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The Internet of the 1940s

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By Ken Begley

 

There’s one invention from the 20th century that has influenced more history than any other.  It’s television. 

It’s influenced wars, politics, religion and just about anything else you can think of.  Yet, I find it more interesting listening to the effect the first TV’s had on the local population.
 My father, Maurice Begley, has been involved with televisions since around 1947.  That’s the earliest TV he can remember being sold in Washington County.  He was working for the now defunct Washington County Hardware, which was owned by Arthur Ball, Bernard Greenwell, Leo Swartzmiller and Brodus Hickerson.
That TV was sold to J.R. Claybrooke’s restaurant, which was located around where Hamilton Simms’s law office is now on Main Street in Springfield.
TV was a lot different then.  The black and white TV had an eight-inch screen.  The antenna was installed and pointed in the direction of Cincinnati, Ohio using a compass.  There were no stations in Kentucky.  Most stations broadcasted from around 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.  My dad says the picture was at best grainy and snowy due to the weak signal from the station.  Still people came from miles around to see it.  It was a pretty sharp marketing idea by Mr. Claybrooke.
Hey kids, do your grandparents ever complain about your Game Boy, Xbox or the Internet?  Well, the first televisions held the same fascination for them.
Garnett Christerson had the first TV down in Eddleman Court where my family lived.  He would take his TV and face it out the front door every evening.  Then all the neighbors would come to his yard and watch the shows.
E.W. Bates, Spalding and Eddleman Hardware, Haydon Coal and Oil, and James O’Daniel, in addition to Washington Country Hardware, sold televisions.
The first all-electronic color television sold for $1,000 in May 1954.  Even the black and white televisions were very expensive.  Only your car and house might cost more.
As a result, the local dealers often sold televisions on a trial basis.  They would put up an antenna and bring in a TV to your house knowing that once it went in, it seldom came out.  Still, my dad remembered one that did come out.
My father remembered a sale he lost to Haydon Coal and Oil to Merrill Blackerby on Bloomfield Road.  He said he saw the antenna go up out at his house and then about three weeks later saw the antenna come back down again.  He later saw Merrill and asked him why he took the TV out?  Merrill replied that he had to.  Once it went in all his neighbors came over every night to watch it.  He told him they would stay until “the last rock was throwed and I got to get up in the morning and go to work.”
The first televisions used tubes and were notoriously unreliable.  It was expected to require two visits a year by a repairman under the best of circumstances.  Can you imagine?  I’ve bought a TV 12 years ago that has never had a repair.
What happened when it went out?  It depended on the person, but many people could seldom go long without it.  Ninety-nine percent of the houses only had one set.
Some were so hooked on it that they couldn’t bear to be without it a minute.  They needed that television RIGHT NOW and would call a repairman at all hours of the day and night, including holidays and Sundays.  In a way it was like being a doctor.
My father once got a call from a fellow at Tatum Springs at about eight o’clock at night.  Roads back then were not what they are today.  Most were gravel.  To get to this house you had to take a side road, then drive down a creek bed a while before crossing it and driving up a steep hill.  It was during winter, the temperature was around zero degrees and there was snow on the ground.  My father was certain he would get stuck out there or his brakes might ice over when he went through the creek.  The guy was pretty persistent.  Finally, my father told him he would meet him at the store in town and give him a portable to use until he could come out.  He said: “Heck no, I’m not coming out of the house on a night like this.”
In 1956, Fred Edelen and my father opened up B & E TV and Radio in Springfield. It was once calculated that B & E sold 85 percent of all the televisions in Washington County for several years.  They worked unbelievable hours trying to keep them all up and going.
I talked with Fred several years ago about that time.  Fred’s memories are primarily working with my father.  They worked from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week and 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Saturdays.  A lot of Sundays and holidays ended up with them (and their sons) on the road working on televisions or putting up antennas.  They took their first vacation after 10 years in business.  Each got two days that year.
The first major change for televisions came with the advent of affordable color televisions.  Fred said 1968 was probably their biggest year selling televisions.  They won a trip that year for four to visit Rome, Italy by selling so many of them.
Selling televisions ended at B & E about 10 years ago.  The incredible reliability and cheap prices on transistorized models no longer made them profitable at small local retailers.
When I talked with Fred he looked off in the distance when he remembered those times.  You could tell that he felt those were some of the best years of his life when he was working with my father.  I’m sure my father would say the same thing.