I Come to Bury CRT, and to Praise It

In the classic 1957 film Old Yeller, a young man faces a terrible choice when his beloved and faithful dog tangles with a rabid wolf and contracts hydrophobia. Of course, you know how it ends: with a bullet to the head and lots of tears. (Yes, I know, “Where’s the spoiler alert, man?!” You’ve had 52 years to watch it. I refuse to enable your procrastination.) Tragically, I’m smack dab in the middle of my own Old Yeller moment. A recent move gave my wife the perfect cover to do something she has long wanted: order the death of my beloved and faithful 55-inch CRT rear-projection TV. At my work, I have access to the latest LCDs, plasmas, and LED sets, yet at the end of the day, it’s the CRT that sits curled up at my feet and keeps me company.

That’s about as far as I can carry the dog analogy, because my CRT is, well, alarmingly huge. It weighs 215 pounds, and if it was empty, it could comfortably house a family of four. Sure, the kids would have to share a room, maybe the one next to the tennis court. Its frame is made of chipboard wrapped in unattractive vinyl, and it’s surprisingly fragile. It’s also difficult to move, even on its casters, and when you lift it, it proves very unwieldy and is prone to tipping. If I had to amend my Old Yeller analogy, I guess I’d say I’ve been forced to take the life of my beloved, elderly silverback gorilla, the one with dementia, a skin disease, and rage issues. For reasons known only to her, my wife doesn’t share my affection for my rage-filled diseased gorilla and refuses its admittance into our new home.

But really, my loss is symbolic of a larger one: The venerable cathode-ray-tube television technology served faithfully and with distinction for more than 70 years. Yet when it died sometime in the last couple of years, not only did the nation not offer its gratitude, most people responded with a hearty, “Eat it, CRT! Enjoy hell!” Well, I believe it deserves a proper eulogy.

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get one of three answers to the question, “Who invented television?” Some will credit the Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin, while others will say it was Philo T. Farnsworth (easily the most awesomely named engineer since Thomas Crapper). Others will simply point at something behind you and run rather than have to address the controversy. But no one disputes that the scanning electron beam, essential to the process, came in a flash of inspiration when Farnsworth was out plowing rows in a field. (Nothing came of his other, lesser flashes of inspiration, once while mucking out the hog stalls, and again, right after being kicked in the side by a mule.) Farnsworth gamely battled it out with Zworykin and RCA in the patent courts, but in the end he was a beaten man, bitter and given to drink (although in fairness, that could have been entirely due to his having seen his invention used to transmit an especially bad episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis).

Television had been broadcasting for many years prior, but it wasn’t until 1947 that regularly scheduled broadcasts began with a show called Puppet Playhouse. Later renamed The Howdy Doody Show, its title character’s grim, befreckled death mask would go on to scare the living hell out of American children for 13 years. The innovation of color came about shortly after that, and because the powers in charge had data showing that not every child in America was terrified at every waking and sleeping moment of every day, they debuted their new technology with a larger number of even more terrifying puppets via Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

Already long in the tooth in the 1970s, CRT saw a bumper crop of entertainment inventions spring up around it, e.g., the video game console, the VCR (and VHS rewinder!), the home video camera, cable TV, and the DVR. Yet it resolutely refused to change or adapt in any way, much like Bartleby, the Scrivener, and Larry King. Even DVD, which is arguably the most successful software format of all time, owes its success to Old Man CRT.

This brings me to my beloved old beast. Why, given its many, countless, manifold, and sometimes dangerous shortcomings, will I be sad to see it go? Because through much coaxing, massaging, cleaning, and manipulating, I got a terrific picture out of it—better than many TVs out there now. Sure, there was a fair amount of maintenance involved. I regularly contorted my ungainly body to clean the mirror, which, because of the static involved, was invariably coated with a thick lacquer of dust. I spent many painful hours on my knees staring at crosshatch patterns. And then there’s the nerve-wracking process of swabbing the delicate plastic lenses—so delicate, I’m told, that a single overzealous swipe of your cloth would mean ruin, shame, bankruptcy, and quite possibly prison.

In a fit of A/V nerdiness not seen since junior high school, I cracked into my CRT’s secret locked menus (secret, that is, if you don’t happen to have access to the Internet or know anyone who does). With the aid of a photographic gray card and a 6500K flashlight, I painstakingly tweaked its gray scale. With the same super-secret service menu, I adjusted its gamma and overscan settings. (Yeah, I know, my wife is a lucky woman.)

But that’s over now. I will either give it away or junk it and get a sexy, slim plasma TV that requires minimal tweaking and almost no maintenance. But I will always think back on my beloved gorilla of a CRT and all the hours I put in and think, “See you in hell, you worthless beast.”