Science & Technology



How does a television set work?

Jay Weitzen, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, UMass Lowell, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to

How does a TV work? – Caden, age 11

Look at your modern-day TV, and you see nothing less than a technological miracle.

Scientists began experimenting with the concept of television more than a century ago. But decades would pass before the Radio Corporation of America brought it to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair. More time passed before TV sets were in stores – and even then, it took awhile until most people had one. In 1950, fewer than 10% of Americans owned a television. By 1959, that number had grown to 85%.

During the ‘50s, TVs were expensive, screens were small and the picture wasn’t always crystal clear.

What’s more, early TV programs were in black and white; color wasn’t in wide use until the mid-1960s.


Viewers didn’t have a lot of choice, either. Instead of hundreds of channels to choose from, most cities offered only three or four.

And DVR didn’t exist. Programs appeared on a specific day at a particular time, and if you missed it – you missed it.

As a professor of electrical and computer engineering, I am amazed by the remarkable advances of this technology in only a few decades.

Yet whether an early television with a 5-inch screen, or one of today’s smart TVs that practically cover the wall, your set still has three primary functions: to receive audio and video data; to use that data to present the viewer with sound and a picture; and to provide the viewer with a way to set the channel and the volume.


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