The real reason Cable TV was started? To demonstrate and sell TVs

Since I've been talking a lot about Cable TV on BoingBoing over the last two weeks, the topic of why Cable TV was started in the first place has come up a lot. If you're wondering, here's an excerpt from's history of cable:
Community antenna television (now called cable television) was started by John Walson and Margaret Walson in the spring of 1948. The Service Electric Company was formed by the Walsons in the mid 1940s to sell, install, and repair General Electric appliances in the Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania area. In 1947, the Walson 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 that enabled him to demonstrate the 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.


  1. I seriously did not know this, I wonder if there is any trace of Walson’s company left… Did it turn into a major corporation?

  2. Research is needed here. The first cable setup was in Newport Oregon, which occurred days before Mr. Walson setup his. I could have the city wrong, but definitely a coastal town in Oregon.

    1. Actually there were many small towns experimenting with cable TV in the late 40s at the same exact time. Mahanoy City,PA – Astoria,OR even Lansford, Pa (Fred Tarlton) and Palmerton, PA (Rheinhard (blue ridge cable TV) could take credit for ‘inventing’ cable TV.

      Bottom line – the National Cable TV Association (NCTA) gives credit to Walson and Service electric.In my opinion – the real inventor was Fred Tarlton. Did you know – HBO was first tested in Wilkes-barre, PA and the NCTA was founded in PA?

  3. “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.”

    In July, Walson’s company raised Basic Cable rates by 30%, which has become a much-loved semi-annual tradition in the Cable market.

  4. The real reason for cable was that in the early days of radio there where no regulations requiring electrical equipment (including motor vehicle spark plugs) not to create electromagnetic interference. The pleasure of listening to the wireless was constantly spoilt by all this noise. The noise also produced lots of ‘snow’ patterns on the early TV’s until it occurred to someone to invert the luminance signal, as the oposite ‘black snow’ was almost invisible.

    1. Not only in the early days….Back when GE was a cable-player I used to be a service supervisor for a 65K+ subscriber system. One gorgeous spring morning calls started coming in about regular, repeating slashes of snow, only on satellite channels, and only from subs whose feeds originated at one specific dish farm. Headend techs said everything looked fine in the hub (and customers agreed), but as soon as they left the problem returned. Ditto for line techs checking the trunks — no probs during troubleshooting, but as soon as they left the problem returned….

      I took a drive over to check things out. Turned out the guy who lived next door was running an ancient lawnmower with a spark plug that would have made Tesla proud. When techs would show up, he’d shut off the mower and watch them work; as soon as they’d leave he’d fire that bad boy up again.

      Solution? Well, engineering figured we could “harden” the site in a couple of weeks, at great expense; upper management wanted to hassle the guy with housing rules and regs (his place was a shack); the lowly prole on the scene took the sensible way out: I bought the guy a shiny new mower, problem solved in under 2 hours ;-)

  5. Yes in some form Service Electriclives on.

    Service Electric Cablevision, Inc. incorporated in early 1991, is one of several successor corporations to a community antenna television (now called cable television) business started by John and Margaret Walson in the spring of 1948.

  6. Kinda like how cellular internet was made to sell cell phones!

    I like David Byrne’s idea that art is created to fill a space. Once you’ve got an audience, people make stuff so that they’ll pay attention.

  7. Our own Ed Parsons also created cable TV in 1948, but for less capitalist reasons (appropriate considering Astoria’s IWW history) From Wiki:

    Leroy E. “Ed” Parsons is known for building the first system in the U.S. that used coaxial cable, amplifiers, and a community antenna to deliver television signals to an area that otherwise would not have been able to receive broadcast television signals. In 1948, Parsons owned a radio station in Astoria, Oregon. A year earlier he and his wife had first seen television at a broadcasters’ convention in Chicago. His wife wanted a set. In the spring of 1948, Parsons learned that radio station KRSC in Seattle—125 miles away— was going to launch a television station that fall. He found that with a large antenna he could receive KRSC’s signal on the roof of the Astoria Hotel and from there he ran coaxial cable across the street to his apartment. When the station (now KING-TV) went on the air in November 1948, Parsons was the only one in town able to see television. Soon others in town wanted the same service, and Parsons helped them hook up to the system. He charged them a fee for his work and materials but never instituted a monthly service charge. In May 1968, Parsons was acknowledged as the father of community antenna television.

  8. The origins are interesting, but it’s too bad Service Electric hasn’t kept up their, well, service. I’m a customer and their service is the worst I’ve ever had (prices, outages, internet, lineup, etc.). It makes me pine for the days of Comcast…

  9. I thought the real reason for cable was so “the MAN could KEEP his foot on the back of our necks!”

  10. What? No mention of firefly in the comments?!

    Crap, I guess this was a self-fulfilling comment.

  11. actually, there is some dispute about whether or not walson actually had the first cable system, congressional recognition not withstanding. i currently work for one of the largest cable companies in the united states and they teach that the first cable television system was set up in astoria, oregon a few months before walson’s. in addition, i grew up in astoria and there is a plaque on coxcomb hill commemorating this. i don’t know which claim is true, but the matter is not as cut and dried as the history would indicate.

  12. Kind of like how all apple software was created to sell more macs.

    Hey, finally a post Craig doesn’t get shit for! Congrats!

  13. Heh, this is one of those bits of trivia that I just take for granted since as a kid I grew up in Allentown PA in the late 80s and was already aware of it.

    Yes, Service Electric still exists:

    At least back then, their commercials included a jingle about how they were the firs cable company (“We were the first to lead the way…”)

    Incidentally, the story as I’d heard it was that he got into the cable TV business since people would show up at the store, say “Wow, that’s amazing picture!” buy a set and get home only to discover that it didn’t work nearly as well as it did in the store. So he ended up with a lot of customers coming back to complain, and he explained the cable coming down from the mountaintop and so on. So then suddenly people started asking if he could hook up their homes with that service, a lightbulb flipped on and an industry was born.

    Eastern PA in that area has too many hills and valleys for line-of-site TV broadcast.

    Another awesome thing about it was competition – at least back in the 80s in Allentown, there were two cable companies. Service Electric and Twin Counties. So they kept each other honest and the prices reasonable. It was easy to jump back and forth between ’em. Not that my parents did much. We started off with Twin Counties, but jumped to Service Electric after about 8 months and stayed with them ’til we moved away.

  14. Nothing New!

    In the early 20’s “El Almacen Americano” An electrical appliance store in Caracas, Venezuela, set up the first commercial radio station in the country — Broadcasting Caracas — in order to sell radios. This station still exists today as RCR transmitting in both AM and FM frequencies. Furthermore, this same people, no as “Grupo 1BC” set in 1953 the first commercial TV station in Venezuela, “Radio Caracas Televisión” again to sell TV sets. This TV station ran uninterrupted until 2 years ago when it was closed by the Chavez Government for “non-compliance with the concession renewal process”

  15. You know, it’s an interesting story, but in the context of the recent debate on the boards about why we pay for cable or why cable exists today, it doesn’t have much relevance. Cable may have started because of certain reasons, but it hasn’t persisted for those reasons and it hasn’t grown into what many Americans see as a monthly necessity because we all live in the backwaters of Pennsylvania or we need to be convinced that TV is cool.

    IIRC the debate was about why networks do dumb things to TV shows like cancel them or mess with their timeslots, and a lot of people were asking something like “I pay for cable, why do I need to be a slave to the advertisers?” That question is STILL relevant and worth discussing, especially since other media industries are changing their business models significantly in the wake of the p2p revolution.

    Just because cable started for certain reasons and grew for other reasons doesn’t mean it’s going to survive for those same reasons.

    1. P2P isn’t replacing cable anytime soon.

      For one, p2p doesn’t make money, why don’t you guys get that yet? To produce shows you need money to get money you must make money. A distribution system that has no way to charge and sell advertisement in a reliable way isn’t gonna make money and can’t support production of new content. p2p is great for distributing content made and paid for by others. I’m sure there are some of the best in the business trying to find ways to make it work, and one day someone MIGHT. And the first one who does will make millions, which is why so many are trying. But right now its not there.

      2, its not as reliable a distribution systems as cable. Techies and computer junkies might not mind having to order up the shows they want, download them and find a way to pipe them to their TV. Averages joes don’t want to deal with that. Streaming is getting better, but to find everything you might want to watch, that’s already piped into your house for a nominal charge, you need a variety of services. VOD is also growing, and I’d bet if anything that would be the model to replace the current model. CATV with pick and choose channels and much more VOD. But all of that is way different than P2P. If they ever monetize P2P you people would be the first to cry, how dare they make money off my upload stream.

      hadlock • #13
      CATV is different that HBO. HBO is a pay channel, you pay the cable company (the guy running the wires to your house) extra to pipe HBO in. CableTV had to exist before something like HBO could be implemented.

      The history of CATV is the history of running wires to your house carrying a signal. The history of HBO is the history of Premium CATV stations. (HBO wasn’t the first in that either)

      Technical CableTV isn’t pay-television, I don’t think SyFy or any other cable channel sees a nickle from the money you pay to your cable company, (I could be wrong) its pay for the wires. HBO you pay directly for the channel itself.

      1. Anon #25, we do get money from the cable providers. In ballpark figures, cable TV networks make about half their money from ads and the other half from “sub fees” we get from the cable operators. But it’s a very small amount per subscriber, unlike HBO which costs quite a bit each month on top of the basic cable package you might already be paying for. It’s a pretty confusing model, but it works (for now ;).

  16. Funny, I remember my Grandfather telling me the same deal about central PA, and the TV salesman. This was 1976 – and cable TV was very “new” to South Jersey. My Grandfather was was born and raised near Mahanoy City PA.

    Everyone thought it was crazy to pay for what you can get for free.

    Funny, its still crazy. Yet we all do it.

  17. When old man Rollins brought cable TV out of the Pennsylvania backwoods and into the Delaware Valley (creating most of what is now Comcast) his service tended to roll outwards in a wave from the early adopters.

    See, we all had antennae, but then one guy in the neighborhood would get cable so that he could watch out of town ball games. All our antennae were obsessively tuned to peak performance and had motorized multi-axis transits etc. and ran on unshielded 300 Ohm ribbon cable. The Rollins cables were cheap RG59 with haphazardly crimped F-connectors, so the signal had to be amped all to hell, so the sloppy connections were all little broadcast stations. Rollins had political connections all the way up to the federal level, so when people complained to the FCC, he didn’t get fined; they just made him send out a truck and tighten up the connections in the immediate area of the complainer. Two weeks later we’d have shit reception again, because we could see his channels superimposed on ours. Eventually everyone gave in and bought cable because it was the only way to get viewable TV anymore. Rollins (and today, Comcast) polluted the commons to the point of undesirability and did so with impunity due to political favoritism.

    There are some common patterns here; for example, when Rollins figured out what was going on, they moved the channels around. It used to be that they kept the same channel lineup so that you got channel 3 when the knob said 3, for customer convenience, but doing it that way meant that the leaky cable network could theoretically IMPROVE reception for non-cable subscribers (it usually didn’t, because of timing) and Rollins decided it was more profitable to view this as theft of services and shifted the channels around for maximum interference. You see this pattern played out again in Microsoft’s 1990s war against Novell netware – Microsoft did not set out to actively sabotage Novell, but when it happened accidentally due to their poor code development and testing methods Microsoft purposely did not fix their toxic Netware stack, instead informing customers that they could get rid of their problems by running Microsoft’s inferior network stack.

    If you stick a coat hanger antenna in my parent’s neighborhood today, you can still pick up comcast clear as a bell, with zero chance of picking up broadcast stations. This is changing as comcast converts over to digitized encrypted streams – in newer neighborhoods, broadcast TV is still totally jammed but you can’t decode the interference and get cable channels.

    The Russians say, “the fish rots from the head down”. When federal governments are totally corrupt local government soon will follow…

    1. Sorry, what Wikipedia says is merely “The new system, which Dolan called “Sterling Manhattan Cable”, became the first urban underground cable system in the United States of America.”

      First *underground*. 1948 < 1965.

  18. And Penteledata was the first to provide cable Internet, when it partnered with the SE and BRs of the area.

  19. I remember when I was a kid in the late 50’s and early 60’s, cable was being marketed in our area of CA as being the thing to have because, in exchange for a very small subscriber’s fee, you received a much clearer picture and the big pitch was that it was “commercial-free”! Fast forward 40-50 years and here we are, paying a small fortune in cable fees, and with 5 min. of commercials for every 10 min. of programs (or worse) on many channels, and the cable companies are laughing all the way to the bank. What suckers we all are……

  20. This is an interesting thread. Another example of necessity being the mother of invention. I’m sure ham radio played a big part of the spread of this information, as most of the radio techies at the time, were the ‘REPAIRMEN’ that made things happen for the general public.

  21. I am 54 years old and I remember exactly when cable TV hit southern California. The only station at that time was “M” TV. The music channel. It was at that time a very good argument ” Why pay for TV when TV is free?” The reason and the only reason cable TV became popular is because they advertised ” NO COMMERCIALS!” Today of course there are more commercials on cable then were ever on antenna TV. So when Comcast now wants $150.00 per month for just the basic service, I have to say “Why would anyone pay you anything for programming that is now nothing but commercials ?”the lance

  22. I don’t know why it was started, but for those young people, in the 80’s the reason to “GET” cable was that there were NO COMERCIALS! that WAS the point. Hopefully the public will remember this with respect to radio.

  23. “Commercial free” was also what I recall as the big selling point for cable when it first came to the metro NY area. Local theaters used to run their own counter-ads about “pay TV” (the “monster in your living room”). showing a picture of a set top box with coins being dropped into it (with a toothy smile). Great fun. As late as 1980 when I lived South Jersey you could get basic cable for $9 a month. “basic” including things like the all new CNN (with its hours of British and Australian news reports from around the world) and the venerable MTV.

  24. The recent federal mandated switch from analog to digital TV has come about due to increased interest and deployment of tracking ID based devices that employ (analog) radio-frequency signals in the US (but also other places).

    Freeing up a large pool of analog TV users ensures that these tracking signals are crisp and clear, free of interference from a large amount of analog signals.

  25. When we had seven channels to work with, it became a contest for the viewer’s time. Now with a hundred there’s only two shows (reruns) I watch. The rest of it is not worth my time. I’m spending more time watcching the computer monitor showing stuff from 30 years ago that is far more enjoyable. Even the old news snippets with Walter K are not muted. Daddy did it better with less.

  26. While the legend is interesting, the reason for growth of cable Tv, and the reason why a good deal of the industry is centered in Denver, is the Rocky Mountains, and the poor over the air reception.

  27. I actually have SECTV. It may have been the first but its actually way behind the others. However in their defense, they do service rural areas.

  28. In North East Pennsylvania in the 40’s. Some people could pick up the signal by pointing the antennae at the cable carrying the programs. In some hilly areas, you would actually see antennae pointed downward in the direction of the cable.

    Henry S

  29. Mr. Engler:

    You and are correct in general about the origins of cable TV but wrong on the specifics. It is indeed true that many of the earliest cable TV systems (back then mostly known as “community antenna” TV) were constructed by appliance dealers who were having difficulty selling television sets to households that otherwise couldn’t receive the signals of distant broadcast TV stations. But it’s not true that John Walson built the first system. That story, which Walson circulated for years before his death, was effectively demolished in “Two tales of a city: John Walson, Sr., Mahanoy City, and the ‘founding’ of cable TV,” a paper by Patrick R. Parsons published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Volume 40, Issue 3 Summer 1996, pp. 354-365. I quote from the abstract:

    “For the last 20 years, scholarly and popular accounts of the development of cable television have recounted the story of John Walson, Sr., who claimed to have started the first CATV system in June of 1948 in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. When Walson died in March of 1993, newspapers around the country credited him with starting the nation’s first cable system and even ‘founding’ the industry. The claim, however, has always been clouded by questions and a lack of documentation. This paper reports the results of an investigation of the Walson story. It concludes that, as bright and promising as the Walson tale may be, it probably is not true. At the very least, the preponderance of evidence suggests that Walson got his start in the community antenna television business in late 1950, about the same time as many others around the country and, importantly, probably after another group of businessmen already had begun a system in Mahanoy City itself.”

    In another paper from the early 1990s, Parsons writes that the earliest CATV in Pennsylvania appeared to be a different one in Franklin that was probably operating in 1949. Separately, there’s plenty of documentation that the Astoria, Oregon, system built by Ed Parsons (don’t think he’s related to Patrick) was operational in 1949.

    — George Mannes

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