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The Birth of Cable TV

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Neal McLain

Oct 19, 1996, 3:00:00 AM10/19/96

My post in DIGEST V16 #519 about the article THE BIRTH OF CABLE TV
(published in the Fall, 1996 issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE OF INVENTION &
TECHNOLOGY) elicited comments from several readers. I reproduce some
of them below, along with my responses.

On 10/1/06, John R. Grout <> wrote:

> I appreciate your article, but, technologically, do you know
> what distinguished Astoria's system from, say, CATV within a
> single apartment complex (which is not considered "cable TV")?
> Was it only that a charge was made? Did it use equipment
> (e.g., amplifiers) which smaller, single-premises CATV systems
> didn't?

I'd rephrase this question as follows: what is the difference between
a "Master Antenna TV (MATV) System" which serves only one building (or
a small group of buildings) and a "Cable Television (CATV) System"
which serves a larger urbanized area?

Under current FCC regulations, this distinction is purely a matter of
legal definition. This definition hinges on one question: whether or
not any physical part of the system (e.g., cable, amplifier, or even
just part of the supporting strand) occupies public "right-of-way".
If any part of the system encroaches on public right-of-way (i.e., a
city street), the system is legally deemed to be a "cable television"
system, and all sorts of legal requirements kick in.

I would assume that Parsons' system crossed public right-of-way, so he
probably needed permission from the City of Astoria. Therefore, under
modern law, his system would be classified as a CATV system.

But, of course, in Parsons' day, this distinction didn't exist. In
fact, even the term "cable television" didn't exist. When the term
CATV was first coined, it was an abbreviation for "community antenna

The presence or absence of amplifiers does not distinguish an MATV
system from a CATV system. Virtually all MATV systems employ at least
one amplifier; even a small MATV system in a four-unit building
usually has some sort of amplifier buried in the attic. Large
apartment and condo complexes often have elaborate distribution
systems constructed with equipment identical to that used by CATV
systems. Many such systems also include satellite-delivered
programming; for this reason, they are sometimes called "Satellite
Master Antenna TV (SMATV) Systems."

The Astoria system certainly must have used amplifiers. However, back
in 1948, what we now know as cable-TV amplifiers didn't exist, so
Parsons must have either built his own amplifiers, or adapted/modified
some sort of commercial broadband amplifier for outdoor use. The I&T
article does not address this question. The picture on pages 42 and
43 shows a cylindrical device which looks like an amplifier; however,
it has a distinct home-brew appearance.

The presence or absence of a monthly charge does not distinguish an
MATV system from a CATV system. Most large MATV/SMATV systems impose
a monthly charge, although it may be buried in the rent bill.

Parsons did charge for his service; indeed, I've heard this fact cited
as a factor that substantiates Astoria's claim to having been the
first cable system.

On 10/1/96, R. Thomas Benner <B...@PSUVM.PSU.EDU> wrote:

> A friend forwarded this to me. The inventor of CATV is in
> dispute. In fact, it supposedly began in Pennsylvania in the
> Anthracite regions where I grew up (but I claim no credit).
> A colleague of mine, coincidentally named Parsons, is writing
> a history of cable.

> I recall that he said CATV could have also begun in Wisconsin.
> I'll share your posting with me.

I agree that the inventor of CATV is in dispute. I have frequently
heard the claim that the first system was in Pennsylvania; however, as
noted in my response to the previous post, Astoria is generally
credited as the first system to impose a monthly charge.

I've spent most of my 20 years in the cable industry right here in
Wisconsin, and I've never heard a claim that first system was here.
But I suppose it's possible: there are many cities in the northern
part of the state which didn't have access to over-the- air television
until well into the 60s.

On 10/1/96, Bob Johnson <> wrote:

> You might or might not know that there is a cable tv museum
> of some kind on the campus of Penn State University. I wasn't
> aware that Oregon had the first system, but PA towns were very
> early cable users -- because so many towns there are located in
> narrow valleys with no hope of receiving signals from outside
> without going to the top of the nearest ridge or mountain.

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to visit the cable museum
at Penn State, but I'm told that it includes lots of early equipment
including home-brew amplifiers.

Within the past year or so, this museum has been closed. Portions of
the collection owned by the Society of Cable Telecommunications
Engineers (SCTE) are now in display at the society's headquarters
building in Exton, PA. The rest of the collection is now in storage
in the Denver area, awaiting the completion of new museum space.

On 10/5/96, Brent Graham <> wrote:

> I enjoyed your note re; Astoria & cablevision. My wife & I go
> to Oregon often to visit her sister and I'll make sure next
> time we too stop at the Astoria column.


In TELECOM Digest V16 #537 (10/9/96), Andrew Emmerson <midshires@cix.> wrote:

> This sounds good but as is so often the case, it is wrong.
> There were commercial community antenna (cable) television
> installations in London as early as 1936 [K.J. Easton: THIRTY
> YEARS IN CABLE TV. 1980: Pioneer Publications, Mississauga,
> Ontario] and also during the second world war in Berlin and
> Hamburg. According to Easton's book, the first cable TV system
> in the USA was established by John Walson in Mahanoy City,
> Pennsylvania in 1948, although he did not start charging
> for service until the following year.

> All credit to the good folk of Astoria for celebrating their
> pioneering work but it's certainly not the first, even in the
> USA.

The inventor of CATV is indeed in dispute!

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