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Baby Boomer Memories of Remembering Test Patterns and Old TV Sets

I live in Houston, and I have worked as a nurse. My interests include art, traveling, reading, gardening, cooking, and our wonderful pets.

RCA Indian Head test pattern

RCA Indian Head test pattern

Test Patterns on TVs

Baby boomers are people born after World War II from 1946 to 1964. I was one of the early baby boomers, and the first TV set my parents owned was a black and white one.

For those of you who have grown up in the nineteen nineties and beyond, you may not realize that television was not broadcast 24-hours a day and would be off during the nighttime. Today broadcasts run continuously 24-hours a day.

The old televisions, once turned on, would take a while to warm up. There was a test pattern first displayed on the screen. It also had a distinctive tonal sound. The Indian Head test pattern was a common one by RCA in the United States. There were many others, and the graphics of test patterns varied. At the end of programming at night, after the playing of the U.S. national anthem, the test pattern would appear for a time until the final shutdown.

The television crew behind the scenes, as well as the homeowner, could fine-tune the reception. There were little knobs on the TV, that one could turn to adjust the focus, contrast, and clarity of the picture. Once the lines matched up, then one would wait for the start of the day programming.

Noteworthy was the date 1928 when a television station in Schenectady, New York became the first to make a broadcast. Of course, not too many people owned TVs back then. It was after World War II that more people started purchasing black and white consoles, as my parents did, or tabletop models.

Reception Issues

The photo below is of the house my parents built in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, in the early 1950s. You can see the antenna on the top of the roof. I remember my dad going up on the roof occasionally, and adjusting the antenna to get better reception. He would not necessarily use that test pattern, but whatever was broadcast on television.

Sometimes it was Saturday morning cartoons or shows like Lassie, or Rin Tin Tin. My brothers and I loved watching those shows! Our family also watched shows like I Love Lucy, Wagon Train, The Danny Thomas Show, You Bet Your Life, Gunsmoke, and others.

The rest of our family would be in the house, and we would yell back and forth through open windows as he moved the antenna. "It is better now! No, now it is worse!" Sooner or later, we would all settle on what was the best possible reception, and my dad would come down from the roof to rejoin our family in front of the TV.

Some sets had antennas nicknamed rabbit ears on top of the television. One could more easily move them to get better reception of the signals sent over the airwaves. I distinctly remember attaching the aluminum foil to those rabbit ears at one time to enable better reception. Oh, the good old days! (Smile)

In the early days, there were only a few channels, and depending upon where one lived, the signals varied from place to place as they were land based. We did not yet have satellites circling the earth transmitting signals back to earth.

My childhood home in Wisconsin showing TV antenna on roof

My childhood home in Wisconsin showing TV antenna on roof

Color TV

My maternal grandparents had a color television, before my parents acquiring one, and there were still test patterns but they were now colored bars. The SMPTE color bars shown below were a measurement standard for the color saturation and luminance levels. That abbreviation of SMPTE stands for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

I remember my entire family going over to their house to watch the Ed Sullivan Show. It seemed amazing to us to see everything in color. My grandparents must have had one of the early color TV sets.

According to Wickipedia, the first national broadcast in color was in the year 1954. It was the Tournament of Roses Parade on January first of that year. In subsequent years, before my parents acquired a color TV, the Rose Parade was a must-see event at my grandparent's home.

Half of all broadcasts were in color by the mid-1960s, and by the early 1970s, almost all broadcasts were in color. It was at that time when more color television set sales outpaced those of black and white.

 SMPTE color bars

SMPTE color bars

Changing Times

In the 1950s and 1960s, owning one TV set was the norm, if people owned any at all. It would usually be in the living room of the house. Now many people have multiple sets in many rooms of a home or apartment.

The size of televisions has also changed over the years. The original screen sizes were small in the past, some being only seven inches. What used to be a big, heavy, and bulky item is now thin and streamlined. A 32-inch screen in the 1980s was large and probably weighed over 100 pounds. Today people are buying flat-screen TVs that are much larger, lighter, and more energy-efficient.

As of the 1990s, a person can watch television at any hour of the day. Reception in most places gives crystal-clear images. No longer do we have to adjust the settings.

According to one report that I read, the average screen size in the U.S. in the year 2020, is now a whopping 52 inches, and they even get much larger than that. Sales prices also continue to come down.

The history of the creation and evolution of television is fascinating. Click on the links at the bottom of this page if you wish to learn more. Who knows what the future may bring to this field of technology?

“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there'd be peace.”

— John Lennon

It is a significant acknowledgment that the way people are watching television is changing and the model is quickly changing.

— Jeff Zucker

Sources for Further Reading:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Peggy Woods

Comments

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 18, 2020:

Hi Linda,

Early television was an adventure for all of us, no matter where in the world we grew up. I am glad this article brought back some shared memories for you.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 18, 2020:

Your article reminded me of my past, Peggy. I grew up in Britain, but a lot of what you've mentioned applied there as well. Thanks for sharing your memories.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 18, 2020:

Hi Liz,

We used to have one of those TVs that we had in an armoire with doors that we would close when the TV was off. So many things have changed over the years when it comes to viewing things on TV. Thanks for your comment.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 18, 2020:

I really appreciated reading this article, now that I have finally made it to the comment section. It takes me back to my early years of the old black and white tv sets. I remember the test cards too, although they looked a little different in the UK. We were relatively late getting a colour tv, sometime in the mid-1970s. Video players were the next big thing after that I recall. Your comment about the changing sizes of the screens struck a chord with me. Only recently we were recalling the very old tv sets that used to be shut away in a cabinet when not in use. That's a big contrast to the almost cinema size screens that dominate living rooms these days.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Doris,

Good for your brother to save up his money from his paper route to purchase the first TV in your family home. The change for you going from radio broadcast to TV must have been a big one. Times were changing rapidly back then!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi FlourishAnyway,

Ah yes, "human channel changers" were the norm. Now, all we have to do is hit a button from our sofas or chairs to change a channel. And they wonder why we need gyms. Ha! Garage doors were also handled in person back in the day.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on November 17, 2020:

Peggy, you really brought back old memories. Both good ones and strange ones. I started my broadcasting career in radio, but I worked a little while in TV out west in the late 1960s. I remember the first time I looked up to see myself in a color monitor while doing a weathercast, and it made me so nervous, I almost couldn't continue.

I'm a WWII baby, and we sure do remember the test patterns at midnight after the National Anthem went off and the beeeeeep tone broadcast with it. My parents wouldn't buy us a TV set because they said we would neglect our homework. After I left home, my high school age brother who had a paper route announced to the family that a TV set was being delivered to their house one day. He was paying for it, and daddy better not object or he would have it put in his room. Guess who became the TV addict. Not my brother.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 17, 2020:

I don’t recall the test patterns but do recall the sign offs, the limited channels, using tin foil, rabbit ears, being a human channel changer, and three stations plus I think uhf (?). Good memories.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Denise,

We kids did not often stay up that late to hear the national anthem, but I did hear it once or twice. That is cute learning about your father's inspiration to want a color TV. Thanks for your comment.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on November 17, 2020:

What a lovely trot down memory lane. My parents didn't get a TV of our own until 1962, I remember because before that we had to go to my maternal grandparents to see anything on TV. Our first was of course, black and white but we 4 kids balked until dad caved and got our first color console. His reason was because he wanted to see Miss Kitty's red hair in color (Gunsmoke). By that time almost everything was in color. I think it was 1968. What great memories. I remember if the National Anthem was playing we had stayed up late!

Blessings,

Denise

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Mary,

I am glad that reading this sparked a "smile of remembrance" for you. I no longer remember why this subject came to mind, but it was fun writing it down.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Bill,

Like you, I am also glad about the time when I was born. Times were more simple, but for most of us, good. Thanks for taking the trip down nostalgia lane with me.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Ann,

I'll look forward to reading about your dad when I check my Gmail account. Finding the article on the feed is now the way we must comment unless we are Johnny-on-the-spot after a new post is published.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Pamela,

Sometimes it is fun looking back in time and remembering these types of things. I am glad it brought back some memories for you too.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Rosina,

Obviously, those who remember the test patterns are all of a certain age. Haha! The transition of black and white TVs to colored ones was amazing to see. Kids growing up today have no idea of what the early days of TV were like.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Chitrangada,

I am glad that reading this brought back some good memories for you. Like you wrote, times were more simple, and simple things were treasured. I can relate to much of what you wrote.

We did not watch as much TV back then either. There were certain shows we watched together as a family, and on Saturday mornings, we kids had a couple of favorite shows. Most of the rest of the time we were doing other things with our time.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi John,

We have similar memories of those rooftop antenna adjustments. Having three channels was good back in those early days of TV.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Diana Carol,

Yes, getting a clear picture was a perennial problem back in the good old days. With satellites and cable TV, that is not much of a concern these days.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 17, 2020:

Funny how far gone these memories are now until someone brings it up and the smile of remembrance comes. How much has changed as this becomes only a memory.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 17, 2020:

Hi Bill,

Those shows like I Love Lucy still live on in replays and are as fun to watch today as in the past. The shows back then were all good ones!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 17, 2020:

I remember it all. I remember at midnight, or one a.m., programming ending with the Star Spangled Banner, I think, and then the test pattern, and a feeling of disappointment when it came on. :) I really am so happy I was born when I was born.

Ann Carr from SW England on November 17, 2020:

Having emailed you about this, I've just found it here on feed!

My comment stands of course, just thought I'd tell you this worked today.

Thanks again for the great childhood memories this brought back, especially regarding my Dad.

Ann

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 17, 2020:

I really enjoyed this article. I do remember everything you wrote about. I remember when I was a child and we all sat and watched Ed Sullivan too. I had forgotten about the test patterns Great article, Peggy!

Rosina S Khan on November 17, 2020:

Although I do not remember Test Patterns on the TV set in my childhood years, I do remember we owned a black and white TV in the late seventies. By the time I was 10, I remember my family having and enjoying the first colored TV and watching movies on TV via VCRs. Now after we have moved to our newly built own building, we own a modern age Flat Screen TV. Yes, Peggy, your article brought me back all the fond memories of the TV sets that we possessed since my childhood until recent times.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on November 16, 2020:

Hello Peggy!

I absolutely relate to this article, each detail and description. I also belong to that era, when there were radios, handwritten letters, telegrams, and of course black and white television sets. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and it brought back golden memories of my childhood. May be I am a little biased, but during that time, we found happiness in little things.

Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. Good that I could read and comment in time. I have missed commenting on many articles, recently.

Wish you a good day.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on November 16, 2020:

Peg, this sure brings back memories. I clearly remember the test patterns, and dad, or even myself on the roof adjusting the antenna often with a broom or something to reach the top...while others yelled from inside if the reception was better or worse. I think we had three channels when I first started watching TV. Most of those shows you mentioned were favourites in our household too.

Thank you for sharing.

Diana Carol Abrahamson from Somerset West on November 16, 2020:

Television has come a long way, since then. Also was quite frustrating getting a clear picture too. Satellite dishes have made watching T.V. not so problematic.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on November 16, 2020:

Hi Peggy. What a trip down memory lane. I certainly remember the days of black and white TVs and test patterns. The shows you mentioned are all ingrained in my memory. Lassie, I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, all classics that any baby boomer will certainly remember. We’ve definitely come a long, long way.