and seatbelts make for a much less dangerous ride. The engine is controlled by a computer, and reliable electronic ignitions and fuel injection have replaced points and carburetors.

Television is another example. In the 1950s and 1960s, television sets as they were called, worked on vacuum tubes. Like the similar incadescent light bulb, vacuum tubes burn out. TVs of the time would take a few seconds to "warm up" before you could watch. Typically, the sound came on first, followed by a picture appearing on the black and white picture tube. Then when turned off, the picture would shrink to a bright spot that remained on the tube for a few seconds.

It was standard procedure that when a TV started to malfunction, the owner's first task would be to unplug the set, remove the back of the TV, and start pulling out all the tubes. The symptom could be the picture shrinking, or no sound or picture at all. But almost all the time, the problem was a tube gone bad.

Once the tubes were removed and their location in the set noted, a trip to a local grocery or convenience store was next. How well I remember the tube tester at 7-11 where I accompanied my dad with a bag of tubes on many occasions. The tube tester had a panel of tube sockets on top. The procedure was to use a guide book to see how to set the dials, plug the tube into the proper socket, and push a "test" button. A light and gauge indicated if a tube was good or bad. Once the bad tube or tubes were identified, a replacement could be procured from the lower part of the cabinet that held the tube tester, and you would buy the ones you need and head home. Hopefully, once the tubes were back in place, the TV would work fine.

The weird thing is that I remember one particular tube that seemed to go out often on our old Emerson black and white console TV. That tube was 6KE8. That TV was in a blond wood cabinet with two doors that closed to hide the picture tube (screen) when not in use. The speakers were in the bottom half of the cabinet, and in those days there was no remote control. Well, we kids were actually the remote, as we heard "Could one of you kids switch the TV to Channel 11 please?" There was a volume knob and a channel selector knob that let you choose from channels 2-13. That was it. No UHF. And there were 3 channels we had back then via rabbit ear antenna. They were KPRC-TV 2 (NBC), KGUL (Now KHOU) 11 (CBS), and KTRK 13 (ABC). The other channels were all static.

Today, I get a couple of hundred channels, and still not much worth watching. Yet if I were to get in a time machine and bring that old Emerson into 2007, it would still work. That is until early 2009, when the United States shuts off analog television and makes the move to all digital. Now each channel will be capable of high definition and multiple programs over a single station, all in widescreen, color glory, and all without the need for tubes. And even past that date, if the old TV were hooked up to a converter box, cable or satellite receiver, and it would still show programs. That is until that 6KE8 burned out again. I doubt the 7-11 clerk of today would even know what the heck I was talking about.

As for now, my current TV still has one tube...the CRT. This is a plain, standard definition color TV of 7 year vintage, but it looks so good that I see no reason to spend more to go to HD just yet. Someday, I will make the change, but I can't see spending the money for it right now. I guess the days of my being an early adopter of technology are long gone.

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