Williams column: From vacuum tubes to flatscreens

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 12, 2011

By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
I grew up on black-and-white television, actually never owning a color set until I was married, both marriage and color TV being novel things to me at the time! In the case of my old TV set as a child, and later as a teenager, heat could be felt coming out of the circulation vents in the back. The old TV, much warmer than those now, which are cold, thinner and more shallow (both in their dimensions and in their broadcast content) might have added a degree or two to my childhood home’s winter warmth, but its additional contribution was lost in the abundant heat from our coal stove, later oil.
In their modern achievement of having almost no appreciable warmth, modern television sets seem to have come close to achieving the goal of cold luminescence, such as found in the cold light-producing chemicals of the lightning bug.The current trend (there always is a “current trend,” isn’t there, in an existence always time- and -invention driven) is “flatscreen.”
Not to be outdone by this current time of large flatscreen — TVs on the living room wall, those of my generation had “flatscreens” also,with names such as “Capitol,” “Center,” and later “Terrace,” but we had to go to Salisbury to see them. One had to remain in his car to view the “flatscreens” of really monstrous proportions, having names affixed to them such as “Salisbury” and “601.” One time, I drove off with my girlfriend and one of these flatscreen’s speakers . I stopped the car and furtively left the speaker sitting next to that from which it had been ripped.
Although the picture tube of our old TV set produced only black-and-white light (that’s interesting: even a black hole doesn’t release black light, but instead, no light at all), I could detect a bit of color when looking through the heat-releasing vents at the back of the set.
That color was the dull red of glowing vacuum tubes within, replaced by circuit boards today.
When I was very young, despite the knowledge that the scenes on those giant “flatscreens” were projected, I wondered if, somewhere in back of them, there might be giant tubes, glowing red, which provided some aid in making the pictures and sound appear. To me, those vertical cylindrical tubes within my old television set also looked like one of those futuristic scenes of cities, re-run from the 1930s.
In looking deeply into the parallel spaces of those heat-releasing vents of my old television set, I noticed some traces of webs, leading me to believe that some enterprising spider had discovered a cozy place to live, next to the warmth of those dully-glowing tubes, that same glow possibly aiding the spider by attracting some flying insect, narrower than those vents, into his web and reach.
The television broadcasting back then had a daily beginning and end. The station’s broadcasting ceased sometime after midnight, seeming to coincide with the ending credits of the Tonight Show during the week, or Shock Theater on the weekend.
The television stations of that day would then sign off in a somewhat military fashion, with scenes of the United States Air Force’s Blue Angel’s aerial team of acrobatic jets, set to the inspiring music of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Sometimes, additionally inspiring scenes of America’s great national parks would be shown, with “America the Beautiful” being played.
This daily “send off” at the end of the day’s television programming seemed to give more meaning to those shows we had watched, this being like a small-scale analogy of death’s giving additional meaning to the life which had preceeded it, neither television nor earthly life being allowed to drone on forever, round-the-clock, resulting in meaningless repetition and monotony.
The station’s “test pattern” would then be displayed throughout the night until “sign-on “time the next morning. Many of those patterns consisted of numbers, concentric circles, etc. Back then, I wondered what was being “tested.” Perhaps the lenses of those massive floor-model television cameras were being re-focused on that test pattern ( as an eye tries to focus on a chart on the optometrist’s wall) to test their clarity before the beginning of the next morning’s telecast.
The all-night test pattern most distinct in my memory, was that of a Native- American chief in stately profile, gazing majestically towards some unknown place, far in the distance. When I would awaken during the night and switch on the television, that early headressed, true- American would be on watch, having been earlier preceeded by musical anthems, acrobatic jets, and the scenes of a canyon on a grand scale.
While that Native-American chieftan watched through the night in those unseen airwaves along the Old Concord Road, I slept safely in my bed, as did that little reclusive spider in his web, adjacent to those once-glowing tubes , now dark and cooling until morning, and the beginning of another broadcast day.