Days Gone By: Adjust your antenna for best reception

The November, 1949 Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell featured a television antenna being installed on the roof of an elaborate Victorian house. The once-elegant abode appears to have seen better days: the paint on the roof soffits and fascia boards is worn thin and pealing in spots, and sections of the ornate moldings, once rich in detail, are broken and have disappeared.

But despite the fact that the house has seen better days, the homeowner is all smiles as he leads the installer, who is perched across the high-pitched dormer as if he were saddled to a mustang, through a perfect adjustment of the antenna for his new TV. This homeowner must have been one of the first in his neighborhood to buy the newfangled picture box; the roofs of other buildings in the background are free of the conspicuous metal extensions.

anennas.jpgWithin a few years antennas, like prairie grass and pine trees, would spring up as far as the eye could see. And each one would be hooked to a TV in the living room. As Rockwell’s covers so often did, this illustration pinpointed change within the American people, and TV antennas, popping up on rooftops like Kansas wheat after a rainstorm, were signaling a change in the American scenery, a change that would revolutionize the visual landscapes of cities, countryside, and the quickly developing suburbia. Few could argue that TV along with its sidekick, the antenna, would change our lives forever.

By the 1940’s and 50’s the concept of television had been on its way for several years, but development was slowed because of World War II. After the war ended the economy was booming and TV was one of the first new inventions to jump on for the ride. In 1946 RCA factories were busy building a ten-inch black and white TV that sold for $435. The sets, called the “Model T” of televisions, was sold when the average annual salary was $3,150, a new car was priced about $1,400, and a new house cost about $12,500. Relatively speaking, the television was not cheap.

But the hunger for new and better inventions was not slowed by high initial costs. The sense of a new age was upon us. After all, our fiercest enemies were now defeated and broken apart and our wishes and dreams could now be refocused on the manufacture and consumption of a never-ending line of new inventions and gadgets. It was a time of heady self-confidence. We could defeat anyone, we could invent anything, and the new products that resulted were only going to make our lives better and better.

And the TV antennas were there to prove it. Using the antenna allowed us to bring pictures into our homes, just like the movies – that is if you ignored the static and fuzziness.

TV antennas did have one slight problem: the metal contraption would need adjusting from time to time, say maybe every ten seconds or so. It would have been handy to have a permanent installer on the roof to turn and adjust the antenna, especially when we tuned in another one of the two or three choices of channels.

And like magic, one was invented. The American public refused to be disappointed. Once again we proved that if we have a need, we’d find an answer to that need. In this case a small electric motor was added to the lightweight aluminum shaft of the antenna. Now instead of having to climb on the roof when I Love Lucy or Gunsmoke came over the airways, we only had to push a button to turn the antenna to a perfect spot, if someone didn’t mind a minimum of static and picture interference from passing airplanes.

But inventing and using innovative gadgets is a two way street: a new-fangled item can be developed and replace a used-to-be essential article in the twinkling of an eye. That device, in turn, can be immediately shoved aside by something newer and more capable. Nothing illustrates this idea better than the TV antenna.

In the 1970s cable began to usurp the ubiquitous antennas. But some TV owners, having little confidence in the cable industry or simply refusing to pay for TV that could be received with antennas at no cost, kept the antenna masts flying.

But progress was moving on and TV antennas couldn’t slow it down. Satellite systems helped to bring down more metal antennas than storms ever did. No longer did the TV owner need to risk life and limb, climbing onto the roof, or even turn the knob to adjust the set, the picture was always clear and focused. Passing planes no longer interfered with the reruns of the Mickey Mouse Club or The Honeymooners.

Most inventions have their day and the antenna’s day has come and gone. Networks have announced that they will cease to send signals that are capable of being received by antennas. So it really will be the end of an era, an era that possibly exemplifies the Baby Boomer generation as no other invention. The TV antenna, born while the post-World War II generation was learning to walk, enters retirement along side the Boomers themselves.