3. Your Sights and Sounds

In 1950, radios were powered by thermionic valves, which glowed eerily in the dark from the back of the set. Most sets had a decent speaker (all transmissions were monophone), and they were usually designed to fit in as an item of furniture, having a dark bakelite or wooden veneer finsh. A newcomer in a few homes was the television, also in wood veneer, usually with a potted plant on top, showing pictures on a small (12") cathode ray tube in usually lilac or sepia-tinged black and white. In European countries, like the UK, there was usually only one state-funded broadcasting channel, which only broadcast in the late afternoon, showing children's programmes and westerns, and in the evenings for the adults, with news, current affairs, plays, shows, and the occasional comedy series.

The invention of the transistor made them much less power-hungry and enabled the radio (and television) receivers to be much smaller. This change coincided with the renaissance of the Japanese economy after the war years, and with their inherent emphasis on reliable quality production led to a gradual dominance of Japan in manufacturing radio and television equipment over the coming years. A typical example was the first pocket-sized (well almost) battery-powered transistor radio in 1957. This was the first opportunity people had to carry their sound choices with them as they moved, albeit using the radio station's comperes as the arbiters of good taste.

The radio channels themselves were changing their target audiences too. For instance in 1951 Radio Luxembourg began broadcasting popular music in English in the evenings at 208 m on the medium waveband, taking advantage of its reach as far as the UK in the hours of darkness. Strictly speaking, according to UK law, it was not permitted to receive Radio Luxembourg in the UK - these laws had been enacted to protect the development of the BBC entertainment channels but this development was too slow for most young people, and it was impossible to enforce anyway. So many youngsters would now listen to Radio Luxembourg under their pillows as they went to sleep. This was the start of "pirate radio" in northern Europe, eventually broadening out to several stations, notably Radio Caroline and Radio London, usually run from ships or old forts in the North Sea. It was to have an increasing influence on the popular music revolution that was occurring in the 1960s, particularly in the UK, until the stations were closed by more heavy legislation in 1967, by which time the BBC had modernised with its own pop station, Radio 1. Commercial pop radio in the UK was still 6 years away.

The growth in a new youth culture was also aided by the availability of portable record players. Before the 1950s, most records were made of shellac, a hard plastic that would shatter if dropped. These were played mostly on mechanical wind-up players with a hard and heavy playhead, using acoustical amplification. Vinyl long playing (12") records had begun to become available during the 1940s, though these were usually aimed at hifi (high fidelity) connoisseurs, with their large and expensive static equipment. In 1949 RCA invented the 7" disk (the "single"), which then became the standard for popular music, usually with one 3 to 4 minute song on each side. The Juke Box had been around for many years, but the arrival of the single gave a new stimulus to its use, and it became a common feature of cafes, bars and restaurants, wherever young people would "hang out". Portable record players, such as the Dansette Popular (1962) and its successors, enabled young people to get together in each other's bedrooms and play their chosen songs to each other, and increasingly to party together, away from the watchful gaze of parents and the public. Some players even had a stacking mechanism, allowing up to 10 singles to be played in succession before reloading.

The wish to share music amongst young people also stimulated tape recording of songs. In the early 1960s, only reel-to-reel tape recorders were available, which were generally rather expensive. But in 1963 Philips Eindhoven agreed to license Sony free use of their tape cassettes in their player, and a new song-taping revolution started. These tapes were 4-track, allowing stereo recording in both directions, and for up to an hour each side. This also stimulated the production of commercial single and long-playing stereo records and tapes, as well as people making and exchanging their own tapes of these sounds, for parties and for individual entertainment.

Meanwhile television hardware had also been revolutionised. In the 1950s the picture was made up by the cathode ray (electron) gun sweeping back and forth across the screen in horizontal lines, switching on and off as it went along to delineate dark and light regions, to transfer the similarly scanned picture from the television camera. In the UK (typical of most other countries) 25 pictures of 405 lines each were transmitted in the VHF waveband (10 to 1m wavelength) and displayed per second, which gave an adequate but, by today's standards, low quality moving picture. In 1962 (in the UK, similarly elsewhere) the picture quality was enhanced by transmission in the UHF waveband (1 m to 30 cm wavelength) 25 pictures of 625 lines. The change in waveband led to less signal interference from reflections than with VHF, and smaller antennae on roofs. In 1967 the pictures finally were made available in colour. A "chrominance" signal was transmitted alongside the "luminance" signal for black and white TVs, to maintain backwards compatibility, while giving the possibility to drive the three different or differently positioned electron guns that gave the colour effect. Three different coding systems emerged worldwide - PAL (Europe (excl. France), Africa (excl. French ex-Colonies),East South America, Middle and Far East and Australasia), SECAM (France and French Ex-Colonies, and USSR), and NTSC (North, Middle and West South America, Burma, Philippines, South Korea and Japan). This led to some interesting effects when transmissions had to be converted, e.g. for the Olympic Games or Football World Cups.

In fact all the lines available on the TV screen could not be used, as time needed to be allowed for the electron guns to jump from the end of the last scan line of the picture in one frame to the beginning of the first line of the next frame. In 405 lines only 376 lines could be used, and in 625 line transmissions 576 lines. This left some time in which other data could be received by the TV but not directly displayed, and instead stored in a constantly updating buffer. This information could then be recalled and displayed on demand as a semi-transparent or opaque overlay on the TV picture, giving additional information, on suitably equipped TV sets. This led the BBC to pioneer CEEFAX in 1974, which not only allowed the adding of subtitles to programmes, but also allowed the display of up-to-date weather and sport reports, news and games, in up to 999 pages of information. This feature was adopted widely worldwide.

The increasing TV audience since the introduction of colour had meanwhile led to a profusion of channels, some funded by a tax on TV owners ("public broadcasting") and others by advertising inserted between programme segments ("independent broadcasting"). It became increasingly desirable to have some means of recording a programme on one channel while watching another, or to time-shift viewing a programme to a more convenient time of day. There were two competing solutions marketed by Japanese companies for this in 1976 - VHS and Betamax - and after a while the VHS system won out and dominated the market. VHS used paperback-sized video tape cassettes that could record up to 4 hours of material in normal quality, or 8 hours at reduced quality. One could also buy or rent pre-recorded programmes and cinema films on VHS tape for home consumption.

The number of channels was augmented further in 1978 with the introduction of satellite TV. This was a new use for geostationary satellites. Instead of facilitating worldwide communication of one programme they would be used to transmit multiple channels to an area of the earth below their orbit. Because they remained in the same location in the sky, this "footprint" also remained static, enabling the channels to be tailored to the users there. This allowed specialised channels to be transmitted, and for the programmes to be received in any area with a line of sight to the satellite, thus reaching many more remote areas previously neglected by terrestrial TV suppliers. It also allowed for some programmes to be scrambled, allowing companies to charge users an extra fee to decode the signals through a "set-top box".

Emulating the freedom given to the public by the pocket transistor radio, in 1979 Sony introduced the "Walkman", a small battery-powered cassette tape player barely bigger than the cassette itself, which, with headphones, would permit the user to take their sounds with them wherever they went. They became immensely popular and would dominate the market until the introduction of the iPod in 2001.

The main change in between these dates was the digitisation of sound and television/video. In 1982 Sony and Philips together developed a high quality standard for recording sound digitally. The analogue sound wave would be sampled 44,100 times per second on each stereo channel, with its amplitude digitised to a value between 0 and 65536 (216). This information would then be encoded at a constant rate in indentations ("pits") on a track spiralling outwards from the centre of the compact disk (CD). It could then be read by a semiconductor laser reflecting off the pits, as the disk is again spun so the track passed at a constant rate. The reproduction of this sound was then at a much higher quality than could be produced by vinyl records, which were susceptible to getting scratched and causing clicks and "rumble", or cassette tape, which could be easily stretched or buckled causing changes in sound levels. The CD could hold about 75 minutes of sound.

The iPod would take advantage of a compression technique (see later) that allowed the large sound files produced by the above scheme to be compressed 10 fold without most users noticing the difference. Like the Walkman before it, this allowed large song collections (typically 1000 songs) to be stored on a small light battery-operated pocket device, but unlike the Walkman they could now be called up in any order, or even at random.

Musicians also need to digitise, as they used more and more electronic instruments playing digitally sampled sounds using the above technique. The different electronic musical instruments all had their own proprietary systems and could not communicate with each other until Dave Smith and Chet Wood of Sequential Circuits established the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) in 1983. This allowed one instrument to control and play the sounds available on another, greatly easing performance. Sounds themselves were not communicated, but just the control data for the instruments, in an agreed format.

For video there was too much information to take the same kind of approach to digitisation as for sound, and a method of picture compression would have to be sought first (see later). When that became available, in 1995, it became possible to digitise TV programmes and films, and store them on an improved compact disk, the digital video disk (DVD), which could hold nearly 8 times as much data as a CD, allowing a full 2 hour cinema film to be covered. With this new compression, digital film (actually tape) cameras entered the home market, beginning with the JVC GR DV-1 in 1996. These recorded in much higher quality than the then available VHS film (tape) analogue cameras, and dominated the market until solid state memory became cheap enough about 10 years later.

Back in 1988 Sharp had produced the first 14" liquid crystal TV screen, sounding the death knell for the cathode ray tube, and stimulating a huge competition among Japanese companies to develop high quality screens. The screen required much less power, was easier to dispose of, and was suitable for battery-powered equipment. The concept had already been in use for more than 10 years in monochrome screens for calculators and watches, but this was a large step forward. To fully take advantage of the screens, the TV signals would have to be digitised too, but the companies were already heading in this direction, as digital signals made much better use of the available spectrum of wavelengths as they could be packed at about 10 times the density without interference, making more channels possible. So by 1998 the first digital transmissions were underway, and rapidly all terrestrial and satellite TV transmissions switched from analogue to digital. Not only could more channels be made available, but the picture quality could be raised from the 576 lines equivalent to the previous "standard TV" of the 1960s, to 1080 lines, and the picture "aspect ratio" could be changed from 1.33:1 (i.e. 4:3), in use since the beginning of TV, to 1.78:1 (16:9), much more akin to the wider screen experience being offered by cinemas, with Cinemascope (2.4:1) available for some films since 1953. This higher definition (HD) also made it feasible to have larger screens at home.

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