Fifty shades of red, green, and blue: Black and white TV was banished 50 years ago this month


Two short years before mankind set foot on the Moon for the very first time, the world of terrestrial television enjoyed its own quantum leap forward.

1967 became a very significant year indeed, as thousands of people across the European continent
watched in awe at the color images displayed on their TV sets.

And just like that, the black and white images of yesteryear were about to be banished forever.

A monochrome vision of the world

If you are of a certain vintage, the viewing habits of your childhood (misspent or not, that’s a story for another day) were likely dominated by a lumbering hulk of metal and plastic, featuring a gigantic cathode ray tube (CRT), a phosphorescent screen, and buttons and dials the size of oven controls.

This totemic item and the arcane arts that made it work often became the center of family life during dark winter evenings. Yet, for all its merits, the trusty TV set would sit ugly atop a robust table and cast its magic in untrue-to-life black and white tones.

Funny thing was, though Europe still lived in a monochrome vision of the world circa 1966, the technology to broadcast color images had existed for quite some time. The first tentative proposals date back to the previous century, in fact. Early attempts at patenting color TVs happened in the early 1900s, but it would still be some decades before technological advances enabled the development of the first monochrome TV sets, circa 1936, right at the threshold of World War 2. That year, Germany used fifteen rudimentary transmitters sited across Berlin to broadcast the Olympic Games to a few selected receivers across Berlin and Hamburg.

The advent of war would put a halt to any further development of civilian technology, as all efforts were diverted into the war machine. It would take another three decades for color transmissions to become the norm across Europe.

Let there be color: The advent of a new era

The first practical demonstration of color TV would take place in 1940 in the United States. The concept was shown to work, with a few caveats. The cost was astronomical, and thus not yet financially viable at a mass scale. And the quality of the images was questionable, to say the least. The hue, while undeniably there, was too dim. Technology still had some way to go.

Regular color broadcast would begin in the United States during the mid-50s. Yet, the first color-enabled TV sets would set you back a whopping $1,300, the equivalent of about $11,000 in 2016 money. Thus, most people would stick to black and white for another while, until units became more affordable.

Color TV would not arrive in Europe until 1967. July 1, 1967, to be precise, when BBC2 began broadcasting color images with PAL encoding, making history in the process. The BBC actually beat West Germany by a whisker. West Germans (remember, this was the height of the Cold War) would get their first color transmission just a month later.

Viewers enjoying 1967’s Wimbledon Tournament on BBC2 were certainly in for a visual treat. They were pioneers of sorts. Witnesses of history in motion, inside their very own living rooms.

Color TV had arrived, and like a bachelor cousin overstaying his Christmas day pass, was there to stay.

Put your faith in new technological terrors: The future is in 4k, and multiples of that

CRTs gave way to flat screens. Soon, flat screens turned to plasma and HD. HD evolved into 4k, and 4k will soon bestow the throne unto 8k UHD. Technology moves fast these days. Gone are the pioneering days of those first transmissions in dodgy colors and dim pictures. The future of TV is digital, and digital is good.

4k, also known as Ultra HD, defines the image resolution, and it’s fast becoming the de facto standard. 4K features a screen resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. That’s way up from the 1,920 x 1,080 pixels found on a HD TV.

In layman terms, 4k images look really cool and life-like. And the bigger the screen, the bigger the awe factor. Watch The Force Awakens on a 4k, 65-incher, and you are in for a treat indeed .

And the TV gurus out there are already conjuring up plans for 8k overkill. That is a fair amount of pixels packed on a screen. It is already technologically possible, though much like those first color monstrosities shown in 1940, the cost is currently prohibitive. You’d want to have a deep pocket, and frankly, a TV fetish, to have an 8k demigod reigning inside your living room.

Still, we might all be pioneers again one day, when the next quantum leap in TV viewing occurs. But I bet it won’t be as significant as it was back in 1967.

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