curmudgeonIn this series of posts we are looking at the telecommunications technology available to the average consumer in the year 1960 and comparing it with what exists today.  We will perhaps be able to see some of the changes in daily life that the technological advances of the past fifty years have brought, as a means of understanding the appropriate roll for technology in human life.

Broadcast AM Radio:

Not Yet Available : AM-HD radio, stereo AM broadcasting, Internet radio service, satellite radio, very low cost solid-state portable receivers

In Use (in the mass consumer market):  Low cost a.c. line-powered, vacuum tube table top receivers for general use, (limited numbers of) solid-state portable receivers, automobile receivers including some with solid-state circuits, AM tuners included in home stereo/hi-fi receivers

Lifestyle:  By 1960 broadcast AM radio’s moment in the spotlight was over; broadcast television was already the majority carrier of information and entertainment; and broadcast FM radio was just beginning to capture more and more of the remaining radio audience.  The three big broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), which had dominated radio broadcasting for several previous decades, slowly discontinued their network-wide AM radio programming while they ramped up their television offerings.  Local AM stations, both within and without network affiliation, tried to recoup their investments and to figure out where their future might lie.  Station specialization in “format radio” increased, with news, classical music, rock and roll, talk radio and other formats beginning or extending their footholds.  There was less and less need for “general purpose” AM stations that had once provided, as part of each broadcast day, a variety of programming including news, sports, live audience entertainment, and specialized services such as financial market reports.  At that time essentially all AM radio broadcasting was commercially sponsored.

Vintage AM Transistor Radio
Vintage AM Transistor Radio

Most people in 1960 treated AM radio much like a routine commodity: available when they wanted it (especially while driving or listening to sports events, which in those days were not often televised), and switched off when they had better diversions.  Since AM radio offered no new and flashy technical innovations and since it still retained all of its well-known transmission limitations, it could not compete well with the other entertainment modes.

The technology of AM broadcasting did not change much around this time period, save perhaps for the fairly recent introduction of magnetic tape recording.  The availability of solid state AM receivers in fixed, mobile, and especially portable modes would continue to increase following this year, and eventually the use of stand alone AM table top receivers was abandoned as cheap solid-state, battery-powered portables became available.

Broadcast FM Radio:

Not Yet Available: FM-HD radio, automobile FM receivers, stereo FM broadcasting, Internet radio service, satellite radio, inexpensive solid-state battery-operated portable receivers


In Use: AC line-powered, vacuum tube table top receivers for general use, FM tuners in home stereo/hi-fi systems; limited numbers of mobile “frequency down-converter” accessories which would allow FM broadcast reception using the car’s AM receiver as a detector.

Lifestyle: In 1960, as AM radio declined, broadcast FM radio began its ascendancy.  In the previous decade FM radio had been mostly treated by the public as a loosely-kept “secret.”  The then-existing stations, often non-commercial, were almost “experimental” in nature: they were little-publicized, low-budget operations with correspondingly low audiences.  Aided by the clear superiority of FM fidelity over AM transmissions, plus the then-anticipated start of multiplex stereo broadcasting that supported the growing programming demand by users of high quality home audio systems, plus lower FM station operating costs that permitted new kinds of programming, FM radio began to grow.   As its audiences expanded the public slowly shifted its attention from AM to FM radio broadcasting.  The shift was later greatly aided by the establishment of an FCC requirement that required that most consumer radios sold in the United States be capable of receiving both AM and FM band broadcasts.

Early EICO FM Tuner, Type Built By LBA CEO Lawrence Behr In 1962.
Early EICO FM Tuner, Type Built By LBA CEO Lawrence Behr In 1962.

In 1960 the majority of FM receivers in use were probably either stand-alone “tuners” which played through home stereo systems, or were tuners already built into the stereo systems.  Portable solid-state receivers were few in number and were expensive, since solid state devices of the time could not yet well handle the VHF frequencies used for FM radio.  Automobile receivers did not generally include FM reception; that would be greatly increased in the following two decades.  Automobile FM radio “frequency down-converters” were available but were not widely used; they provided only AM radio audio quality because of the need to use the vehicle’s AM radio as a detector.  Thus most FM broadcasting in 1960 was used by the listener in a fixed location, probably using quality receivers.  “Portable/mobile FM service” to large number of listeners would follow in later years.

Broadcast television:

Not Yet Available: digital broadcasting, cable TV service except in small isolated areas; VCRs, DVDs, Tivo, or any means of home video program recording; flat screen receivers; satellite TV, Internet TV, home video cameras and recorders; “pay for view” programming; purchased commercial recordings of television programs; 3D television

In Use: Over the air (OTA) VHF television broadcasting partially in color; vacuum tube black-and-white TV receivers; (limited numbers of) vacuum tube color TV receivers

Lifestyle: In 1960, the “typical” television viewer owned a CRT-based, black-and-white, VHF-only, vacuum tube-based receiver.  A typical CRT screen size was 16, 17 or 19 inches; “giant screens” were 21 inches with a few approaching 25 inches.  A TV receiver was a large “cabinet” that sat on a table or was floor-standing.  While a good selection of black-and-white receivers was available in stores, purchase of one by a family was, in those days, usually considered a “major expenditure.”   Most homes would contain one and occasionally two sets, located in areas used by the entire family.   Color receivers were mostly owned by the “well to do,” and people still visited those relatives or friends who owned one to watch television programming in color.  They might, occasionally, watch color television while staring at a store window display.

The Latest In B&W TV’s!
The Latest In B&W TV’s!

The entire television service operated with OTA-signals transmitted on a total of twelve VHF channels, using either roof-top antennas or “rabbit ears” set top antennas for reception.  Receivers were almost entirely designed with vacuum tube circuits; solid state circuits would begin to be used in another decade or so.  Receiver failure was fairly common and was to be expected; typically repairs were made by established servicemen and companies who came to the house.  Most repairs were simple tube substitutions, and repairmen carried large caddies of factory new tubes of frequently-used types.

Some color broadcasting existed; it was typically used for the more popular programs.  The quality of the color images was only fair to good in that era, but today it would be described as “mediocre” by HD viewers.  UHF television broadcasting (originally on channels 14 – 83) was just beginning and most receivers would not contain internal UHF tuners until years later, when the FCC then required them to be included in all new television receivers.  There were no means to record television broadcasts in the home, and no pre-recorded programs (or movies!) that could be purchased or rented.  The viewer’s sole choice was to watch programs broadcast on the VHF channels at the hour when they were transmitted.

There was little cable TV service available; most such service was from “community antennas” relaying standard OTA programming to geographically isolated areas.  There had been some attempts to launch the kind of commercial cable television service that would be recognizable today, but these early efforts were defeated by the motion picture producers and distributors.

By 1960 television was the majority entertainment medium in American homes, with radio taking a minority position and motion picture theatrical attendance falling.  Three major networks of radio-origin, ABC, CBS, NBC dominated the industry with the occasional presence of some much smaller ones.  All the other networks currently popular today including public broadcasting and subscription services had not yet been established.

Coast-to-coast program transmission for the networks by coaxial cable had just begun and this meant that real-time live television broadcasting to the entire nation was possible.  This level of service would become the recognized standard in 1963, during the funeral of President Kennedy.  There were no television relay (space) satellites yet, and thus the motion picture footage of news events occurring on other continents had to be flown to the US before it could be aired.

Videotape was not yet in general use by broadcasters; most program distribution, including field news reporting, was recorded on 16 mm motion picture film.  “Live field reporting” was almost unknown.  Some stations had successfully crammed racks of vacuum tube video electronics into large trucks and, with some effort, brought in live remotes and news coverage from the community.  A few very technical-oriented stations had similar electronics jammed into early helicopters.  But such field coverage was fairly rare and certainly was primitive by today’s standards.

TV Remotes Were A Big Deal Back Then!
TV Remotes Were A Big Deal Back Then!

Typically, the average viewer in 1960 would watch a full evening of entertainment on his small screen black and white receiver, with most people watching one of the three networks via their local network affiliate station.  Short newscasts, typically fifteen minutes of local news and fifteen minutes of network-produced national news, began the evening and, in some instances, might end the evening.  Network affiliate stations and “independent” local stations both produced some local entertainment (and news) programming, and the independent local stations broadcast “re-runs” of network-produced entertainment programming as well.

For viewers, that was the entire television universe which existed in 1960.  Most people accepted and were thankful for the service.  There was little popular expectation of more advanced television technology at that time; most consumer desires were directed toward the eventual acquisition of a first color receiver.

In the next post we’ll look at consumer data recording and non-broadcast radio services in the year 1960.

curmudgeonWhat do you think?

“Let’s save the universe for RF”

The Old RF Curmudgeon

Since 1963, LBA has been providing RF equipment and engineering consulting services for radio and television broadcast and wireless communications.

About The Author

The Old RF Curmudgeon

The Old RF Curmudgeon has been poking his beak into the RF world for very close to fifty years. With both commercial and amateur radio experience, close contacts in broadcast engineering, radio site management experience, lots of paper pushed into the FCC, an immense curiosity about “how things work,” and a “real gud college education,” the RF Curmudgeon has seen a lot of telecom evolution. And he remembers almost all of it, can relate historical items to “modern developments,” and has a sharp sense of “what’s proper….and what’s not!”

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