Community Antenna Television is the grandmother of what we call cable television today. In 1948, John and Margaret Walson solved a big problem for their television set customers. Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, where John and Margaret sold televisions, is nestled in the mountains, and city residents had trouble receiving television signals from the three network broadcast stations in nearby Philadelphia.
John sat down and thought about what to do to help his customers – and sell more televisions. He figured he’d put an antenna on a utility pole up in the mountains. Then, he hooked the antenna up to his appliance store via a twin lead antenna wire and modified signal boosters. Of course, he also hooked up a few customers along the way of the cable’s path.
This little system of modified parts was the very first cable television network.
But John and Margaret Walson didn’t stop there. The cable television network hooked up to the antenna in the mountains was very useful, so John decided to use microwaves to import more distant television stations. He also used coaxial cable to improve picture quality, which became the standard for many years before the implementation of satellite television.
John Walson is also credited with being the first to offer paid television programming, which became the channel we know today as HBO (Home Box Office). He probably figured there’d be some demand for the paid programming, but he couldn’t have envisioned the explosion of channels we have available to us today.
HBO wasn’t launched until 1972. It used a satellite to bounce signals from a broadcaster on earth to the satellite, which bounced the signals back down to individual receivers back on earth. This was all cutting-edge technology in the early 1970s.
Milton Shapp developed an antenna that could be mounted on top of an apartment building so all the residents could receive television signals without each one having a separate antenna. He used coaxial cables and a better signal-boosting box so his system could carry several signals at once. It might not have anything to do with bringing television to the masses, but Milton Shapp was elected governor of Pennsylvania later.
Bob Tarlton, also a Pennsylvania resident, took the whole idea one step further and hooked up the whole town of Lansford, Pennsylvania. He was lucky enough to use manufactured signal boosters, since electronics manufacturers had jumped on the bandwagon by this time and could produce better boosters than the homemade ones used by Walson and Shapp.
By 1952, just four years after Walson set up the first system to a few homes in Mahanoy City, more than 14,000 people were subscribed to cable systems nationwide. In 1962, more than 850,000 people were subscribed to cable. In the late 1970s, more than 16 million households were cable subscribers.
Consumers demanding choices in television programming fueled that explosive growth, and that growth has barely slowed since. Now, almost 92 million households receive cable programming.
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