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The technology of the 1950s

Published February 08. 2013 05:03PM

(Bob Urban, who usually writes this column, is out buying his wife a Valentine. Substituting for him is Bruce Frassinelli, a 1957 graduate of Summit Hill High School, who lives in Schnecksville and is an adjunct instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)


My 17-year-old granddaughter e-mailed me the other day, saying that her English teacher assigned her and her classmates a project: Contact your grandparents and ask them about significant technological changes in their lives since they were children.

I thought about the question awhile, then decided to give her several specifics rather than a long laundry list.

The year 1950 was a technological wonderland in the life of this then 11-year-old. Two major events - one video and one audio - changed the entertainment landscape in the Frassinelli household forever.

The first started with the arrival of a delivery truck from Ridge Center, the local furniture-appliance store, in Lansford. I had been waiting since sunrise for the two employees, who finally arrived at about 9 a.m. and carried into our home in a big box a 12-inch RCA television set. We were going to be the first ones on our block to have a TV.

They also connected an antenna to our roof so we could see the three channels that were offered. Finally, after about three hours - although it seemed as if it were three days - they finally turned on the set. It was about noontime, and after about a minute - that's how long it took for the set to warm up - a test pattern accompanied by a high-pitched whistle - occupied the screen. In the first few weeks after we got our set, I would watch the test pattern for minutes on end, fascinated by the interesting designs. There were no programs on TV during the earlier part of the day.

We had just three channel selections, all from Philadelphia, KYW (Channel 3), WFIL, now WPVI, (Channel 6) and WCAU (Channel 10). Later, we were able to get a New York City channel, which was the old Dumont network affiliate. Compare this to the more than 200 channels I have access to today with my local cable system. Despite this infinite variety of programming, my wife, Marie, will frequently say, "There's nothing on this TV." I don't ever remember saying that when we had just three channels, because television seemed like such a marvel back then that I was happy even to watch test patterns.

There were only about eight hours of programming a day, starting at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Some of the early programs I enjoyed watching were The Howdy Doody Show, Red Buttons, the Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle, The Ed Sullivan Show, originally known as Toast of the Town, and What's My Line, a quiz show featuring a celebrity panel and moderator John Daly, in which the panelists had to identify contestants' unusual occupations. I also loved watching the Charles Antell (for healthier and more manageable hair) infomercials late at night. Of course, that was when I had hair to worry about.

The highlight of my TV viewing, however, was when my father and I would watch the "Friday Night Fights," sponsored by Gillette, the razor and shaving cream company. ("To look sharp…to feel sharp…to be sharp…"). This continued the tradition my father and I shared before we had our own TV when we would walk four blocks to the Summit Hill Rod & Gun Club, sit on long benches in front of the club and watch the boxing matches every Friday night. Club officials did this for us townspeople, most of whom did not yet have TV.

The audio revolution in my home occurred when I received an RCA 45-RPM (revolutions per minute) record player for my 11th birthday. Prior to this new technology, which was offered to the public for the first time in 1949, we either had to listen to breakable 78 RPM records, which were often scratchy, or the relatively new (and expensive) 33 RPM, an unbreakable record that had generally six selections on each side.

The automatic RCA 45 RPM record-player took technology a step further by allowing me to stack 12 45s on a distinctive red spindle in the middle of the compact player, which would change and play automatically. It was like having my own personal jukebox. Today, by comparison, I have nearly 1,300 songs on my Droid smartphone, which is about one-tenth the size of the 45 changer and, unlike the records, which ultimately got scratchy and wore out, my tunes today sound as fresh and new on the 1,000th playing as they did the first time. My first 45, by the way, was "Harbor Lights," a big hit of the day featuring Sammy Kaye and his orchestra Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye.

The other audio marvel improvement has been the telephone. When I was a kid, every call I made required my talking to a live operator. My parents had a grocery store, and the store's number was 42-R. If someone wanted to call my parents' store, he or she would pick up the phone, wait for an operator to say, "Number please," then ask for 42-R.

Our home number was 432-J. There were three other residents who were part of our four-party line. They had the same prefix - 432 - but a different letter. If we wanted to, we could listen in on each other's calls, and, sometimes as kids we did. We also incurred the wrath of these party-line residents. If they knew we were listening in on their conversations, they would scream at us to hang up. If someone had an emergency, party-line protocol required those with less-urgent calls to relinquish the line.

Compare that to the smart phones of today. We are never out of touch with our cell phones, which double as computers, news sources, entertainment devices, cameras and so many other applications.

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