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cable tv

The History of... Cable

The Early Days
Cable television, formerly known as Community Antenna Television or CATV, was born in the mountains of Pennsylvania in the late 1940's. During this time, there were only a few television stations, located mostly in larger cities like Philadelphia. People who didn't live in a city, or in a location where signals could be received easily, were unable to see television. John Walson, an appliance store owner in the small town of Mahanoy City, had difficulty selling television sets to local residents because reception in the area was so poor. The problem seemed to be the location of the town: in a valley and nearly 90 air miles from the Philadelphia television transmitters. Naturally, the signals could not pass through the mountain, and clear reception was virtually impossible, except on the ridges outside of town.
To solve his problem, Mr. Walson put an antenna on top of a large utility pole and installed it on the top of a nearby mountain. Television signals were received, and transported over twin lead antenna wire down to his store. Once people saw these early results, television sales soared. It became his responsibility to improve the picture quality by using coaxial cable and self-manufactured "boosters" (amplifiers) to bring CATV to the homes of customers who bought television sets.
And so, cable television was born in June 1948. In the early 1950's television was still fairly new. Though it had not yet become popular, city department stores displayed many different models for sale. And, like an apartment house where every resident had his or her own television, the roofs of the stores were beginning to resemble forests of TV antennas. Milton Jerrold Shapp, who later became governor of Pennsylvania, developed a system to consolidate the forest of antennas for city department stores and apartment buildings. Under this new system, one master antenna (MATV) could be used for all televisions in the building. His secret: the coaxial cable and signal boosters (amplifiers), capable of carrying multiple signals at once.
At about the same time in the nearby town of Lansford, another appliance salesman named Robert (Bob) Tarlton, experienced the same problem as Mr. Walson. He read about Mr. Shapp's new system and thought if it worked for apartment houses and department stores, it could work for his own town as well. Cable television in a form similar to today was born when he wired Lansford using coaxial cable and commercially manufactured boosters.


Cable Develops
With the help of Milton Shapp's innovation, cable television spread quickly throughout the country to remote and rural areas far from broadcast origination in cities. For many years, cable was simply a way to improve reception so people could see network broadcasts. It served as a community's antenna. It didn't stay that way for long. Mr. Walson in the early 1950's and later other system owners soon began to experiment with microwave to bring the signals from distant cities. Pennsylvania systems that only had three channels-one for each network-soon had six, seven or more channels as operators imported programs from independent stations from New York and Philadelphia. Because of the variety it offered to viewers, cable became more and more attractive and eventually moved into cities as people wanted more viewing choice. Perhaps the biggest event since cable began, and what many say is responsible for the rapid growth in the cable industry during the last decade, was the development of Pay TV.

Pay Services
Pay television was launched in November, 1972 when Service Electric offered Home Box Office or HBO, over its cable system in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. This represented the first successful pay cable service in the nation. Despite the fact that HBO was only viewed by a few hundred people that first night, but it has gone on to become the world's largest pay cable service with over 11,500,000 viewers. This is due in part because HBO's owner, Time, Inc. the same people who own the magazine, decided to later deliver its signals by satellite. HBO was the first programming service to use a satellite to distribute its programming. The way it works is a signal is beamed from earth to a satellite in a stationary orbit some 22,300 miles over the equator and bounced back to receivers on earth. By distributing by satellite, HBO's signal is available to cable operators throughout North America. Because it is so widely available, it had an advantage over earth-bound, microwave distributed services such as WOR-TV, the independent station in New York City.

Cable Today
Although cable television reaches only 58.5 percent of all American households, chances are that cable is available in your area. At almost fifty years old, cable television is still a very young industry. Nearly 60 million households currently subscribe to cable, with technological advancements allowing cable to reach hundreds of new subscribers every day. Thanks to the work of cable industry pioneers like Mr. Walson, Mr. Tarlton and Mr. Shapp, and the foresight of HBO to deliver their signal by satellite, cable television today provides American viewers with the greatest variety in programming available. Because programming services available to cable are delivered via satellite, millions of Americans have access to:
  •  24-hour music channels
  •  24-hour sports channels
  •  24-hour movie channels
  •  24-hour news channels
  •  24-hour weather channels
...and more, including regional stations from New York, Atlanta and Chicago, children's programming, religious networks, and foreign language channels.
Of course, not all local cable systems have these services available. Although some systems have a very limited number of channels, many can carry up to 80 different channels and allow for two-way communication between subscribers and the cable company. This two-way communication is made possible through the use of fiber optics. Of all the programming services, what is available on a particular cable system is up to the system's owner. Naturally, if the owner isn't responsive to what his or her subscribers want to see, he or she won't stay in business very long. You may wonder, who owns cable television? Well, lots of people. There are people who own only the system in their home town, an independent operator; some, like Mr. Walson and Mr. Tarlton, own several systems; and there are some corporations, like Time, Inc. AT&T, and Westinghouse, who own a large number of cable systems throughout America. Such large operators are known as Multi-System operators or MSOs.
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On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper made the first cellular phone call.



last reviewed/updated on 06/24/04 

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