One day in 1948, a man spent a half day on our roof at 57 Chestnut St., installing a television antenna. It was such a strange device that it took him most of that time figuring out the instructions. We had one of the first televisions in the neighborhood, and by the time the worker finished, there was a crowd of local kids and a few adults cheering him on. The finished antenna looked like an outdoor metal clothes hanger on a chimney.

Although the antenna was ugly, for the earliest televisions they were absolutely necessary, and they soon became ubiquitous. Eventually, indoor antennas and then cable TV became the norm, but the old rooftop antenna can still be seen. I must note that the original televisions were unlike their outdoor appendages and were beautiful furniture, designed to be kept for years. However, it didn’t take long for industry and users to conclude that TVs would be replaced often due to improved technology, and they became less attractive as prices declined. Soon, many were as homely as their antenna. The Bugatti was pushed out by the Model T. The mundane replaced the elegant.

Although early televisions wouldn’t work without the outdoor antenna, they barely worked with them. TV controls of the “original era” were delicate, especially the vertical and horizontal controls. No matter how carefully you adjusted the television, the picture would flip up or down or slip into a diagonal configuration. The best you could do was to minimize the problem. Yet, what was especially aggravating was that you had to readjust the controls each time you changed the channel. In Andover’s early days of TV, we had three stations in Boston - Channels 4, 5, and 7. If the weather was good, we picked up Channel 9 in Manchester, which offered no big advantage, since it carried most of the same programming as one of the Boston stations. There were only three networks, NBC, ABC, and CBS, and they developed all the major shows. Local stations did create some programming, but the quality was poor. The exception came in the early ‘50s with the arrival of weatherman Don Kent. Who would have thought that an elegantly attired man talking about weather would become the high point of Boston television for years? It proved the adage that weather is a subject that most interests the public.

The idea of local news didn’t catch on in the early days of television, and national news ran for only 15 minutes. “This is John Cameron Swayze and the News” became an expression known throughout the country. Mr. Swayze was the first television news icon. Beginning in 1949, his broadcasts consisted of standing in front of a camera and reading the news. (Edward R. Morrow’s more sophisticated news would come more than two years later). There was no film in Swayze’s news. Although he was sponsored primarily by a cigarette manufacturer, eventually the high point of his “live” show became the advertising of Timex Watches. During the show, one of the inexpensive, popular watches would be attached to something like the propeller of an outboard engine, and we’d wait to see if the watch “would take a licking and keep on ticking.” Many of us were cheering for the propeller, but the Timex watches kept proving themselves. The only misadventure I remember was a watch strap failure. The cool Mr. Swayze handled that quite nicely, quickly showing viewers that the watch was “still ticking.”

When TVs were initially installed, we kids were excited. We loved radio shows, especially “Gunsmoke,” “Dragnet,” “The Shadow” and “The Green Hornet,” and we listened to our favorite programs every evening. We also enjoyed the movies and expected television to be of comparable quality. What fools we were. The early screens were small, and we crowded around them. Many of the earliest TVs had large magnifying glasses attached to the television to enlarge the picture. My aunt and uncle had one of these magnifiers, and the problem with them was that you had to be seated almost exactly in front of the screen in order to avoid serious distortion. Even being slightly to the side would ruin your view.

My family had our first television before I could read. When the credits came on after the shows, I’d sit there wondering what I was missing. I could hardly wait to learn to read so I could find out. When I learned to read, what I saw after the shows was a tad disappointing.

The first show I ever saw was something called “Swan Boat.” It consisted of a woman, dressed like a fairy, telling stories to a small group of children seated in a replica of a Boston Public Garden Swan Boat. Not very sophisticated, but we were enthralled, because we were very young. Early television had no daytime shows; the shows started in the evening. In fact, I can remember a new show coming on at 5:30; it was great that we could watch television so early. The show was “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” which originally aired locally in Chicago in 1947 and went national at the beginning of 1949. The show became a television classic, ending in 1957. Another show we kids loved was “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” which went “live” on air in 1950. It should be remembered that almost all TV was live then, and this certainly added to our entertainment as mistakes were frequent.

There were no remote channel changers. When you wanted to move from one station to another, you got up, walked to the TV, and clicked the channel-changing dial. It didn’t take long for industry to discover one of America’s great inconveniences and manufacture televisions with remote changers. The earliest remotes were attached to the TV with an umbilical cord that could be used to trip your dog as he walked by. Of course, the flipping TV would still require adjustment even though you could change the channels from your chair.

One day, a friend of my parents was watching an evening show with us when an advertisement came on. It was for an Admiral Television, and the friend asked why they would ever advertise televisions on television. After all, if you were watching the ad, you already had access to a TV. My father looked at the friend and chuckled that maybe the friend would want to buy one for himself. The friend answered that any time he wanted to watch a show he’d just come over to our house. He was serious.

In a 1985 newspaper column, I wondered where television would be in 30 years. Already, it had changed America’s culture - you’d have to be a diddling dolt to argue that the change had been for the better. For me, television became so revoltingly stupid that I stopped having one in my house for five years. Recently, I reversed myself when I discovered I could watch the Red Sox and Patriots games in high definition at my home in Austin, Texas. My hiatus from TV caused me to conclude that, besides watching sports, the rest of TV may be marginally more entertaining than when I’d previously locked them out of my house. But I don’t think that’s good. What already was attracting, digesting, and excreting our brain cells has had its work made easier by becoming a more attractive nuisance. On a more positive note - possibly - may be the other screen in our lives: computers. The question is whether we are using them for better or worse. Many statistics are indicating that the computer also is being used primarily to satisfy our baser desires. I don’t have a problem with base desires; they are normal (or we wouldn’t call them “base”) it’s just that there has to be a balance, and our culture seems to have trouble finding that with either screen.

The technology Cerberus is on us: TVs, computers, and cell phones manage our lives and culture. To describe all this as simply “cultural change” is a monumental understatement. The Hound from Hades has us by the throat. Whether he domesticates us or vice versa is the question. Our momentum of change is so rapid that we now can wonder where we’ll be in five years.

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