Indianapolis, IN - March 23, 2004 -
Since the very first all-electronic RCA color TV rolled off an
Indiana production line 50 years ago this week, the Consumer
Electronics Association records that Americans have purchased more
than half a billion color television sets. In fact, the color TV has
become a ubiquitous symbol of prosperity. The average American home
has four color TV sets - and today the color TV is the number one
wedding gift for newlyweds in China.
The very first RCA color TV was dubbed "The Merrill," model CT-100,
and it sold for a suggested retail price of $1,000 in 1954 - roughly
equivalent to $6,000 in today's money and about the same price as an
automobile for the 1950's consumer. Featuring an innovative 15-inch
Tri-color picture tube, fewer than 5,000 of the first RCA CT-100
color TV receivers were produced in that first year. Today,
Thomson's high-volume television manufacturing facilities can
produce more RCA digital high-definition color TV receivers in two
days than RCA was able to make in the initial year of all-electronic
color TV production.
Fewer than 25 of the original CT-100 models are known to be in
working condition, including two CT-100 units at Thomson's RCA
consumer products headquarters in Indianapolis. A working CT-100
will be featured on a special remote broadcast on QVC that will
celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the first all-electronic RCA color
TV and offer an opportunity for viewers to purchase the latest RCA
high-definition TV technology for their living rooms.
All-Electronic Compatible Color
"To create television in color 'as red as any rose' was a gigantic
task," noted Radio Corporation of America Chairman of the Board,
Brigadier General David Sarnoff in 1954. "To televise an apple and
have it appear as an apple was problem enough. But to televise a
pretty girl - the true color of her hair, eyes, lips and facial
features - added to the complexity of the task."
After a competing mechanical system had won initial endorsement from
government officials, Sarnoff spearheaded RCA's crash "compatible
color" program to develop the first 15-inch RCA color TV receiver
and the critical elements of what became the National Television
System Committee (NTSC) electronic color TV system. Compatible with
existing black-and-white TV broadcasting and with more than 10
million TV sets in homes in the early 1950's, the analog NTSC system
of color broadcasting is still going strong even with the transition
to the high-definition digital TV standard developed by Advanced
Television System Committee (ATSC) that was endorsed by the U.S.
Federal Communications Commission just over seven years ago. As with
the introduction of color TV, the rollout of HDTV started slowly and
is now running at "full steam ahead" with more than 20 television
networks producing HDTV material and HDTV product sales expected to
exceed 5.3 million units this year, bringing HDTV into more than 10%
of American homes by the end of 2004.
The March 25, 1954 production of the first all-electronic RCA color
TV was marked by RCA's decision to immediately license its
technology to 70 competing manufacturers. RCA had originally
estimated that it would take six months to ramp up color TV
production after the December 1953 approval of the NTSC standard by
the FCC. Instead, the company was able to mobilize its facilities to
ship the first color TV receivers less than 100 days after the
government endorsed the NTSC system. The RCA CT-100 color TV has a
total of 1,012 parts including 36 receiving tubes and the 15-inch
color TV picture tube, along with approximately 150 feet of wire. A
single set weighs more than 160 pounds.
"The CT-100 is an engineering marvel, with a specially-developed
cathode ray tube that used color phosphors with correct chromaticity
that corresponds exactly to the NTSC color TV standard. The red and
green of the CT-100 is more rich and saturated than the orange-red
and yellow-green of modern sets," explains color TV historian Ed
Reitan, a recognized expert in early color television broadcasting
and receivers. Reitan's website is a goldmine of information about
early color television
Color TV Stalled by Lack of Programming
"Despite the substantial investments in color TV and the early
introduction of color TV models by more than two dozen
manufacturers, RCA was the lone holdout still selling color
television models by 1960. There just wasn't enough color TV
programming on the air to make it a viable business for most
manufacturers," Reitan explains.
"Today's transition to HDTV in many ways parallels the rollout of
color programming and color TV receivers. The first coast-to-coast
color network broadcast was NBC's coverage of the Tournament of
Roses Parade, which was sent to 21 network stations and viewed on
200 specially-built experimental RCA color TV receivers that were
rushed to local affiliate stations three months before the first
consumer color TV sets were manufactured. RCA-owned NBC began 'colorcasting'
1954, and only 68 hours of color programs were broadcast by NBC that
entire year. It would be two years before the famous NBC peacock
would appear on color TV screens," Reitan says.
The first regular network TV series broadcast in color was NBC's The
Marriage, a sitcom starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn that made
its debut broadcast on July 8, 1954. The first full-length Broadway
production on ever shown on color TV was the March 7, 1955 colorcast
of Peter Pan, which drew a record audience of 65 million people.
With only a handful of TV studios capable of color broadcasting, the
transition to color by local TV stations was done slowly on a
market-by-market basis. Washington, D.C. got local the ability to
originate local color TV broadcasts when President Eisenhower
pressed a button that turned the station from black-and-white to
color (on live television) on May 22, 1958.
The premiere of NBC's Sunday night program Walt Disney's Wonderful
World of Color in September of 1961 made a dramatic impact on the
buying public, however, sparking rejuvenated color TV set sales. CBS
began regular colorcasts in the fall of 1965, and NBC became the
first 100% color network in 1966 - fully 12 years after the
introduction of the first RCA color TV, the CT-100.
Time Warp Television
Texas collector Fred Hoffman is the CEO of a local TV broadcasting
company and owns two of the vintage RCA CT-100 color TV sets, as
well as several other historic models.
"I really do think the colors on the original tubes with 'real' NTSC
decoding are far more accurate than even my new plasma screen TV.
The picture isn't as bright but the colors are vivid and true. As
for why I have them, it is the pleasure of knowing that a piece of
television history will be preserved at least for as long as I'm
around and hopefully someone in the future will appreciate the
significance of these classic television sets. If they do, I can
only hope they preserve them to celebrate the 100th anniversary of
And a CT-100 has been with New Jersey collector Pete Deksnis for 40
years, since he purchased it from a fellow student in northeast
Philadelphia in 1963. At that time, the CT-100 was a mere $45
"In those days, the set was used only for color broadcasts a few
hours each week. Today, collectors do not use a CT-100 as an
everyday viewing tool. A restored CT-100 will languish for months at
a time until it is brought to life to enjoy for another hour or so.
Today the job or restoration is far more complicated. Fifty-year-old
parts deteriorate. Parts no longer available from distributors must
be specially made -- a high-voltage transformer used in CT-100
convergence circuits is hand-cloned by an artisan in England," says
the Deksnis, who maintains a website that pays homage to the
hard-to-find original RCA color TV
"Fifty years ago, the development of compatible color television was
a significant and difficult technical achievement. The CT-100 is a
fascinating part of that story. Watching one operate is a living
time warp back to the 1950's," Deksnis says.
Los Angeles, California, television collector Steve Dichter also
owns a CT-100, one of four such sets owned over the years by a
collector whose life work has been in broadcasting and television
"My special interest in color TV might have come from my earliest
memories of standing in the TV department of various stores as a
youth in the 1950's and being transfixed in front of the huge color
consoles of the day. Color programs were rare and sometimes I would
just watch the color 'snow' on the set. My current daily 'watchers'
are still a 27-inch and a 31-inch RCA, but my CT-100 was acquired
some years ago from a former RCA employee," Dichter says. After an
extensive restoration performed by a fellow collector, Dichter was
able to get his vintage set in perfect operating condition. He's
established a website to honor his beloved CT-100.
"I run my CT-100 perhaps once a month, just to keep it warmed up.
Some parts are getting scarce. The best part of owning this set are
the memories it evokes for me and the pleasure I get from turning it
on and hearing the rush of electrons as the picture comes up in full
color. I am transported back to a time when that was a thrill and
I'm that small boy again standing in a busy department store
transfixed by an electronic rainbow."