Television technology – from the old school box to smart TVs

06 August 2018

Television as we know it has changed dramatically over the last few years – from large clunky boxes that would take up half your living room, to devices so small that we can carry them with us wherever we go. In this blog, we take a look at how far television technology has come and what the future could hold for us who don’t mind having square eyes!


We go back to the beginning, to the earliest television systems that were based on a mechanically spinning disk known as a Nipkow disk which was patented in 1885 by Paul Gottleib Nipkow. The Nipkow disk had a spiralling path of holes, so that each hole traces a circle of a different diameter, thereby scanning a complete image as the disk is spun. John Logie Baird’s early mechanical television system made use of such a disk to scan and display images during the first public demonstration of television in Selfridge’s department store, London on 25 March 1925.

Mechanical television systems were eventually replaced with systems that scanned images electronically using a cathode ray tube. The first electronic television was patented in 1927 by Philo Farnsworth (US1773980A) and demonstrated to the press in 1928.

Cathode ray tube based television systems were the most popular display technology until the turn of the millennium when they started to be replaced by Liquid Crystal Displays. The first LCD television displays were based on twisted nematic liquid crystals in which liquid crystal molecules are twisted and un-twisted by application of a voltage which enables the polarization of light passing through the liquid crystal to be controlled. Sandwiching such a liquid crystal between two polarizers thereby enables a liquid crystal cell to be turned on and off to create an electronic display. This technology was first developed in 1970 by researchers Helfrich and Schadt working at Roche. However the invention was leaked to a visiting researcher from Kent State University who was also an expert in the field of liquid crystals. After the leak, the intellectual property department at Roche quickly prepared a patent application for the technology which was filed at the Swiss patent Office two weeks later (CH532261).

In recent years there have been a number of developments in television technology including QLED and OLED screens and 3D TV. One technological advance that has changed the way we watch television is the introduction of smart TV’s (i.e. televisions and set-top boxes that can connect to the internet) enabling access to OTT (over the top) TV services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. One of the earliest patents for smart TV was US5905521 filed in 1994, which claims an “intelligent” television system linked with data processing systems by means of a digital or analog network.

OTT services enable more personalization of television as programs can be recommended to viewers based on data collected about their past viewing habits. For example, Netflix patent application WO2018085260 published in May 2018 relates to determining the likelihood that users will watch a particular program based on whether they have watched a similar program previously and on whether they have interacted with any trailers etc. for the new program before it becomes available.

Last year the BBC announced a 5 year research project in collaboration with a number of UK universities looking into analyzing audience data and using machine learning to create a more personalized user experience.

So for those of us who love to binge on a box sets or just enjoy having the soaps on in the background, keep an eye out, as personalization of television services is likely to make watching TV even more addictive!

Natasha Fairbairn

Natasha Fairbairn


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