Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Going flat

My wife tells me we have enough credit points on our credit card to get a free TV.

"Why do we need a new TV?" I ask.

"Because we can, I suppose."

And there it sits, sulking like an ignored child. Fifteen years old. Nineteen-inch screen. Cathode-ray tube.

Do they even make cathode-ray tube televisions any more? Do we have the last operating CRT in existence? Gee, it works swell. Not exactly high-definition, but then our eyes aren't exactly hi-def either.

I'd hate to replace our CRT with a flat screen. I know how the CRT works. I can imagine in my mind's eye the stream of electrons aimed straight at me, boiled off the cathode, nudged this way and that by voltages on horizontal and vertical deflecting plates. Smashing into the phosphor. Painting a picture one screen at a time.

In the physics lab we had a CRT with the tube exposed. We cranked up the electron gun and saw the spot in the center of the screen. We couldn't of course see the beam itself, but it was easy to know it was there. We could wave a magnet near the glass tube and see the spot dance on the screen.

That electron beam was a magic wand. With oscillators applied to the deflecting plates we could make it do whatever we wanted. Draw an oval. Lissajous.

I couldn't tell you what goes on in a flat-screen TV. All happening on a chip.

Same thing happened to cars, of course. The old days when you could twiddle with the carburetor, make the engine purr to your individual delight, are gone. Gone the cold beer and oily rag that went with cleaning the distributor points. Now, some little chip does all the tuning and distribution.

OK, I know the new is better than the old. More reliable. Sharper, faster. We'd probably be delighted with a bigger, high-def, flat-scren TV. Unfortunately, the chips don't control the content, which is increasingly banal. We hardly ever watch the damn thing, anyway.