1948: Fifty Years Ago 

The Cable Guy 

By FREDERIC D. SCHWARZ 

On November 25 the small fishing town of Astoria, Oregon, was the scene of a milestone in telecommunications technology: the birth of cable television. The inventor was Ed Parsons, a mechanical whiz who sold electronics equipment and ran a radio station in Astoria. His wife had seen a demonstration of television and wanted to watch at home.  Unfortunately, the nearest station was in Chicago. In the summer of 1948, however, Parsons learned that radio station KRSC (later KING) of Seattle would start broadcasting television that fall. 

Although Seattle was 125 miles away, Parsons was determined to pull in the station, so he crisscrossed Clatsop County by car and airplane with a field-strength meter. Despite the distance and intervening mountains, he found that KRSC came through clearly enough in a few scattered places where terrain features focused the transmission. In fact, he could pick up a usable signal on the roof of the John Jacob Astor Hotel, where he lived in the penthouse apartment. He set up an antenna there and strung a cable from it to his living room. On Thanksgiving Day the Parsonses watched KRSC’s inaugural broadcast. 

Soon friends, acquaintances, and even strangers from hundreds of miles away were ringing their doorbell to take a look at the new wonder. When Parsons installed a set in the hotel lobby, it attracted so many gawkers that guests could not reach the registration desk. Then he put a set in a store window across the street and brought the signal to it with coaxial cable—the first recorded use of coaxial to carry television. The display drew such big crowds in the street that the police chief ordered Parsons to remove it. Parsons began to wire local bars and homes, devising retransmitters and amplifiers to boost the signal when necessary. At first he charged nothing more than an installation fee, making his money by selling sets, but by 1951 he was collecting three dollars per month from two hundred customers. 


Parsons’s idea was quickly picked up by businessmen all over America. In television-starved areas, which included most of the country in the early 1950s, no particular marketing skills were required to get rich in the cable industry. As one early operator recalled, “You had to keep your door locked because people were clamoring for service.” At first rural viewers were happy to get even one channel, but things got more complicated as stations proliferated and microwave transmission allowed signals to be picked up from hundreds of miles away. 


Some operators continued sending out a single program to all subscribers, switching from one station to another according to what was on. A veteran of the early days remembered that “every month or every two months [we] let the subscribers vote on what programs they would like for us to select. Of course, when the voting was all done, we picked up what we liked.” Eventually, though, operators adapted their equipment to let fussy viewers decide for themselves which shows to watch. Milton J. Shapp, a cable entrepreneur who went on to become governor of Pennsylvania, recollects the innocent early days: “I remember when we went to seven channels. There was no doubt in our mind that was all we were ever going to need. I mean, who wants more than seven?” 

Copyright Forbes Inc. 2000 ©

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