Channel changer

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Now known as the technology that allows you to watch reality shows about famous pets getting uncensored breast implant surgeries on 500 different channels, cable TV originally served a more basic need: The ability to watch even one channel.

Back when TV was only broadcast over the airwaves, you installed an antenna on your roof or a set of pointy bunny-ear wires on your set to tune in the signals of local stations. However, this only worked if you lived nearby - and a straight shot from - the broadcast towers in large cities.

This meant that the citizens of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania - sitting in the bowels of a deep valley, 90 miles from Philadelphia - were right out of luck. Also out of luck was John Walson, the local hardware store owner and appliance dealer who found himself unable to cash in on the television-buying craze of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

With no way to pick up programming, most of his fellow citizens (and customers) had little use for the contraption. In June 1948, however, that all changed when Walson figured out a way to serve both his community and his pocketbook.

He installed an extra-large antenna on a mountain ridge outside of town, where broadcast waves were plentiful. Then he ran a set of lead wires down the mountain to his store. Suddenly, the TVs he had for sale worked!

To further boost interest in his products, Walson offered TV buyers a free hook-up to his Community Antenna Television system. Business soared, and as more and more homes in Mahanoy joined the network, Walson upgraded it, replacing the lead wires with sturdier coaxial cable.

Besides inventing the concept of cable, Walson went on to establish other major aspects of the technology as we know it today. In the 1950s, he started using microwave signals to bring in stations from distant cities, doubling the number of available stations from three to a mind-blowing six.

Other small towns around the mountainous state began to catch on and launched their own versions of CATV. Later, cable made the jump to big cities. Partly this was an issue of tidiness. As the number of TV sets grew, so did the number of antennae stuck on top of apartment buildings and offices. By hooking the entire city up to a cable system, planners could eliminate most of the clutter.

Better yet, cable improved the visual quality in cities, just like it did in the country. Before cable, city dwellers had to put up with weird shadows and flickering ghosts on their screens, a product of TV waves knocking up against skyscrapers and large buildings.

Adapted from In The Beginning (HarperCollins), available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun visit and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.