How Cable Changed the Way We Watch Television

Cable TV Box. Getty Images, The Image Bank

While Cable TV today offers many high tech packages, including demand programming, premium channel selections, internet service and streaming, and much, much more; it started over 60 years ago as a practical solution to improve television reception in the Pennsylvania mountains.

Community Antenna Television (now called cable television) was invented by John and Margaret Walson in the spring of 1948.

The Service Electric Company was founded by the Walsons in the mid 1940s to sell, install, and repair General Electric appliances in the Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania area. In 1947, the Walsons also began selling television sets. However, Mahanoy City residents had problems receiving the three nearby Philadelphia network stations with local antennas because of the region's surrounding mountains. John Walson erected an antenna on a utility pole on a local mountain top to show residents televisions with good broadcasts coming from the three Philadelphia stations.

Walson connected the mountain antennae to his appliance store via a cable and modified signal boosters. In June of 1948, John Walson connected the mountain antennae to both his store and several of his customers' homes that were located along the cable path, starting the nation’s first CATV system. 

John Walson has been recognized by the U.S. Congress and the National Cable Television Association as the founder of the cable television industry.

John Walson was also the first cable operator to use microwaves to import distant television stations, the first to use coaxial cable for improved picture quality, and the first to distribute pay television programming (HBO).

In the decades since Walson’s invention, the cable universe has expanded exponentially.

Cable operators began wiring cities and towns to connect with homes. These operators acted as distributors for an explosion of propriety cable networks like HBO, Showtime, MTV and ESPN, among others.

By the 1990’s, 57% of American households with televisions subscribed to a cable service, and by the end of the decade, U.S. cable operators had 171 networks to offer their customers, according the National Cable and Television Association.

In the 2000’s many cable operators upgraded their infrastructure with high speed broadband fiber optic networks. Along with this improved technology came more choices for customers: on demand viewing, package deals, premium movies, home recording options. Providers also began morphing into multi-media service providers, offering broadband internet access, and as well as telephone service.

By 2012 93% of American households had access to cable broadband.

Sources: NCTA.com, Service Electric Cablevision, Inc. with special thanks to Rob Ansbach.